“It’s true we have lost the elections today but the morale of our workers is not down… I would say it is a respectable loss,” Congress functionary Madhu Goud Yashki said on Monday, summing up the mood in the party after its defeat in the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly polls.

The Congress won 77 seats in the 182-member Gujarat Assembly while the Bharatiya Janata Party retained power with 99 seats. In Himachal Pradesh, the BJP won 44 seats in the the 68-strong House to nudge out the Congress, which managed 20 seats.

Unexpectedly, the Gujarat verdict did not lead to the usual rumblings in the Congress about its new president Rahul Gandhi’s capabilities. When the Congress suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls and then went on to lose a string of state elections, the losses were invariably put down to Rahul Gandhi’s lack of public connect, poor leadership and oratorical skills. But after Monday’s verdict, the usual despondency that descends after every defeat has given way to hope that the new Congress president can lead from the front and that the BJP duo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah are not as invincible as they appeared to be three years ago.

‘Moral victory’

There was a discernible shift in the mood of the Congress rank and file after the Gujarat verdict. Despite the party’s failure to dislodge the BJP government, the cadre were not pessimistic about the future or Rahul Gandhi. While admitting that he still has some way to go, party members said Rahul Gandhi has emerged as a leader in his own right.

“Agreed, we did not succeed in uprooting the banyan tree but we have certainly given it a good shake,” Congress general secretary CP Joshi said. “Rahul Gandhi has managed to do that… he has arrived.”

Congress leaders pointed to the fact that Rahul Gandhi had fought the battle in Gujarat single-handedly and managed to get under the BJP’s skin. His focused campaign forced the prime minister to address 40 rallies and Shah to camp in Gujarat for over two months in the run-up to the elections, they said. A worried Shah also deployed a battery of Central ministers and chief ministers in the Gujarat campaign, which had promised to be a cakewalk for the BJP till just three months ago but had suddenly heated up with the Congress emerging as a serious challenger.

And for a change, the Congress actually came close to beating the BJP. “It is, at best, a technical win for the BJP but the Congress has won a moral victory,” said former Union minister Kishore Chandra Deo. He, too, said Rahul Gandhi had won the day with his dignified campaign, his focus on people-centric issues and his determination to steer clear of the BJP’s communal rhetoric.

Needed: Strong leaders, organisation

But, at the same time, Monday’s verdict holds important lessons for the Congress. Rahul Gandhi’s inability to breach the BJP fortress means he can only go so far in galvanising the voter – the party must have credible state leaders to supplement the party chief’s campaign and a well-oiled organisation to ensure voters reach the polling booths on poll day.

The Congress in Gujarat, like in most states, is handicapped on both fronts. Rahul Gandhi had to turn to the troika of Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani – leaders of the Patidar, Other Backward Classes, and Dalit communities – to tap into people’s anger against the BJP government. The party’s own leaders, such as Shaktisinh Gohil, Siddharth Patel and Arjun Modvadia, do not inspire confidence among the voters. All three lost their seats on Monday.

Top Opposition leader

Another fallout of the Gujarat verdict is that while it has undoubtedly strengthened Rahul Gandhi’s position in the Congress, it has also helped him emerge as the lead occupant of the Opposition space. Till six months ago, Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (United) leader Nitish Kumar was seen as the obvious choice for this position and there was all-round acceptance that Rahul Gandhi did not have it in him to lead the combined Opposition.

But Nitish Kumar’s defection to the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in July and Rahul Gandhi’s performance in the Gujarat campaign has led the other Opposition parties to look at him in a fresh light. As president of the main Opposition party and with no other contenders, Rahul Gandhi will increasingly be seen as the prime ministerial candidate of a proposed anti-BJP front of Opposition parties. The presence of all the major Opposition parties – the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Rashtriya Janata Dal, Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Samajwadi Party, Trinamool Congress and the National Conference – at a dinner hosted by Rahul Gandhi over the weekend suggested that these parties have accepted that they will now have to do business with the new Congress president.

Rahul Gandhi may have made a mark in Gujarat but he has many more challenges ahead, beginning with next year’s Assembly election in Karnataka, to be followed by polls in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. There is no doubt that encouraged by its improved tally in Gujarat, the Congress will go into the next election with greater vigour and enthusiasm. But it cannot overlook the fact that it is fighting anti-incumbency in the southern state. Besides defending the state government’s record, the Congress will also have to fend off the BJP’s attempts to communalise the election, as it did in Gujarat.