The Congress party's poor show in crucial state elections has taken the sheen off party general secretary Rahul Gandhi and stunned its top leadership, who had hoped for a much better result.
The expression on party worker Prashant Kumar's face said it all. Glued to the television screen at the Congress party headquarters, his moods swung wildly from hope to despair within thirty minutes as television screens flashed trends of results in the five states.
A huge blow for Rahul
When it became more or less certain that the party was trailing far behind in crucial Uttar Pradesh (UP), India's most populous and politically significant state, he walked off dejected.
"I can't believe this. This is a bitter blow to Rahul Gandhi who had staked his political future. He held 200-plus election rallies in the state. How could this happen?" Kumar said incredulously.
The most embarrassing news came from Rae Bareli, Congress president Sonia Gandhi's parliamentary constituency where all its five candidates lost. Rahul's sister Priyanka Vadra was in charge of the campaign in both Rae Bareli and neighboring Amethi.
But there was more gloom for the party as results started pouring in thick and fast from the other states. The Congress was also stunned that it was unable to dislodge the Akali Dal- Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance in Punjab that bucked an anti-incumbency trend to sweep the polls.
The party was ousted from power in the tourist getaway of Goa, and locked in a neck to neck fight to overthrow the BJP from the hilly state of Uttarkhand. The only solace came from the tiny north-eastern state of Manipur, where the Congress was set to sweep and retain power.
"We are very surprised, we are shocked. This calls for very serious reflection and introspection on what went wrong," Congress leader and Minister of State for Science and Technology Ashwani Kumar told Deutsche Welle, disappointment writ large on his face.
"The UP results are deeply disappointing," admitted Law Minister Salman Khurshid.
In contrast, wild celebrations broke out in the Samajwadi Party (SP) headquarters in Lucknow, UP's state capital, where party enthusiasts ushered in the spring festival Holi earlier than usual.
The regional party, as exit polls predicted, turned out to be the giant killer dealing a stunning defeat to incumbent Mayawati, whose Bahujan Samaj Party faired poorly in the elections. Her party managed just to corner over 80 of the 403 seats, leaving the SP triumphant with an astonishing mandate.
"This is a victory for the people who saw through the corrupt practices of Mayawati. We will bring in good governance and improve the law and order situation in the state," said a triumphant Akhilesh Yadav, the face of the SP in the elections.
An indicator of government's popularity
The election results were widely seen as a yardstick of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's popularity and his government's polices mid-way through his second stint in office. It was also a litmus test for Rahul Gandhi, the next in line in the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, if he takes over the leadership mantle in the next national elections in 2014.
"Clearly, Rahul Gandhi's strategy has backfired badly. His election campaign, where he gave it all, has clearly not cut much ice with the Uttar Pradesh electorate. Will he be able to revive the party's fortunes? I doubt it," political analyst Anil Malhotra told Deutsche Welle.
A forlorn Gandhi who made an appearance once the results were announced owned responsibility for the party's dismal performance. He termed it a "very good lesson" for him.
"The Congress party's fundamentals were weak. Until we set that right, that weakness will not go away. I own the responsibility for this...This is one of my defeats and I take it in stride," he said.
While the results have undoubtedly upset the party leadership, it could spark another round of trouble for Prime Minister Singh's coalition government who now faces a crucial budget session in parliament next week.
Analysts feel that a weakened government, facing a barrage of corruption scandals, would find it hard to push key reforms and legislation, especially with a rejuvenated opposition breathing down hard.
Author: Murali Krishnan
Editor: Sarah Berning