The inability of the Congress to present itself as a potent force in the Bihar assembly polls may force the grand old party to once again abandon any thoughts of coming to power at the Centre on its own steam, at least for the time being.
The reality of Bihar will haunt the Congress for quite a while and the fact that the Independents got more seats than its candidates will worry the leadership for years to come. But the biggest lesson for the Congress is this: it must reconcile with the idea of pursuing coalition politics even in the next parliamentary polls.
The same holds true for the BJP, which like the Congress will have to be dependent on smaller regional parties in the general elections. Many may argue that the Lok Sabha elections are far away and a lot can change. But it is unlikely that the prescription of Bihar in favour of a coalition government is going to be reversed.
In fact, the fear for the Congress is that the Bihar results will get replicated in the rest of the Hindi belt, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. If that happens, many grand plans may never see the light of day. Uttar Pradesh has 12 districts bordering Bihar where the demographic profile is similar. This is where the maximum damage can be done. In addition, the party will have to reckon with the formidable Mayawati and a resilient Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP.
With Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra witnessing the transition of new leadership and with no headway being made in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal, the Congress will have to reinvent itself to be relevant in many places. The shadow of various scams is refusing to go and the party is also trying to cope with the challenge from the combined Opposition in Parliament.
The tragedy of the party, which at one time controlled as many as 16 states before its numbers started dwindling, is that it has no roadmap to move forward. The advisers and office-bearers seem to have lost touch with ground reality or are engaged in outwitting each other or their rivals elsewhere. The casualness is visible in the fact that there is no Cabinet minister from UP or Bihar, the two states so key to the party's resurgence at the national level.
Without UP and Bihar, there is little hope for the Congress of even crossing the 200 mark in the parliamentary polls. In political terms, it is bad news for Rahul Gandhi who is being groomed to take over the mantle of leadership.
The bright side is that there is still time for course correction and Congress president Sonia Gandhi will have to resume the mass contact programme with her cadres. Remember before the Congress came to power in 2004, Sonia Gandhi had taken several steps to energise the organisation. For instance, it has been ages since block-level or district-level meetings of the kind she held at the Ferozeshah Kotla ground have taken place. There has been no conclave of senior party leaders and chief ministers in which some sort of brainstorming could be done. Many veteran Congressmen have been complaining that since 2006 even the All India Congress Committee (AICC) sessions have sought to segregate the workers from the leaders. An AICC session was always the place where the rank and file mingled with the leadership and carried back the message. Now for all practical purposes, different enclosures are for different categories and there is restricted movement.
All is, of course, not lost. The Congress leadership has to have another look at its advisers and those who are in important positions. A strong political element to strengthen the organisation at various levels has to be introduced.
The Bihar elections are a setback but also a wake-up call. The leaders have to look beyond the 24 people who handle various roles most of the time. The party proved in 2004 and 2009 that it has the ability to overcome the challenge from the BJP and its allies. But this time, the challenge is from within and problems and problem creators have to be edged out if the party has to move forward.