The semi-final has ended in a political tie, although with a morale-boosting scoreline of 3-2 in favour of Congress. Voters in the four Hindi-speaking states of Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have evenly split between the Congress and BJP, in a verdict which ensures that the looming Lok Sabha remains an open affair as both players go into the final without either as a favourite.
Sheila Dikshit scored a stunning hat-trick in Delhi, to emerge as the only leader after Jyoti Basu and Tripura's Manik Sarkar to have won three elections in a row. She is now clearly in a league of her own, even though she presides over a city-state with curtailed powers. She was obviously seen as a performer and a much better bet than BJP's V K Malhotra, whom the young city saw as yesterday's man.
Two other performers — both low-profile leaders who let their work speak — Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh scored facile wins in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Another low-profile Congress leader, Ashok Gehlot, led his party's charge against the high-profile CM of Rajasthan, Vasundhara Raje, with telling success. In a sense, you could call these elections a triumph of performance.
For the Congress, which scored a landslide win in Mizoram, the scoreline of 3-2 looks rather flattering. Just a day earlier, it was bracing itself for a 1-3 drubbing, confident of its prospects only in Rajasthan. Still, the feeling in the party was one of relief rather than triumph. Sonia Gandhi does not intend to commit the blunder that the BJP made in 2004 when, reading its victory in assembly polls in December 2003 as indicative of the national mood, it advanced LS polls only to lose power.
So, the Lok Sabha election will be held not before April and there is a clear possibility of the government presenting a full budget, rather than a mere vote-on-account.
As for the BJP, the results hold out caution for those leaders who had concluded that the UPA's incumbency burden, rendered heavier by popular alarm over the rise in terrorism, as well as price rise, would automatically propel L K Advani to the prime minister's office.
To be fair to BJP, it has done creditably by holding on to Chhattisgarh and MP. Even the defeat in Rajasthan was anticipated, but the manner in which it lost Delhi — some say it was an election for the BJP to lose and it lost it — would diminish the party's claim as the government-in-waiting. After this result, it won't be seen as a party on the comeback trail.
Like any fractured outcome, Monday's results have takeaways for everyone. For BJP, the poor resonance for its "soft-on-terror" charge against Congress must be sobering. Its expectations of benefiting from price rise and the general unease over sliding parameters of economy have not come true, although economists say that the real pain of the slowdown is yet to be felt.
For Congress, the verdict also means that the thousands of crores spent on farm loan waiver and the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme have failed to translate into votes in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. Even in Rajasthan, where BJP put up a decent fight, the outcome appeared to have been shaped more by the familiar factors of caste and community.
With nothing to suggest that the regional mould can be broken, Lok Sabha elections may represent, just like the last time, an aggregation of local battles. In other words, the focus from now on will be back on alliance-building with both UPA and NDA eyeing winnable allies.
Overall, for political parties, it's back to the drawing board.