Fortunes shift very quickly in contemporary politics – or, at the very least, in the art of political headline management. Just a few months ago, it seemed as if the Bharatiya Janata Party was on the back foot despite having won in Gujarat assembly elections. Then, two weeks ago, the BJP pulled off a massive success by bringing down the 25-year-old Left government in Tripura and expanding its presence in the North East. This week, the euphoria of that victory for the saffron party evaporated when a Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combination won the Lok Sabha seats vacated by the BJP’s top two leaders in Uttar Pradesh. But one thread runs through all of these stories: in every case, the Congress lost.

Although the Gujarat results were taken as something of a moral victory for the Congress, they also indicated that despite 15 years of an incumbent government and intense rural distress in the state, the BJP still had enough clout to scrape through. In the North East, the demise of the Left in Tripura may have been the big story, but the disappearance of the Congress almost entirely from that state and Nagaland was equally notable. Even in Meghalaya, where the Congress emerged with the most votes and seats, it was not able to form the government. In Uttar Pradesh, though the Congress seemed to celebrate the victory of the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combine, its own candidates lost their deposits in both bye-polls.

This is the challenge that party president Rahul Gandhi faces, as he sets to oversee the first plenary of his tenure on Saturday. As has been characteristic of his leadership, the event is going to be marked by the disappointment of what could have been: in the days before the plenary, Congress leaders appear to have told news organisations off the record that Gandhi wanted the event to be a “workers’ plenary” but state Congress chiefs were simply not given enough time (or were uninterested) in travelling to Delhi with local party workers to make that a reailty.

Set the narrative

The Congress event will begin with a speech by Gandhi on Saturday, and be followed by a number of panels over the course of two days, which will include official resolutions looking ahead to the 2019 election, and the selection of members of the Congress Working Committee who will steer the party for the coming year.

The central challenge is whether the party knows what it stands for and, if that is decided, how well it can communicate that. As the incumbent government in 2014, one that had been struggling with the unwieldiness of coalition politics and the controversy over various corruption scams, the Congress had no chance of setting the terms of the debate in the run-up to that election. In the first few years, it continued to seem lost in the wilderness, struggling to handle its lack of influence over national politics. In the two state elections that dealt a big blow to the BJP’s image in 2015, Delhi and Bihar, the Congress was a bit player.

It pulled off a victory in Punjab in 2017, but that result was seen more of a reaction against the Shiromani Akali Dal that was part of the ruling coalition than anything to do with the Congress. Besides that, the Congress has mostly had to see its influence shrink, in state after state, as the BJP continued to pursue its goal of creating a “Congress-mukt Bharat” or a Congress-free India. Until Gujarat. There, for the first time since 2014, the Congress seemed to have seized the initiative, signing up local figures like Other Backward Classes leader Alpesh Thakore and allying with others like Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani and Patidar leader Hardik Patel, in the hopes of winning in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state.

Political anchor

Though the Congress was unsuccessful at the polling booth, there was a definite sense that it had managed to win the news cycle and drive the conversation. It manage to provide a voice to the people who had been hurt by the rural distress that has been building across the country and the lack of jobs that had been promised by the BJP in 2014. This was a potential template for it to reproduce all over the country as 2019 approached.

But the results in the North East and Uttar Pradesh delivered different lessons, chief among them being that the Congress no longer dominates the regional parties it once lorded over. A Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party combine would be an electorally powerful alliance that does not need the Congress except potentially as a mediator. Regional leaders like West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik will be more reluctant than ever before to accept the leadership of the Congress, which barely won more seats in the Lok Sabha than they did in 2014.

In the past, former Congress president Sonia Gandhi has managed to act as an anchor, building up an alliance of other parties with her own stuck firmly in the middle steering the ship, a strategy that led to the surprising win in 2004 and a repeat performance in 2009. Whether Rahul Gandhi can repeat this task, with a Congress that is far smaller than it has ever been before, is the central question for the plenary and what follows for the party in the coming year. The Congress can no longer afford to be India’s arrogant default-setting party, the one that people go to when they are tired of trying out someone else. It has to actually convince Indians that there is a reason to vote for it and, before getting there, it has to convince regional parties that its leadership will not hold them back.

The Karnataka elections, due before May, will give some sense of the momentum that the party will carry going into the 2019 General Elections. It will be a direct Congress-BJP fight, the first of four major state elections where that is the case this year, and so has the potential to set the tone for next year’s campaign. But Rahul Gandhi’s task extends beyond his own party’s organisational challenges for state battles. The question will be the one that it managed to answer somewhat in Gujarat and has also managed to do so in Karnataka: In going up against the electoral and rhetorical might of Modi and BJP President Amit Shah, can the Congress communicate what it stands for and set the narrative?