Bringing the BJP to power would have vindicated the party's contempt for voters.
Its failures include lack of vision, leadership and strategy.
It must press the reset button on all three.
There is space for a centre-right national party alongside the Congress on the centre-left, around which politics can be structured and coalition governments formed.
The BJP's intensifying challenge is to preserve Hindutva loyalty and yet reach out to a broader social coalition. For the aam aadmi, Jai Shri Ram is increasingly passe. The BJP can cling to the past the glory that was India with a shrinking voter base or embrace a vision for the future the glory that awaits India which appeals to the growing voter cohorts of the young and urban.
The BJP's blistering attacks on Manmohan Singh as a weak and vacillating prime minister taking orders from the Gandhi family, turned the election into a referendum on Singh. He has had a calming influence amidst terror attacks and the financial crisis. He is decent, honest, unassuming, mild mannered, soft-spoken and likeable: rare qualities in politicians that sit agreeably with voters. So too did the renunciation of political office by Sonia and Rahul in contrast to the clutch of wannabe PMs from other parties.
The squandering of economic opportunities over the past five years was blamed by voters on obstructionist coalition parties, not Singh.
Attacking him provoked a backlash.
Rahul and Priyanka presented younger Congress faces to the BJP's 81-year-old L K Advani. The moderate majority was repelled when fundamentalist Hindus attacked Christians in Orissa and young girls in a Mangalore pub. The BJP alienated its core constituency by hypocritical opposition to the nuclear deal with the US. Strenuously opposed by China, Pakistan and the non-proliferationists, the sweetheart deal was one the BJP would have grabbed in office.
Yet it joined the communists with their long history of favouring foreign fellow-ideologues over national interests.
Opportunity was squandered also with 26/11 when initial unity collapsed into shrill squabbling at a time of national peril. Attacked for his record on terrorism, Singh counter-punched by recalling Advani's hand-wringing as home minister during a string of terrorist attacks, including on Parliament; release of hardcore terrorists to the Taliban in Kandahar; the year-long military mobilisation against Pakistan that led nowhere; the Babri masjid demolition; and the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat.
The Congress's share of the votes went up by about the same amount as the BJP's fell. The BJP lost 22 seats, Congress gained 61: the first-past-the-post system exaggerates the effects on seat distribution of modest swings in votes. Overall, the Congress got 52 per cent more votes than the BJP but 78 per cent more seats. The distortions were especially evident in Delhi, Haryana, Kerala, Maharashtra, Orissa, Rajasthan, UP and West Bengal. Conversely, the vote-seats distortions worked for the BJP in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Karnataka. Pre-poll alliances and the concentration versus dispersal of votes were also crucial.
The BJP's reputation for communalism distanced allies from the rhetoric and agenda of Narendra Modi and Varun Gandhi.
The BJP's only vision was that of the rearview mirror.
As India changes, the Indian voter's profile changes.
The BJP could neither embrace nor repudiate Varun Gandhi's virulent anti-Muslim rhetoric. It cannot reach a broader constituency while appealing to militant Hinduism, but will lose its core Hindu base if it dilutes its ideological purity.
The tension will affect its search for fresh leaders.
It was entrapped also in the disastrous strategy of trying to win an election on the basis of fear and divisiveness.
Hope, generosity of spirit and optimism usually triumph over grievance and negativity.
Yet there are silver linings for revival and regeneration. For the fifth consecutive election, the Congress vote stayed below 30 per cent. Non-Congress governments delivering good governance were spared the pro-Congress ripple across the country. Familiar pathologies are already on display: the DMK's temper tantrum, the spread of the dynastic ethos from the Congress to allies like DMK, Mamata Banerjee's swift descent into populist politics that could put the Railways back in the red, rumblings of discontent from disappointed ministerial aspirants, Singh's propensity for procrastination and drift instead of decisive action, etc. These offer fertile ground for the BJP to sharpen differences without descending into shrill and ill-mannered theatrics in Parliament. The party should leave those antics to the twitching corpse of the Third Front while staking out a posture of sobriety, maturity and responsibility befitting a government-in-waiting.
Moderating its image, replacing its intellectually exhausted and morally compromised leadership and returning to the virtues of party discipline, conviction and values that promote national integration and equality for all; pro-growth economic policies that encourage and reward entrepreneurship yet institute compassionate social safety nets; and a foreign policy that rests on confidence in India's ability to compete with the world all of this will position the BJP to capture a significant chunk of India's growing middle class. It can then capitalise on government shortcomings and the corruption issue, by forging winning coalitions with regional parties whose loyalties between the two national parties will continue to fluctuate.
The writer is director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Waterloo, Canada.