The results of the 2013 assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are out but those looking for clear pointers towards how the next general election will play out are likely to be left scratching their heads.
The Bharatiya Janata Party turned in a spectacular performance in Rajasthan and wrested the state from the Congress. It has retained Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the latter with a significant increase in its seat share. But in Delhi, the BJP failed to properly ride the wave of anti-Congress sentiment, yielding crucial political space to the Aam Aadmi Party and falling short of a clear-cut majority.
That said, this '3-and-a-half to zero' verdict in favour of the BJP and against the Congress is no mean achievement and is significant for what it tells us about the state of the two national parties in these four states. Taken together, the four account for 72 Lok Sabha seats, of which the Congress had won 40 and the BJP 30 in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. If the current trends carry forward to 2014, the Congress will lose all 7 Delhi seats, and perhaps as many as 17 seats from Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, giving the BJP a net gain of 24.
The truth of the matter is that both in these states and at the wider national level, the Congress is in retreat and its saffron challenger is clearly ascendant. But that still does not leave us with a clear sense of what will happen overall in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Before the current round of state elections, there were three big questions that needed answering.
First, is the Congress party under the stewardship of Rahul Gandhi capable of reviving its flagging fortunes? The answer today is a resounding 'No'. Sunday's results have surely put paid to the notion that the Congress vice president is capable of producing a miracle that can banish not just the dysfunctionality of the party's organization but also the unpopularity of the Manmohan Singh government. Whether he is declared his party's prime ministerial candidate or not, the Congress's electoral fate seems more or less sealed. As for his promise of taking a leaf from the AAP's playbook and moving away from "traditional politics", I'm not holding my breath.
The second big question for which we were looking for answers was whether the BJP under Narendra Modi's leadership is likely to capitalize on the Congress's abject condition. Here the picture is a little complicated. The 'Modi effect' is present - it would be foolish to deny that - but its impact is neither uniform nor decisive.
The BJP's victories in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are handsome, and no doubt the appeal of Modi to a section of the urban electorate contributed to the inherent strength that Shivraj Chouhan and Vasundhara Raje Scindia brought to the campaign. And yet, the scale of the victories here is not unprecedented, either for the BJP or indeed the Congress. The Congress swept Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh in a comparable fashion in 1998. And Uma Bharati won 173 seats for the BJP in MP in 2003 when Modi was not even a blip on the horizon. Crediting the "Modi Wave" for the BJP's wins in these two states on Sunday thus appears a bit of a stretch, though it has clearly affected the margin of victory in Rajasthan. In Madhya Pradesh, the BJP vote rose dramatically - up by 8 percentage points - but this was thanks largely to the return of Uma Bharati to the party's fold.
Indeed, when we turn to Chhattisgarh and Delhi, the Modi effect appears totally absent. Not only did his hectic campaigning in these two states fail to give the BJP a big boost, the fact that he was not able to convince a third of Delhi's urban anti-Congress electorate to choose his party over the Aam Aadmi Party is surely a sign that the Gujarat Chief Minister's popularity and appeal cannot be taken for granted.
Indeed, the Delhi result has underlined the fact that Narendra Modi is not the only face of anti-Congress sentiment in the country.
The third big question in Indian politics before Sunday's results was whether there is still space for a non-Congress, non-BJP alternative at the national level. After the performance of the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, the answer should be obvious.
But just because the AAP has emerged as an alternative to the two big national parties in the National Capital, does this mean that similar space exists elsewhere? If that were the case, why have all efforts to build and consolidate a 'Third Front' floundered in the past and failed to even get off the ground in recent years? The reason is because what has historically been known as Third Front has been little more than an artificial and even opportunist grouping of political parties with no vision of an alternative politics. The AAP, on the other hand, seems to hold out the promise of a new political vision. Its methods of mobilization have the potential to alter the grammar of Indian politics and the issues it has taken up seem to connect with ordinary voters in a much more fundamental and systematic way than anything the 'Third Front' ever attempted.
The AAP is likely to use its spectacular performance in Delhi as a springboard for the 2014 elections, where it stands a good chance of making inroads in urban and semi-urban areas across the country. In many states, the Aam Aadmi Party will eat into the anti-Congress vote and undermine the BJP, which is looking to use Modi to make gains in cities and towns. But whether the AAP has the capacity to wage the kind of campaign it did in Delhi will depend on its ability to build broad alliances and coalitions with social movements and smaller political formations in different parts of India. Many of those who form the AAP's "natural constituency" have so far preferred to watch from a distance rather than join its efforts. Now that the Aam Aadmi Party has proved its credentials, that is likely to change.
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