The Congress's defeat in the Ramtek, Jalgaon and Erandol Lok Sabha bypolls in Maharashtra is likely to sap the morale of the party workers, coming as it does as part of a series of electoral defeats that includes the failure to dislodge the Shiv Sena-BJP combine in the prestigious Mumbai corporation elections and the re-emergence of the BJP with the Punjab and Uttarakhand assembly elections and the Delhi municipal polls.
A huge challenge lies before the party in UP now and in the Gujarat assembly polls later in the year.
In their preliminary assessment, AICC leaders attribute the bypolls defeats to three main factors. The first is a two-day sabotage by party workers who resented the leadership's tactics of roping in former Shiv Sena leaders to try and strengthen the party's base in Maharashtra and by the Nationalist Congress party that is jostling for greater space in the state.
The Congress had fielded Sena-turned-Congressman Subodh Mohite. Linked to it was the absence of effective coordination between the Congress and the NCP. Thirdly, the party paid the price for popular resentment against growing power cuts and farmers suicides.
"The results are very unfortunate," said Margaret Alva, AICC general secretary in charge of the state. She, however, maintained that it will not affect the party's performance in Goa where elections are expected in May-June.
Alva reportedly got a whiff of drubbing the Congress. She told Congress president Sonia Gandhi about it in the morning and followed it up in the evening with details of the results that showed that Congress rebel Ranjit Deshmukh played spoiler, his decision to highlight farmers' issues going down well with the voters. Also, in two segments dominated by the NCP, the Congress fared poorly, according to AICC leaders.
The defeat is likely to see changes taking place in the state unit. Tensions are also likely to grow between the Congress and the group that came from the Shiv Sena on the one hand and between the Congress and the NCP on the other as each tries to establish its dominance in the state ahead of the 2009 assembly and Lok Sabha polls. In the blame game that has begun, Narayan Rane accused internal sabotage for Mohite's defeat.
But the correctives in Maharashtra will be part of a larger gameplan that could include a change in the AICC officebearers team in preparation for the Lok Sabha polls.