The deadly Maoist attack on its rally in Chhattisgarh has dealt a body blow to the Congress that is fancying its chances of coming back to power in the upcoming assembly elections in the BJP-ruled state after a decade.
The naxal ambush on the party's 'parivartan yatra (march for change)' has wiped off some of its frontline leaders such as state chief Nand Kumar Patel, former leader of the opposition Mahendra Karma, former MP Gopal Madhavan and ex-MLA Uday Kumar Mudaliar. Veteran leader VC Shukla is battling for life in a Gurgaon hospital.
"We are devastated," said Congress president Sonia Gandhi on the attack. Gandhi along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh later rushed to the state to assess the situation. Party vice-president Rahul Gandhi had reached Raipur late last night only.
In a desperate bid to regain power, warring state leaders had this buried their differences and were putting up a united face. Under Patel's leadership, the party had launched a spirited campaign to win back the support of tribals, who had in the past many years moved away from the Congress.
During the last assembly elections in 2008, the BJP had significantly improved its performance in tribal areas that were once Congress bastions mainly due to the growing influence of the RSS which has been focussing on education for long.
Out of the 26 seats in the entire tribal naxal-affected tribal belt stretching from Bastar region in the south of Chhattisgarh to Sarguja-Koria-Jaspur area in the north, the BJP won 23 seats while the Congress could manage just three. In the present 90-member house, the BJP's strength is 49 while Congress has 39 members and BSP two.
Prior to this incident, political observers had placed the Congress and the ruling BJP neck-and-neck in the run up to the upcoming electoral battle.
Both Patel, a backward caste leader who took over as the state Congress chief in April 2011, and Karma, an influential tribal leader and one of the architects of the controversial Salwa Judum, were among the top contenders for the chief minister's post.
The anti-naxal Salwa Judum movement was the main poll issue in 2008 with many of Karma's colleagues, including former chief minister Ajit Jogi raising their voices against it. Three years later in July 2011, the Supreme Court declared it "illegal and unconstitutional".
The lethal attack on the Congress rally has now narrowed the race between Jogi, union minister Charan Das Mahant, former state chief Dhanendra Sahu and Congress legislature party (CLP leader Ravindra Choubey. However, Jogi, a strong tribal leader, has a clear edge over the others. The new state chief would soon be announced.
The biggest challenge for the Congress, according to central leaders, now is to overcome this tragedy, build up on the momentum it had gained in the past several weeks and maintain the unity to ensure the BJP's ouster.
Apart from anti-incumbency, the Congress hopes that the sympathy factor would help in the revival of its fortunes in Chhattisgarh that along with neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan would go to polls in November-December this year.
The state polls are billed as semi-finals before the final (Lok Sabha elections) in 2014.