The results of the assembly polls to five states, especially Uttar Pradesh, appear to have accentuated difficulties for the Congress, and raised questions about party Vice President Rahul Gandhi's electoral appeal, but also provided a ray of hope for the party for its revival.
The Congress was decimated in Uttar Pradesh – the home state of its chief Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi – and faced a severe drubbing in Uttarakhand, where it was in power.
But while finishing as the single largest party in Manipur, where it was in power, as also in Goa, its main comfort came from Punjab, where it performed credibly under the leadership of state chief Capt Amarinder Singh, scoring its first major victory after its debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.
Rahul Gandhi Failed to Resonate With People
The party's decimation in Uttar Pradesh – the country's most populous and electorally significant state – had serious implications for the party's ambition to emerge as a credible alternative to the BJP in the 2019 general elections.
Uttar Pradesh sent 80 MPs to parliament and the Congress has been reduced to a lowly fourth position, with only seven assembly seats and 6.2 percent vote share. It failed to perform credibly in Amethi and Raebareli, parliamentary constituencies of Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi.
The party could not stop the BJP from coming to power in the state, despite abandoning its plan to contest on its own, and allying with the Samajwadi Party to contest 105 of the 403 assembly seats.
There have been several worrying factors for the Congress, including the BJP’s sustained efforts to woo poorer sections that have traditionally supported the Congress, while also making deep inroads in Congress’ bastions in the northeast.
The BJP is also set to increase its numbers in the Rajya Sabha, where the party-led central government lacks a majority.
With Sonia Gandhi keeping away from the campaign for the five states due to ill-health, the elections were very much about Rahul Gandhi's ability to steer the party's fortunes.
He campaigned extensively in Uttar Pradesh, but the issues he raised, including demonetisation, and his efforts at portraying Prime Minister Narendra Modi as "pro-rich", did not find resonance with the people.
Cong Performed Better in States Where They Had Strong Leaders
The Congress performed better in states where it has a strong state leader. In Punjab, Capt Amarinder Singh led an effective campaign while in Manipur, where Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh put up a strong fight. The party also fared better in Goa where it had fielded several former Chief Ministers.
The victory in Punjab has provided the Congress an opportunity to rebuild itself, and prepare forcefully for polls in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh at the end of the year. The Aam Aadmi Party’s defeat in Punjab and Goa will also help the Congress in BJP-ruled Gujarat.
Analysts said that the Congress winning Punjab was not a great consolation and Modi had improved his chances in the 2019 elections after the BJP's unprecedented victory in Uttar Pradesh.
Political commentator and senior journalist S Nihal Singh said Uttar Pradesh was a minus point for Rahul Gandhi, as his campaign was not too effective.
Nihal Singh told IANS It is a defeat for him in that sense. Congress dilemma is clear because its leadership is one from family traditionally. That is his (Rahul’s) plus point in the sense of keeping the party together. The minus point is that if you have a person who is not a politician by heart and is slow in learning the job, then obviously you are stuck.
"I do not see any immediate solution to this problem," he added.
Is It Time for Congress to Move Beyond the ‘Dynasty’?
Subrata Mukherjee, a political analyst who has taught at Delhi University, said that the Congress was down, but not out, and has to look beyond the dynasty to find a way out of its present "crisis" as Rahul Gandhi lacks credibility among the masses.
Subrata Mukherjee, Political Analyst He is taken as a chocolate leader. It is time for Congress to go beyond dynasty.
An option for the Congress was to make an arrangement where Rahul Gandhi heads the party while there is a different Prime Ministerial candidate, Mukherjee added.
Congress leaders talked of introspection in the wake of the results in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand, but noted that results in Punjab, Goa and Manipur were a lesson to those who spoke of "Congress Mukt Bharat (Congress-free India)".
They said the party requires fundamental rethinking of strategies, but also noted that the BJP had sought to communalise the campaign in Uttar Pradesh.
Rahul Gandhi, in his response to the poll verdict, said the party will continue its fight to win the hearts and minds of the people.
(Prashant Sood can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Published in an arrangement with IANS.)