Congress leaders tried to shift the narrative from the big loss in UP and Uttarakhand by boasting about its victory in Punjab and being in contention to capture power in Goa.
On Manipur, party leaders argued that there was a15-year anti-incumbency against the Congress government and despite that it managed a close fight in the northeastern state.
These elections were a litmus test for Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, who had led the campaign in all the five states that went to the polls. Party chief Sonia Gandhi skipped the campaign this time.
Gandhi didn’t speak to media on Saturday after the results, instead tweeting to congratulate Captain Amarinder Singh, who spearheaded the party’s win in Punjab, and the BJP.
“To all Congress workers across India: We stand resolute & committed to our values & our belief in an India united in strength & purpose,” he tweeted.
I thank everyone in Punjab for their immense faith and support. This is a mandate for a brighter future for Punjab and it's youth— Office of RG (@OfficeOfRG) March 11, 2017
It was a repeat performance for the 46-year-old Congress leader in UP. Of the 71 rallies he addressed in five states, 54 were in UP alone. In the 2012 elections, Rahul addressed 211 public meetings across UP in 48 days. But the Congress ended up with a paltry 28 of the 403 seats.
This time, the 131-year-old party failed to cross the double digit mark, winning just seven seats — that too in alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP). The coalition was swept away by a BJP wave on the back of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity.
This will be the Congress’s worst performance in UP where it was a dominant political force for decades.
The party’s decline started in the late 1980s with the emergence of “Mandal-Mandir” politics. Ousted from power in 1989, it has been struggling to arrest its falling fortunes ever since.
The rise of Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Bahujan Samaj Party pushed the Congress to fourth position in the state’s political map. With its Ram Temple plank, the BJP too surged ahead.
But the Congress decline is not restricted to UP alone. From ruling 14 states in 2012, the party is now in power in six states, with Karnataka and Punjab being the only big ones in its kitty. It is also a partner in the ruling grand alliance in Bihar.
A “Congress-mukt Bharat” (Congress-free India) has been the main talking point of the BJP since 2014.
Experts said the Congress’s comeback at the national level will largely depend on its revival in the states and the party needs to decentralise power to let strong regional leaders grow.
“It would be better for the Congress to decentralise. Let leaders from states emerge and take initiatives. We can see something happening in Rajasthan where Sachin Pilot has taken the lead. Same should happen in Madhya Pradesh and other states. That is one way of reviving the Congress,” said Sanjay Kumar of the Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
The Congress has been unable to stem the tide of reversals that began in 2013 with a string of defeats in state elections followed by a drubbing in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, and one of the reasons identified for the debacles is the failure to connect with the masses.
“There is a need for Congress leaders to connect with the people. That is missing. They have to do mass politics and hit the streets. See what Prime Minister Narendra Modi is doing. You see him among the people on yoga day and teachers on teacher’s day. Every single occasion, he has demonstrated that connect successfully,” Kumar said.
Congress leaders agreed that the need of the hour is fundamental restructuring of the organisation.
“UP is a bad loss, it hurts ... I agree that, in UP, we need fundamental restructuring thinking for the Congress as a whole. These have to be hard, tough decisions about strategy,” Congress spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said.
Party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala promised that the party will introspect on the reasons for the loss in UP and Uttarakhand and rededicate itself to strengthening the organisation.
Also, he remarked that these elections are a lesson to those who are never tired of speaking about a “Congress-mukt Bharat”.
The challenge for Gandhi, who has virtually taken over the reins of the Congress, is to infuse fresh energy into the party. The organisational polls are due and will have to be held by June in accordance with the Election Commission’s directive.
A reshuffle in the party is pending for long. Infighting is another problem area that needs to be tackled. Otherwise the party will do an Uttarakhand in other states. It was effectively contained in Punjab.
Then there are assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh due in December and Karnataka next year.
Gandhi has to put the Congress on the revival track before the 2019 elections in which he is expected to be a key challenger to Modi.
Experts ruled out such a prospect in the current situation. “Whatever hope and expectation people had from Rahul Gandhi emerging as a challenger or alternative to Modi has eroded further. His image has taken a dip. It will be difficult to imagine that he will be a competitor to Modi in 2019,” Kumar said.