Signs and wonders

What the so called 'semi-final' elections portend for 2014.

The five assembly polls that took place over the last month are being dubbed the semi-finals for the general elections. This despite the fact that the results of these polls, out this Sunday and Monday, are likely to give only half the picture, if at all. Still, there are a few ways in which they are significant for 2014.

Going to polls just before the Lok Sabha elections, these five states have been seen as holding portents for the national elections, especially since 2003. Strictly speaking, the correlation between these results and Central fortunes is hazy. In 1998, the Congress retained Madhya Pradesh and won Delhi, but the national elections the following year led to the the BJP forming the government for the first time. In 2003, the BJP was leading 3-1, only to lose to the Congress in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. These states account for just 73 of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, that is, less than one-seventh of the House. Still, they include perhaps the only large states in which the Congress is pitched directly against the BJP. The results of the elections will give both parties food for thought.

One of the major questions is, will anti-incumbency manifest itself only in Congress-ruled states and not in those held by the BJP for over a decade? A victory in four of the five states would help the BJP batter the Congress's morale. Even if they are narrow victories, drawn from pitched battles, local arithmetics and caste equations, they will help build a theme of "change" for the next year. The BJP is bound to come out looking good.

But the devil is in the detail. The strengthening of BJP chief ministers, especially Shivraj Singh Chouhan — who will be sworn in for the third time running if the BJP wins, that too in a state bigger than Gujarat — could lead to the emergence of new power centres within the party. The Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine, keen to shore up its control over the party in the run-up to 2014, would want to attribute the victories to the "Modi factor". The enduring presence of Chouhan in Madhya Pradesh and Raman Singh in Chhattisgarh might belie that story.

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