The Supreme Court verdict on Gujarat is a setback for the Vajpayee government. Having staked all on early polls, the BJP was jolted when the apex court did not enable elections before October 2.
But the final verdict has at least ended the suspense and opened the way for a December election. The stateís 32 million voters will now decide who should rule for the next five years.
But much more than that is at stake. Much hinges on who wins and by what margin. Each player has stakes for very different reasons. Rarely has an Assembly election meant so much to so many.
The performance of the BJP will have a direct bearing on the struggle within on where it ought to go next. Overwhelming victory will boost more emotive issues like the Ram temple.
Conversely, a slender win or a defeat will embolden those who stand for coalition politics. The paradox is that a bare majority for his party would probably suit Vajpayee best. Anything more will set a strident saffron tone for the next two years.
The elections alone can show whether or not the people of Narendra Modiís state are with him. Having completed barely a year in office, he will lead the party into the electoral battlefield for the first time.
Lurking in the wings in his own flock is a host of players who may do much to drag him down. Foremost among them is former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, who led the party to its huge victories in 1995 and 1998.
Late last week he admitted there was no wave in the state. It is a sign of his clout, especially in the Saurashtra region, that the central leadership put him in charge of the campaign committee to mollify him. Though unseated twice as chief minister, he remains a major player in the party.
The real fight will come during seat distribution. Most of the BJPís 117 sitting MLAs will expect to be nominated but the truth is their fate hangs in the balance. Only once the distribution of tickets is complete will the strength of the two major contending parties be evident to all.
Anything less than a two-thirds majority will open up fissures in the party and may even threaten Modiís position. This would also have major implications beyond the state: who rules in Gandhinagar will have repercussions across the party and its affiliates at the national level.
It is a sign of how deep the divisions are that senior central leaders have made repeated public statements in Modiís favour. These include party president M. Venkaiah Naidu and deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani.
The stakes for the Opposition are no less and the divisions there equally significant. Congress, too, has a point to prove. The party may have 15 chief ministers in tow and share power in two more states. But Gujarat would be quite a prize. A victory would mean polarisation does not work as electoral strategy; it would also crown Soniaís efforts to revive her partyís fortunes.
The Congress still has quite a hill to climb. It last won an Assembly poll in the state in 1985. The political landscape has since changed beyond recognition. The old alliance of the lower castes, adivasis and minorities has weakened considerably over time.
Unlike in central India or neighbouring Maharashtra, there is a paucity of new generation of leaders in the party. Shankersinh Vaghela is a newcomer, having been a long-standing RSS member and BJP leader. He has an uphill task as old-timers in the party work against him.
On the face of it, the elections promise to be closer than what they were the last time. Vaghela had then taken over a tenth of the popular vote, and made things easier for the saffron party. The recent poll setback in Jammu and the continuing turbulence in Lucknow also portend a time of anxiety.
But no one really knows if the ĎGodhra cardí of the chief minister will work. On the face of it, the BJP has an edge, but the alacrity with which municipal polls have been postponed no less than four times points to some anxiety under the confident public posturing.
Will Gujarat show the way' Observers will watch and wait as the election unfolds. The results will hold deep implications for the body politic and the country.