The deadly Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh has dealt a blow to the Congress, which is hopeful of coming back to power in the BJP-ruled state after a decade.
The Darbha ambush on leaders returning from a pre-election 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,” Congress president Sonia Gandhi said on the attack. She and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rushed to the state on Sunday. Party vice-president Rahul Gandhi had left for Raipur on Saturday night.
In a bid to regain power in the elections due by December, state Congress leaders had buried differences. Under Patel’s leadership, the party had launched a spirited campaign to win back the support of tribals, who had moved away from the Congress.
In the 2008 assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party had significantly improved its performance in tribal areas. The influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which focused on education in tribal areas, helped the BJP breach traditional Congress bastions.
Of the 26 seats in the tribal naxal-affected belt stretching from Bastar in south Chhattisgarh to Sarguja-Koria-Jaspur area in the north, the BJP won 23 seats, while the Congress could manage three. In the 90-member assembly, the BJP has 49 members, while the Congress has 39 and the BSP two.
Prior to the ambush, political observers were seeing a neck-and-neck race between the BJP and the Congress.
Patel and Karma were among the top contenders for the chief minister’s post. The race is now likely between former chief minister Ajit Jogi, Union minister Charan Das Mahant, former state chief Dhanendra Sahu and Congress legislature party leader Ravindra Choubey.
The biggest challenge for the Congress, according to party's central leaders, is to overcome the tragedy, maintain unity and build on recent momentum.
Chhattisgarh, neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Rajasthan go to polls in November-December this year. The state polls are being billed as the semi-finals before the final (Lok Sabha elections) in 2014.