Elections in India for even the panchayats and civic bodies are seen as political barometers. Although they are supposed to reflect local concerns, no party can afford to ignore their outcome, not least because they are all fought on political lines.
The high turnout for these contests, as for the recent Delhi Municipal Corporation polls, is also an indication that like the parties, the electorate too takes them seriously and intends to send a message to the contenders.
However, the message for the two main parties - the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress - was a curious one. While the BJP could congratulate itself for its success, especially because it made history of sorts by beating the anti-incumbency factor, the fall in its tally of seats from 164 to 138 was nevertheless a reminder that voters were not all that pleased with it.
On the other hand, the increase in the Congress' tally to 78 seats from 67 was an indication that although people were not willing to write it off completely, they weren't ready to repose full faith in it either.
The complexity of this outcome has an implication at the national level. What it seems to mean is that the BJP's success is largely the result of disillusionment with the Congress rather than any approval of its policies.
It is therefore possible to conclude from the outcome that while the Congress is losing its shine, the BJP is still not ready to replace it. For the Congress, this particular warning has been conveyed by a number of elections, starting from the Mumbai municipal polls to the ones in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Goa and now Delhi.
There is little doubt that the trend portends a drop in the party's Lok Sabha seats from its present 200-plus to near what it was after the 2004 parliamentary polls, which was 145. At the same time, the BJP's tally may increase from the present 116, but the two parties would still run neck-to-neck with neither being able to pull ahead decisively.
The resultant dependence on their coalition partners presages more indecision in the realm of government initiatives.
What is noteworthy is that the reason why the two are marking time at the moment is not far to seek. In the Congress, it is not only the scams which have tarnished its reputation but also the dispiriting impression of a policy paralysis. And the reason for it, as BJP leader Arun Jaitley said at the conclave of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), was that the Congress was at war with itself.
A similar 'war' afflicts the BJP too, at the personal level, but more of that later.
For the Congress, Jaitley's comment that two power centres in the party had led to a standstill was too close to the truth for comfort. More than the presence of two centres, what has been worrisome is their diametrically opposite economic views, with Manmohan Singh preferring market-oriented policies and Sonia Gandhi opting for state-controlled paternalism.
The differences were not evident during the tenure of UPA-1 - the ruling United Progressive Alliance's first term between 2004 and 2009 - probably because it was the Left which was shooting down the prime minister's 'neo-liberal' policies at the time while the latter was preoccupied with pushing through the Indo-US nuclear deal.
But the differences have come to the fore during UPA-2 with the green lobby stalling industrial projects and the Sonia Gandhi-led left-of-centre National Advisory Council floating ideas like the food security bill which make a mockery of the government's avowed goal of cutting subsidies.
To make matters worse for the prime minister, the UPA's allies like the Trinamool Congress are also opposed to measures like hiking fuel prices or allowing foreign investment in the retail sector or introducing pension fund, banking and insurance reforms. If the BJP now supports the pension fund reforms, as Jaitley has promised, then the prime minister may still have the last laugh and the government may give the impression of moving forward.
But there is no certainty that the BJP will be so generous as to bail out an opponent.
So the chances are that the present stalemate will continue, as the government's economic adviser, Kaushik Basu, has hinted. In that case, the Congress is likely to face more electoral setbacks.
As for the BJP, it can also be said to have more than two focal points. Apart from the head of the saffron brotherhood, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), orchestrating the BJP's policies and choice of personnel, there is no certainty about the party's prime ministerial candidate. Nor about its ideological orientation - whether it will be Hindutva or Hindu supremacist agenda again, or a moderate line of the kind which was followed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Neither the Congress nor the BJP can, therefore, be said to be bubbling with confidence about the future.
(21.04.2012 - Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at email@example.com)