Though Congress leaders tried to put a fig leaf to their misery with arguments of increased vote share and seats, specially in UP, the way the electorate voted in different states has demoralised party cadres and put a question mark over its leaders to motivate voters and inspire its supporters, feels Saroj Nagi.
The Congress has no option but to go in for painful introspection and intense soul-searching in the coming days.
As the results of the assembly elections to Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur began pouring in, the 127-year-old party was faced with the spectre of a nightmare that it hadn't ever imagined in north India.
It trailed at the fourth position in the Hindi heartland of Uttar Pradesh, where Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi had staked his political future to revive the party which has been out of power for 22 years.
To its chagrin and humiliation, history was created in Punjab where the Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine bucked the anti-incumbency trend and gained a majority.
In Goa it succumbed to incumbency and was fervently hoping for a miracle in Uttarakhand.
The only solace seems to come from Manipur where Ibobi Singh is set for a third term.
Though Congress leaders tried to put a fig leaf to their misery with arguments of their increased vote share and seats, specially in UP, the way the electorate voted in different states has shattered the confidence of the party which once flaunted its pan-national presence, demoralised the cadres that had hoped to tide over its deficiencies by banking on Rahul Gandhi and put a question mark both over the capacity and capability of the state and central leaders to motivate voters and inspire its supporters -- a scenario that threatens to replicate the despondency that marked the post-P V Narasimha Rao scenario in the mid-1990s unless it takes urgent remedial measures.
As the man who showed the courage to lead from the front to revive the party in a losing battle in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi is inevitably under the scanner.
Though he donned an aggressive persona by rolling up his sleeves and launching a frontal attack on his rivals, questions are being raised about Brand Rahul, the Rahul magic and even the charisma of the Gandhi name as the combined onslaught of Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, Robert Vadra and their two children failed to prevent the slide in their pocket borough of Rae Bareli, Sultanpur and Amethi.
Rahul's explanation: 'We haven't done well in the whole of UP.'
Expectedly, the effort to insulate Rahul from criticism is already on with arguments that the party has improved its tally and percentage in the UP elections and succeeded in its mission to oust the Mayawati regime while glossing over the failure to get the solid support of a social group like Muslims or non-Jatav Dalits or non-Yadav OBCs around which others could rally.
Leaders ranging from UP party chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi and party General Secretary Digvijay Singh have been saying over the last few days that the fault for any failure lay not with Rahul Gandhi, but with the party's organisational weakness and the inability of local leaders to cash in on the positive atmosphere that their young leader had generated.
But Rahul Gandhi stepped out to take the responsibility for the debacle though he was quick to add that the party's 'fundamentals" in UP were "weak.'
In addition to these, there are murmurs of rebels or faulty ticket distribution in Punjab, the party's regressive agenda and flip flops in UP on the OBC issue, Muslim reservations, the Batla House encounter issue, the loss of the middle class support that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once brought in for the party, the face-off with the Election Commission of ministers like Salman Khurshid and Beni Prasad Verma.
The big question, of course, was the disconnect between the party and the voters.
In UP, for instance, while Rahul Gandhi was seen by the party and the electorate as the Congress's future prime ministerial candidate, the state elections were meant to elect the chief minister.
The pro-poor agenda worked out by Congress President Sonia Gandhi through the rural employment guarantee act and other measures clearly has long paid out the political dividends the party had expected from it.
Notwithstanding these, what exactly went wrong? That, in short, is the crucial question the Congress has to contend with till much-delayed chintan shibir (brainstorming session) promised by Sonia Gandhi in December 2010 materialises and party leaders grapple with the harsh reality staring it in the face. And many of them do not have a clue how to deal with it.
"The situation calls for serious introspection," admitted Union Minister of State Ashwini Kumar as the counting of votes showed the party heading for defeat. Clearly, it has to race against time to do some soul searching and fix the problems.
As it is, it has to deal with another set of assembly elections later this year, including in Gujarat where the BJP's Narendra Modi will seek a third term and the Lok Sabha polls two years down the line.
More immediately, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh will have to brace themselves for an aggressive Opposition in Parliament, deal with volatile allies in trying to initiate legislations ranging from Foreign Direct Investment in retail to the Food Security Bill and fall back on political management to get its nominee into the Rashtrapati Bhavan when elections are held in July.
At present, the Congress-led UPA does not have the numbers in the electoral college for the Presidential polls.
But even these concerns do not even measure up to the wide range of challenges that the party has to address in the coming days. And these centre around questions that have emerged out of the assembly polls.
One, do the results reflect the national mood?
Can the election results also be attributed to dark shadow cast by allegations of big-time corruption against ministers in the UPA government at the Centre -- as against the corruption at the state levels -- and to the paralysis of the Manmohan Singh regime?
Has the middle class lost its faith in Manmohan Singh?
Is it time for a change of guard at the Centre to stem the downslide?
Two, though Rahul Gandhi is down but in no way out, will the results put a spoke in the party's effort to project him as its future prime ministerial candidate and will there be greater demands to bring Priyanka into the frame?
A section of the party has often been talking about Rahul Gandhi as prime minister for the party and as the country's youth icon. But in Uttar Pradesh, it was the Samajwadi Party's Akhilesh Yadav who appears to have seized that tag of a youth icon in the state.
In 2014, if Rahul is projected as young prime ministerial candidate, he would have competitors among an equally large group of leaders younger or a little older than him, ranging from Nitish Kumar, Naveen Patnaik and other chief ministers to perhaps even Akhilesh Yadav.
Three, with defeats casting a long shadow, will it manage to retain its allies or will they strain to break free and give an impetus to a possible Third Front ahead of the Lok Sabha polls.
"We cannot take for granted that the scenario may change between now and 2014," said a Congress leader unwilling to be named.
Clearly, governments no matter where must deliver and be seen to deliver in order to win the confidence of voters as reflected in the recent trend of re-electing governments on the basis of their performance
Four, with regional parties and regional leaders beginning to play a larger national role whether as part of the ruling combine or the Opposition at the Centre, the Congress will have to reinvent itself so that it is able to sufficiently regionalise itself while retaining its national character.
The biggest problem is that it has so failed in all its experiments to win over a social group as its core so that others congregate around it; in short, how can the party revive its appeal among social groups like Muslims, most backwards or ati- Dalits.
It is a long haul -- which perhaps even Rahul Gandhi realised when he said during the course of his campaign that he would keep returning to UP whether his party got two seats or 200. He will now have to live up to his words.
Saroj Nagi is a political journalist based in New Delhi