Virtually decimated in the assembly elections, the Congress now faces a dual challenge -- an existential crisis and retaining its position as the leader of the opposition camp after the Aam Aadmi Party's spectacular victory in Punjab.
Political analysts say the road to the 2024 polls for the Congress is going to get tougher as it is a party that is 'in the ICU' and cannot be revived with quick-fix solutions.
The AAP on Thursday stormed to power in Punjab, bagging a record 92 of the 117 seats by decimating the Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bahujan Samaj Party combine.
The Congress, meanwhile, also suffered a crushing defeat in the assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Uttarakhand and Goa.
The AAP's Punjab win has brought it at par with the Congress in terms of leading state governments.
The Congress is now left in power only in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh on its own and is a junior player in the coalition governments in Maharashtra and Jharkhand.
Murmurs of discontent and talk of 'change' have already begun in the Congress camp with some group of 23 leaders, who wrote to party chief Sonia Gandhi seeking an organisational overhaul, voicing concern over the massive electoral defeat.
The Congress' electoral drubbing and the AAP's phenomenal success in Punjab has also had ripples in the opposition ranks and while earlier, the Congress had been clutching on to the position of the leader of the opposition camp, it now finds itself facing threats from parties such as the AAP and the Trinamool Congress that are likely to become more assertive going forward.
Asked about what the AAP's victory means for the opposition camp and its pecking order, Shiv Sena leader Priyanka Chaturvedi said, "Firstly, the AAP victory is spectacular and it needs to be commended. At the same time, any opposition party which is giving a tough fight to the BJP should be supported."
"Whether it is going to be a challenge for the Congress party or not it is for the Congress to introspect...Opposition has to be strengthened," the Rajya Sabha member told PTI.
Asserting that opposition forces need to align together to give a tough fight to the BJP, Chaturvedi said the AAP has managed to speak on issues of governance and that is why they have managed to convince the people of Punjab.
Any opposition party which is strengthened or can be strengthened should be welcomed, she added.
"Opposition will only be strengthened with a more empowered opposition party. Punjab results have shown that people are looking for a change and people are looking for an opposition party which can talk on governance issues," Chaturvedi said.
Sanjay Kumar, Co-Director of Lokniti, a Research Programme at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, said the AAP's rise was a 'big threat' to the Congress' position as leader of the opposition camp.
"The Congress should realise that in whichever state the AAP makes inroads, it makes heavy inroads...They made inroads in Delhi and Punjab largely at the expense of the Congress. The Congress should feel threatened by the way AAP is making inroads in different states. Its next target is going to be Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh," Kumar told PTI.
On whether the Congress' existential crisis has become graver with the AAP's Punjab triumph, he answered in the affirmative and said that if the Kejriwal-led party will make inroads at the cost of the Congress then it is the Congress which needs to be worried about.
Using medical analogy to describe the state of the Congress, Kumar said, "If there is a fracture in the arm one goes to an orthopaedic, if there is some other ailment, you go to a specific doctor but if the patient is very critical, he is in ICU he is attended by all kinds of expert doctors. The Congress seems to be in ICU now."
"It is not as if its arm or leg got fractured which needs to be attended to or something quickly can be done to revive the party. Congress is in ICU and it needs to do a lot of things. No one shortcut can help the Congress revival in the country," he said.
Rasheed Kidwai, the author of 24, Akbar Road and Sonia: A Biography, said the AAP's rise is a 'real threat' to the Congress' position in the opposition camp.
"How big is the threat varies from state to state. For instance, if AAP is not able to make much inroads in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, still the presence of a third party will provide a platform to all the disgruntled Congress leaders," he said.
The Congress' existential crisis is compounded by the AAP emerging as an option for the opposition camp, Kidwai said.
A non-Congress leader from the opposition camp, on condition of anonymity, said the Congress needs to realise that either it strengthens itself as an organisation to have that place in the opposition or it will have to standby and support those parties which have that capacity to be able to pull off an election.
"For example in Goa they did not align with others and went alone which hampered opposition unity and the votes got divided," the leader said.
The calls for change and action have also been raised from within the Congress camp.
'All of us who believe in @INCIndia are hurting from the results of the recent assembly elections. It is time to reaffirm the idea of India that the Congress has stood for and the positive agenda it offers the nation...And to reform our organisational leadership in a manner that will reignite those ideas and inspire the people,' senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said after the latest election debacle of the Congress.
'One thing is clear -- Change is unavoidable if we need to succeed,' the MP from Thiruvananthapuram said in a tweet.