The Congress party may have its eyes firmly set on the Bharat Jodo Yatra, but it kept its fingers crossed as it waited for Thursday's counting of votes for the assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh.
The grand old party, which has been struggling to protect its fast-decimating electoral base, would be more than happy if it wins Himachal Pradesh and remains the main opposition in Gujarat where the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is seeking to emerge as a challenger to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On the other hand, its crisis will deepen further if the Congress fails to wrest power from the BJP in Himachal Pradesh -- the hill state has not returned the same party to power after 1985 -- and concedes the main opposition's space in Gujarat to AAP.
The Congress suffered yet another setback when results of civic body elections in Delhi came in Wednesday, with the party finishing a distant third, winning only 9 of the 250 wards in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The AAP unseated BJP in the MCD, winning 134 wards. The BJP won in 104 wards.
Exit polls on Monday predicted a big majority for the BJP in Gujarat and a dead heat in Himachal Pradesh where most pollsters gave an edge to the ruling party over the Congress.
Any worse-than-expected outcome in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh would not only have a bearing on the morale of the Congress and its workers that has been running high on the back a successful rollout of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, but also impact the party's ability to mobilise support and resources for future electoral battles.
The best-case scenario for the Congress would be that it gets a majority in the 68-member assembly of Himachal Pradesh while securing a respectable number of seats in the 182-member legislature of Gujarat. Poll watchers say anything around 40-50 seats would be a decent showing by the grand old party.
In case the Congress wins Himachal Pradesh polls, it would be a major boost for the party that currently is in power on its own only in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. Winning a state in the north, albeit a small one, would be significant for the party especially because its electoral clout in the north has been on a decline for more than a decade now.
A comeback in Himachal Pradesh would be a "huge morale booster" because the Congress would have been able to reclaim the state despite a massive BJP election machinery, said Sanjay Jha, a former spokesman of the party. This would give the Congress hope for both 2023 and 2024, albeit a lot will depend upon how it recharges the party after the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Jha told PTI.
Winning Himachal would also give the Congress a bargaining chip as it vies for leadership of the opposition challenge to BJP in 2024.
The other possibility is that the Congress wins Himachal Pradesh but loses Gujarat badly. In such a scenario, the party could take heart from the fact that despite its focus and energy directed towards the Bharat Jodo Yatra, it would have still managed to win one out of the two states.
However, losing Gujarat badly would be a big jolt also as it risks ceding the space of principal opposition in the state to the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP. It would also impact its bargaining power vis-a-vis other Opposition parties. Also, losing Gujarat badly may add to the exodus of leaders that the party has been facing.
Asked about such a scenario, Jha said the Congress would pay a "spectacular price" for its self-inflicted mammoth Punjab disaster where it gave away the state on a "silver platter with golden ribbons to its nemesis, the AAP".
Manindra Nath Thakur, who teaches political science at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, said if AAP does better than Congress, "it would bolster the argument that the space which is being vacated by the Congress is being grabbed by AAP. So, Gujarat is a test case for both AAP and the Congress".
And if the Congress fails to win Himachal Pradesh while losing badly in Gujarat, that would be the worst nightmare come true for the party. Such a result could plunge the party into a deeper crisis, leaving it with more questions and fewer answers on where it goes from here.
It would undo the hard-won gains of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, raise more doubts about its ability to put its house in order and could trigger further exodus of leaders and workers. The Congress, in such a scenario, could end up playing second fiddle to regional parties in the fight against the BJP in 2024.