The Congress now rules only three states on its own, two of which are in the South (Representational)
The election results to the four states in which Congress lost its governments in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and failed to dislodge the BJP government from Madhya Pradesh came as a huge disappointment to the party leaders, with the party now out of power in a vast swathe of the Hindi heartland.
The victory in Telangana came as a big solace for the party, as it consolidated its position in southern India for the big battle in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls which is only months away.
The loss in three states as well as its victory in Telangana has several lessons for Congress, with the party now more susceptible to pressure from other parties during any seat-sharing talks among INDIA block members.
The results in four assembly polls have also exposed Congress' vulnerabilities in a direct contest with BJP. The Congress had wrested Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka from the BJP earlier this year and was hoping to do the same in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
Party leaders anticipated some difficulties in Rajasthan due to internal wranglings in the past and the state's almost three-decade tradition of not voting back the incumbent government.
But while the party did not face a rout in Rajasthan largely due to last-minute welfare schemes of Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, its much-touted "guarantees" could not stop BJP from a historic mandate in Madhya Pradesh.
Issues raised by Congress include the demand for a caste survey repeatedly raised by party leader Rahul Gandhi did not work with the people.
Kamal Nath, a septuagenarian and a veteran of electoral battles who has won nine Lok Sabha polls, could not energise the voters in Madhya Pradesh. Kamal Nath was the party's face in the polls and the party chief in the state.
In contrast, Congress appointed a young A Revanth Reddy as state chief in Telangana in 2021.
After its victory in the Karnataka polls, the Congress made good use of the anti-incumbency sentiment generated by the BJP against the K Chandrashekar Rao government and party ran a spirited campaign under leadership of Revanth Reddy.
BJP has ruled Madhya Pradesh for 18 of the past 20 years and has now won the big state two-thirds majority. Like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh has turned into a BJP fortress with Congress almost out of ideas to dislodge its rival.
Union Jyotiraditya Scindia, who left the Congress in March 2020 with his "loyalist MLAs" to bring down the 15-month-old Kamal Nath government has also delivered for the BJP.
In Chhattisgarh, the Congress relied heavily on Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel but BJP went hammer and tongs with its allegations of "corruption" against the state government. The BJP also matched the Congress in pre-poll announcements.
Winning back Chhattisgarh would have allowed Congress to highlight "good governance" model but the party has been unable to win back-to-back assembly polls in the past 10 years. The BJP has successfully retained its governments in several states and has repeatedly talked about people's faith in its policies.
With demand for caste census failing to be a draw in assembly polls as also its guarantees, the Congress will have to reimagine its campaign themes for the 2024 battle.
The BJP matched the Congress' announcement of guarantees in the poll-bound states and Prime Minister Narendra Modi also highlighted the schemes of central governments in his rallies such as housing for all.
The Congress now rules only three states on its own in the country, two of which are in the South. It is in power in Himachal Pradesh in northern India. It is also in power in Jharkhand and Bihar as part of ruling alliances in the two states.
The BJP has had an excellent strike rate in the Hindi heartland states in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha polls under PM Modi's leadership and the dismal performance in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh leaves Congress without a powerful satrap to take on the BJP.
With INDIA block parties scheduled to resume their talks, a weakened Congress will also have lesser bargaining position and parties such as Samajwadi Party, Aam Aadmi Party, Shiv Sena (UBT), NCP and Trinamool Congress are likely to press their claims more strongly if seat-sharing talks are held. Samajwadi Party and AAP, who are part of INIDIA block, had fielded candidates for the assembly polls.
For the opposition's ambition to take on the BJP together in the 2024 Lok Sabha polls, much will depend on how the resumed talks progress.
The BJP has been swift in course correction after electoral setbacks and shows flexibility in its electoral tactics.
Unlike Karnataka, where some Lingayat leaders left the party over denial of tickets, the BJP accommodated around 14 leaders in their seventies in ticket distribution.
It gave tickets to Union ministers and senior party leaders in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to send a message of its serious intent to win the polls.
On seats it was weak, BJP declared candidates quite early.
The Congress retains a sizeable vote share in many of the states it has lost polls over the past few elections and the party leaders have talked of rebuilding the party.
The latest assembly results have added to the party's challenges as it prepares for the 2024 battle. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the Congress is the fourth force, together account for 120 Lok Sabha seats.
In his reaction to the results, Congress president Mallikarjun said the Congress fought a spirited campaign in the four states.
"I thank the people of Telangana for the mandate we have received from them. I also thank all those who voted for us in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. Our performance in these three states have no doubt been disappointing, but with determination, we reaffirm our strong resolve to rebuild and revive ourselves in these three states. I acknowledge and appreciate the efforts of lakhs of our workers," he said in a post on X.
Rahul Gandhi said the party accepts the mandate given by people of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and the battle of ideology with BJP will continue.
"I am very thankful to the people of Telangana - we will fulfil the promise of making Prajalu Telangana. Heartfelt thanks to all the workers for their hard work and support," the Wayanad MP posted on X.
Party leader Jairam Ramesh said the Congress has bounced back from defeats earlier too.
"Exactly 20 years ago, the Indian National Congress had lost the state elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, while winning only Delhi. But within a few months, the party bounced back and went on to emerge as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha polls and formed the government at the Centre. It is with hope, confidence and a firm sense of resolve and resilience that the Indian National Congress prepares for the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls. Judega Bharat, Jeetega INDIA!" he posted on X.
In another post, he said the performance of the Indian National Congress in Telangana is a silver lining not just for the party, but also for the people of the state.
"Telangana became the 29th state of the Indian Union entirely because of the Indian National Congress, but the objectives that led to its creation have got lost these last (and lost) nine years. A Congress govt, that will very soon be in place, will give the state a new direction," he said.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)