Sunday's results may be a bitter pill that the Congress has to swallow -- that its future cannot be hitched to Rahul Gandhi unless he can resonate with the people, feels Saroj Nagi.
Unless the electronic voting machines throw up a miraculous pro-Congress verdict in at least one of these states -- Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan; only one of the nearly half a dozen exit pollsters predicts Chhattisgarh to be a close contest -- the Congress faces the spectre of an abysmal defeat in the state assembly elections.
And if the current mood prevails, in the 2014 Lok Sabha election expected in April-May as well.
The Congress needs to be very, very, worried if the results bear out the exit polls. Party leaders may explain the debacle as a local event with little bearing either on the general election or on the party organisation and possibly even claim that the Congress vote share in some cases has increased and the next cycle of state polls would show a different trend.
But Congress leaders know that the party's future is at stake in more ways than one and cosmetic changes will not suffice. Deeper, painful and agonising introspection is required that calls for a radical reinvention and makeover of the party.
With a general election expected in less than six months, the party has to race against time to repair to the extent possible the damage it could suffer if the pollsters are proved right.
What then is the way out for the Congress?
What are the lessons it can draw if indeed the exit pollsters prove correct in their assessment?
Crisis of charisma, confidence, credibility and competence
Much of it depends on how it identifies the crisis staring it in the face, visible perhaps to all but the most fawning of Congressmen: Failing leadership, absence of clean and effective governance, dwindling appeal, shrinking social and geographic space and a badly dented image that harks back to the pre-Sonia Gandhi days when the Congress was perceived by many as thoroughly corrupt and arrogant.
In short, the party faces a crisis of leadership, form, content and even slogan.
The Rahul factor
The biggest crisis -- and the question uppermost in the minds of most party workers -- would be whether the charisma of the Gandhi name has faded and the brand value that has seen the party successfully deal with its many ups and downs has now touched rock bottom.
Until 2009, the Congress was gung ho. It had a formidable Trimurti in Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi who between them cut across the caste and even ideological divide, to become the icons of the poor and the disadvantaged sections, the middle-class and the country's youth and get their support for the party.
That Trimurti now lies smashed.
Sonia, who still strikes a chord among the people, remains a credible figure. But she has stepped back after elevating her son Rahul as party vice-president, leaving most campaigns and matters of vital interest to him.
Dr Singh's sheen has worn off so that he is now seen as a liability that the party has no option but to carry till the 2014 election. Rahul hasn't exactly delivered: Even after a decade in active politics, he is still a learner.
Indeed, a fatigue factor seems to have set in with the Gandhi scion, a product of dynastic politics.
If the party comes a-cropper in the assembly elections it would intensify the perception that Rahul is not a crowd puller, let alone a vote catcher, specially when he is increasingly being pitted against the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi who was on a whistlestop campaign for the state polls this time, using his newness on the national stage to full effect.
The contrast between the two men could not have been sharper specially in Delhi which Modi crisscrossed to big crowds in the last days of campaigning while Sonia, Dr Singh and Rahul gave it a miss, the latter perhaps disappointed that even the small gathering that came for his meeting did not wait to hear him speak despite Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit's repeated appeals to them.
It is a bitter pill that the Congress has to swallow -- that its future cannot be hitched to Rahul unless he can resonate with the people.
Rahul has so far not shown the ability, flexibility or adaptability displayed by his mother. Indeed, he is not even visible or vocal either in Parliament or outside for most parts, his absence particularly noticeable when youngsters and the middle-class came on the streets to express their anger and anguish over the rape of a young paramedic last December or even earlier during the Anna Hazare movement.
Unlike his mother, Rahul does not carry the same conviction with the allies which are currently part of a shrinking United Progressive Alliance.
The Nationalist Congress Party has already expressed its unwillingness to deal with him or accept him as a leader as he lacked administrative experience among other things.
Rahul, it must be remembered, has systematically refused to be part of the Singh government, choosing to focus on rebuilding the party organisation which even now remains an unfinished task.
A defeat in the current elections would mean an internal readjustment, with the Rahul team expected to step back and the old guard taking charge once more.
The stakes are much too high for the Congress not to make necessary adjustments or try and give a fresh look to its jaded image.
Is Priyanka the answer?
As Sonia may not be able to lead a vigorous campaign because of her undisclosed illness, whispers would grow louder among desperate Congressmen to bring Priyanka Vadra into the picture ahead of 2014.
Even in the run-up to the state polls, there were voices in some quarters that Priyanka should enter the fray to help out her mother and brother. She is now seen as a trump card who can perhaps alter the scenario for the Congress.
It is a million dollar question whether she will step into active politics and even if she does, will she be able to change things for the Congress, the way that Sonia had done when she abandoned the Congress's ekla chalo (go it alone) policy to set up alliances and form the first Congress-led coalition at the Centre in 2004?
There is also scepticism whether it isn't too late also for Priyanka specially now that the scenario now is so different, with a new generation of voters attracted more by parties which meet their aspirations and expectations -- be it employment, jobs or a transparent and clean government -- rather than by the charisma of a family name.
Despite this, Priyanka would provide a sliver of hope to Congressmen looking for a way out of the morass spelt by the exit polls.
AAP intensifies anti-Congress perception of corruption, malgovernance
The perception of corruption and malgovernace at the Centre is a burden that the Congress cannot easily shed. It is a throwback to the days of the Bofors scandal that ousted the Rajiv Gandhi government from power in 1989 and led to the formation of the National Front government or to the days of the P V Narasimha Rao regime when the urea and other scams took a toll of the image and the electoral performance of the party in the 1996 general election and saw the emergence of the United Front and then the BJP governments until Sonia recast the party's policies and image to wrest power in 2004.
The charges of corruption against the Congress have intensified ever since Dr Singh came to power for the second time in 2009.
There were allegations of multi-billion rupee serial scams: The Adarsh society, the Commonwealth Games, 2G spectrum, Chopper-gate, Tetra truck and Coalgate where the allegations even reached the prime minister's doorstep, denting his until then squeaky clean image.
Indeed, the charges of corruption have taken a toll of its then chief minister Ashok Chavan in Maharashtra and cast a shadow on the Sheila Dikshit government which had to bear the burden of corruption and unrelenting price rise that took a toll of the lower and middle-classes specially.
The crisis of perception that the Congress faces over the charges of corruption this time is perhaps more serious. More so, because unlike the BJP -- which as an Opposition party puts the Congress on the mat on the issue, but is itself not untouched by this taint.
There is also a new party on the horizon, the Aam Aadmi Party led by Arvind Kejriwal which promises to fight for a corruption-free society. Whether the AAP can strike roots in Delhi remains to be seen, but there is little doubt that Kejriwal's party has sharpened the debate on nepotism, graft and corruption and intensified the popular perception that the Congress wallows in corruption.
New Congress slogan inevitable?
Perhaps the single biggest damage that the AAP has inflicted on the Congress is by raiding its slogan, leaving the Congress without its most effective vote-catching line since Indira Gandhi's war cry of Garibi Hatao.
Sonia had given the Congress a pro-people image and slogan when she came up with the vote catching line: Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath (Congress's hand is with the common man), a promise on which it rode to power in 2004 and 2009 and used it to define the Congress-led government's agenda by steering the National Rural Employment Act, the Right to Information, the farm loan waiver, the Right to Education and other such legislation.
The Congress leaders used the aam aadmi and the pro-poor connotation it inhered as the leitmotif of their manifestoes, speeches and programmes, thereby robbing the Left parties of their plank. Now the boot is on the other foot.
The AAP has ensured that no matter what the outcome of the result in New Delhi where Kejriwal's party is contesting, the Congress will not be able to use the slogan in the 2014 Lok Sabha election or for that matter at any time so long as they are around.
Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath is clearly a dead slogan and the party will have to hammer out a new one before the Lok Sabha election. It is a tall order if one remembers that the now to be abandoned slogan was coined after a year’s effort. It had all begun when in 2003, Sonia called a meeting of the party’s block presidents where the promise was made of Congress ka haath, garib ke saath. This was later improvised to include a larger section of the population by talking about the aam aadmi.
Scouring for a social base and appeal
One of the biggest fears of the Congress from the exit polls is that Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan with 68 Lok Sabha seats might turn out to be a politically barren land for the party much like Uttar Pradesh or Bihar (120 Lok Sabha seats) in the Hindi belt or Tamil Nadu (39 Lok Sabha seats) down South have been and the party could be reduced to becoming a marginal player.
Its only hope lies in the fact the three states are bipolar and that the vote percentage between victory and defeat may not be wide, specially in Chhattisgarh where India TV-C Voter has shown a difference of only three seats which can be offset by the actual results on Sunday.
Its only consolation may lie in Delhi where though it is being decimated by the BJP, the AAP might -- according to one exit poll -- upstage the BJP without getting a clear majority. Since the AAP has ruled out taking or giving support to either the Congress or the BJP (but kept its options open on aligning with Independents or smaller parties), there is a possibility of central rule and a new round of elections.
Other than Chhattisgarh, elsewhere the gap between the Congress and the BJP is predicted to be large which perhaps even the margin of error may not be able to cover.
If the BJP can retain Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, there is every possibility that the AAP and other smaller outfits would try to make every attempt to create a foothold in these states, aware that if the Congress is not seen as an alternative despite three terms of saffron rule, there is scope for a third party to emerge.
More so, since the exit pollsters claim that the BJP has made inroads into the traditional Congress bases among tribals and Scheduled Castes, with the Muslim community perhaps the only segment where the BJP has not met with success and may not be able to.
Unlike the BJP which beat the Congress in going for social engineering and creating a hub of Other Backward Classes leaders in Narendra Modi, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Uma Bharati, Kalyan Singh, Gopinath Munde, Sushil Modi and others, the Congress has failed to project any such face. Even in the case of its existing leaders, it has failed to own them up during the recent assembly polls.
In Rajasthan, for instance, neither Sonia nor Rahul dwelt on Ashok Gehlot's achievements in government, focusing on targeting the BJP and Modi, or in the case of Rahul talking about the many sacrifices made by the Gandhi family.
In Delhi, Sheila Dikshit shouldered the campaign more or less alone. It did not bode well for the party.
Saroj Nagi is a senior journalist based in Delhi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters