There are two ways of looking at the Samajwadi Party's spectacular victory in Uttar Pradesh. It's quite certainly a shot in the arm for Mulayam Singh Yadav who, for the first time, has a free hand in running the country's most populous state without any obligation to keep the UPA afloat at the Centre. As UP sends 80 MPs to the Lok Sabha, the SP could be tempted to disturb the UPA applecart for a mid-term poll.
But the mandate comes with safety valves against any such eventuality. The Muslim voter wholeheartedly supported Mulayam to oust Mayawati, not to topple the 'secular' UPA that the SP backed in 2009 to keep the BJP at bay.
The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), on its part, is down but not in the dumps, a place where the BJP and the Congress find themselves. The prognosis for the Manmohan Singh government, currently enjoying the SP's and the BSP's outside support, would have been different had the BJP emerged as the principle opposition in the state. That would have encouraged the saffron party to go for the kill at the Centre, given that it has wrested Goa from the Congress, has piggybacked the Akalis to retain Punjab, and turned Uttarakhand into a cliffhanger contest.
The results look good on paper for the party. But they are really a dampener for the BJP, whose legislative presence has been reduced in Punjab, Uttarakhand and UP. It can celebrate but only partially, with even Sushma Swaraj calling the outcome a "mixed bag" for the party.
The less-than-promising individual tallies in these states are a safeguard against any proactive BJP offensive for mid-term polls. The BSP, too, won't bring another election upon itself so close to it being routed in UP. Haunted as she will be by a host of scams under her watch, Mayawati should be more expedient than valorous to make her 21 MPs coordinate with the Congress in New Delhi. That's the only way she can offset the disadvantage of being out of power in UP.
This conspiracy of circumstances is scant consolation for the Congress that has let go of its best chance to win Punjab and resurrect its fortunes in UP. Uttarakhand counts. But not all that much in providing the political steroids that the UPA needs to lift its sagging morale - which is linked to its below par performance on the governance and policy-making front.
Unless it starts acting as one coherent entity accommodative toward its allies, the Congress leadership of the UPA is bound to be under greater pressure from the likes of Mamata Banerjee. Mayawati may lie low for a while. But she's no less difficult a customer than the maverick Bengal chief minister.
On the organisational front, the Congress desperately requires a personality transplant. Rahul Gandhi's UP campaign fell flat for want of a robust party set-up and committed foot-soldiers. Renegade candidatures spawned by rampant cronyism in ticket distribution crippled its challenge in Punjab. The blame for much of this belongs to the Congress' non-resident Punjabi leaders who went on a self-aggrandisement spree by patronising losers.
Rahul Gandhi has owned up responsibility for the Congress debacle in UP and Amarinder Singh in Punjab. But the mess-up was largely on account of solo players pursuing individual gains in what was meant to be a team effort.
The Congress' defeat in UP has many dimensions. But the absence of an efficient party structure was one obvious reason for the goodwill generated by Rahul Gandhi not translating into votes. It can also be assumed in retrospect that the experiment of handing over the party franchise to sub-regional satraps cost the party dear in Saharanpur and Barabanki. That the party could not retain even half of the 100-odd assembly segments where it was ahead in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls - that fetched it 21 seats - was a veritable no-confidence in its sitting MPs.
What then could be the way forward for the Congress and the coalition it leads at the Centre? As charisma and family name alone do not suffice in electoral politics, the Congress leadership has to spend time to rebuild the party while scouting for credible regional faces. This model constituted the plinth of the Congress' 'pan-Indian' clout in Jawaharlal Nehru's days. Indira Gandhi replaced it progressively by her personal appeal and charisma. The Congress lacks the leadership that can in any way match Indira Gandhi's stature. But the Grand Old Party has to reinvent itself by reverting to the past. And it has to do so by working in concert with allies without whose consent and backing the UPA cannot push policies and programmes - including legislative initiatives relating to food security and land acquisition and compensation - that can help it get over its current image of a dysfunctional regime.
If the SP could regain power after the humiliating 2007 defeat by the BSP, why can't the Congress? Mulayam and his son Akhilesh have benefited from the silent work on the ground through a strong party machinery. It's a model the Congress must improvise and emulate. Decentralisation of authority should be at the core of its work culture.