What went right for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the recently-concluded Uttar Pradesh legislative Assembly elections has been widely discussed and analysed by now. But, what exactly went wrong for the Congress party in the politically crucial state of UP?
UP is India's largest and most populous state, and it sends 80 members to the 543-member lower house of the Parliament, the Lok Sabha. It is rightly acknowledged as the country's most significant state politically. A victory or defeat here can make or break political fortunes.
Sonia Gandhi, who has been the president of the Congress party for 18 years, is back in Delhi. She is believed to be unwell. Her son and Congress Vice President, Rahul Gandhi, the party's face for UP elections, is also back in Delhi. The Congress hasn't offered any reason for its poor showing officially and it is unlikely to do so.
Eight months before the elections, I asked a former Congress union minister if the party was gearing up for the UP battle. "We [the Congress] are in the process of waking up," he replied sarcastically.
The tie-up with the UP's ruling Samajwadi Party and its youthful chief minister, Akhilesh Yadav, was supposed to be Congress' silver bullet.
After the alliance was officially announced, a senior Congress leader told me, "If Bihar results are an indication then we should now have some hope." In the Bihar Assembly elections of 2015, a tie-up between unlikely political bed-fellows Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav — both of whom, incidentally, came of age and grew in stature in the 1970s and 80s on an anti-Congress plank — with the Congress playing the catalyst, managed to defeat the BJP.
According to another senior Congress leader, things were going fine until Rahul Gandhi's Kisan Yatra of September 2016, as part of which he travelled through rural UP trying to connect with farmers. "But suddenly doubts started appearing," he said. Sonia Gandhi was never very visible in the campaign, most likely because of ill health. "There were too many potholes that we never anticipated," said a Congress candidate in UP who didn't want to be named.
After the party's disastrous showing — Congress won just seven of the 114 seats it contested — there have been internal rumblings. Trying to explain the poor results, the same Congress leader said, "We started late." There were only a handful of political rallies where Rahul and Akhilesh appeared together. "We couldn't leverage it," another senior leader explained.
Another senior Congressman attributed the debacle to poor planning and execution. "Much of our planning fell through the cracks, much of what was decided at the highest level wasn't quite implemented on the ground," he told me. "And, none was has held responsible either."
So, was there a deliberate oversight of the party 'High Command's' directives?
"Some won't be as important today if the party were to do well," was one cryptic response. "Some BJP leaders, now redundant, would continue to be important in the BJP had PM Modi not won the 2014 Lok Sabha elections." he added by way of explanation.
Others, including some Congress candidates who lost by small a margin, believed that they were always fighting a losing battle.
But what led to the debacle?
India's grand old party is still looking for answers. According to veteran UP politician and former Congress MP, Shahid Siddique, the party is missing the woods for the trees. "UP has produced the maximum number of prime ministers for the Congress," he told me. "And, the Congress didn't allow regional leaders to come up. Now, it doesn't even have workers to man polling booths."
The tie-up with the Congress weakened Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav's image too. Voters thought he was fighting for clean politics, so his alignment with the Congress was seen as a compromise. As Siddique pointed out, the Congress on the other hand believed that it was Akhilesh's duty to pull them through.
It ended badly for both.
There is no dearth of post-poll analyses, no shortage of explanations of what went wrong. But is anyone really paying attention in the Congress?