Thursday’s assembly election results reveal an unmistakable trend: the BJP has expanded its footprint to Assam, while the Congress is on the retreat.

After the Delhi and Bihar setbacks the Modi-Amit Shah duo has regained legitimacy for their autocratic leadership. A further debilitated Congress will add to the worries of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. For the leadership the challenge in UP and Punjab next year becomes more crucial.

Despite odds, Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa have regained power, beating anti-incumbency. For the CPM the loss is humiliating. The Left had compromised on its ideology and slept with an enemy. After MGR, Jayalalithaa becomes the second Tamil Nadu leader to occupy the CM’s chair twice consecutively.

For Tarun Gogoi, however, anti-incumbency was too strong. A fourth term as Chief Minister was an uphill task. Kerala has kept the tradition of voting out a ruling party. The state is set to witness a leadership tussle between the old war-horse, VS Achuthanandan, who has scripted the LDF victory, and Pinarayi Vijayan, the preferred choice of the party rank and file. Puducherry is a small consolation prize for the DMK-Congress combine. Voter behavior defies logic. People ignore issues analysts tend to flag. Price rise was nowhere on the agenda. Nor unemployment. Corruption also seems to be an elite concern. Mamata Banerjee faced two scams: first Saradha in which poor villagers lost their savings in a Ponzi scheme, and then Narda, in which ministers and leaders of the Trinamool Congress were caught on camera accepting bribes. In Tamil Nadu the People’s Welfare Front (PWF) alliance tried to emerge as an alternative to the two “poisonous plants” – DMK and AIADMK – accusing them of making Tamil Nadu one of the most corrupt states. Yet voters did not buy the argument. Corruption figured in the mainstream media in Kerala. Yet despite his taint-free image, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy lost his job.

Personalities matter prominently in polls. The BJP grabbed Assam by presenting Union Sports Minister and former Asom Gana Parishad (AGP) leader Sarbananda Sonowal as the chief ministerial face apart from tying with the AGP and the Bodo People’s Front. Cashing in on an anti-incumbency wave against Tarun Gogoi, the party also fanned the divisive anti-foreigner sentiment to its advantage. Maybe a younger CM face could have helped the Congress retain power. In West Bengal the election revolved around one personality: that of Mamata. It was to be her win, or her defeat. The Congress and the Left had no matching leader of stature and mass appeal. Buddhadeb Bhattacharya is a tired old horse unfit for a fierce race. Dubbed a party of oldies, the CPM and its ideology don’t seem to enthuse young Bengalis. In Tamil Nadu Karunanidhi’s age mattered as also his son, Stalin’s unreliability. In Kerala a 93-year-old veteran has got the comrades back in power. Badal can draw solace from him as Sukhbir can learn from Stalin’s mistakes.

Local factors play a significant role. In Tamil Nadu the November floods’ mishandling did not spoil Jayalalithaa’s victory chances. Surprisingly, prohibition became a key issue -not unemployment, not a stagnant economy, not even an empty treasury and ballooning debt. Few discussed how liberal freebies they promise would be funded if prohibition is introduced. To woo women all parties promised to shut liquor shops, even though distilleries are run by AIADMK and DMK activists. In Kerala the UDF’s decision to stop liquor sales attracted women voters, but not enough to make it a win at the hustings. Chief Minister Chandy had focused on urban development, infrastructure and kick-started Kochi Metro. Yet all this did not get him a second term. On the other hand, under Didi development has suffered in West Bengal. The state has faced a slow industrial and agricultural growth and poor employment generation. There was a rise of “syndicates”, equivalent of the contract system run by CPM goons. But her pro-poor image, personal integrity and welfare programs like ‘Khadya Saathi’, ‘Konyashree’ and ‘Sabuj Saathi’ won her peasantry support and rural votes apart from the urban middle class.

If a party wins, its dirty past gets white-washed. Jayalalithaa’s arrogance and inaccessibility, and Trinamool Congress leaders’ corruption are forgotten and forgiven. A winner is asked no questions. A loser, however, gets advice from all – do introspection, rectify mistakes. The Congress has become a party of part-timers from select, comfortably placed families who refuse to go out in the village and listen to people. It lost going solo (Assam) and also lost with alliances (West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Kerala). The BJP has clever, focused, whole-time drivers with not many diversions. They know, and play, every trick of the trade.