It's the moment of truth for the Congress. Before the defeats in Punjab and Uttarakhand, the party was on a roll. Various surveys were predicting that its tally of parliamentary seats was on the rise, implying that the upswing in its fortunes, which began with its unexpected success in the 2004 general election, hadn't flagged.
India's high growth rates and the unending stream of plaudits from international financial institutions as well as from the economic and political writers buttressed the party's buoyant mood.
Now, the bubble has burst. And the unspoken thought is doing the rounds about the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) pipping the Congress at the posts in 2009.
Since the Congress is not given much of a chance in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat in the next round of elections, the heady days of 2004 suddenly seem very far away.
What went wrong? The usual post-mortem analyses are there - inflation, incumbency, infighting and the inaccessibility of the so-called 'lal batti' brigade of ministers who swept past the hoi polloi in their limousines with sirens blaring and red lights twirling on top of their cars.
While there is much truth in these explanations for the party's electoral failure, the Congress perhaps needs to look beyond them to more basic reasons. After all, neither inflation nor incumbency stopped the Congress from eating into the Akali Dal's base in the agricultural Malwa region of Punjab, where the impact of the rising prices should have been felt more than in the more affluent urban areas.
And infighting is not something new in the Congress. Yet, it never prevented the party from winning when, say, Indira Gandhi was in charge.
The point is that the Congress has always depended on, first, a charismatic leader to sway the masses and, second, on a tough enforcement of organizational discipline. Arguably, Indira Gandhi could perform both deeds while Rajiv Gandhi had charisma but wasn't a disciplinarian.
The reason for the Congress's latest setbacks probably is that Sonia Gandhi is neither as charismatic as her predecessors from the Nehru-Gandhi family; nor is she as much of a martinet as was her mother-in-law.
As a result, although she has considerable mass appeal, it is still not enough to ensure success, as Indira Gandhi did. And since Sonia Gandhi is not as much of a stickler for discipline, she still lets many of the provincial satraps follow their own, often erroneous, line and only pulls them up later.
This propensity was seen in the Maharashtra civic elections where she did not crack the whip to ensure that the Congress reached a pre-poll agreement with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The result was that both the parties lost to the Shiv Sena-BJP combine, thereby setting in motion the process of poll reverses now seen in Punjab and Uttarakhand.
It is only later that she made her unhappiness known to the Maharashtra Congressmen, just as it is only now that she wanted to know, at the parliamentary party meeting, whether the Congress had put up the best possible candidates or followed the soft option of giving the ticket to the sitting MLAs lest they join the ranks of the rebels, or whether the party had worked unitedly.
And it is only now that the party has suspended a dissenter, Kuldeep Bishnoi, son of former Haryana chief minister Bhajan Lal, for criticizing Sonia Gandhi although Bishnoi had been known to be unhappy with the party for a fairly long time.
What these knee-jerk responses show is that the Congress' organizational structure continues to be rather loose. There is neither efficient supervision at the local level to identify and punish the spoilers, nor is there a strong commanding authority at the centre to root out indiscipline.
Since these deficiencies are unlikely to be made up before the Uttar Pradesh elections, the Congress will undoubtedly have a hard time in making its presence felt. Its sorry state has been further compounded by the curious desire it showed to bring down the Samajwadi Party government after a Supreme Court verdict on defectors among its legislators.
Not only did it revive old memories of the party's penchant for getting rid of non-Congress governments with the help of a pliant governor but it was also a tactical error. Considering that the next government in Uttar Pradesh will also be a coalition, the possible alliances could be either between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party, as in the period just before the elections were called, or between the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP).
But having alienated the Samajwadi Party, the Congress will have to depend even more on BSP's sweet will to have it as a partner. But in case the BSP prefers to go with the BJP, as seems possible, the Congress will be left high and dry-as it will be humiliating for it to approach the Samajwadi Party.
What these developments show is that the Congress is generally unable to work out a plan of action and follows instead a haphazard course. This tendency is also visible in the administrative field where it blunders into a situation and then tries to clear up the mess.
Its latest problems in the Supreme Court on the reservations issue demonstrate this curious style of functioning. Before ordering quotas for the backward castes in the higher educational institutions, the government did not consider whether the 1931 census reports would be a sufficient basis for identifying these castes, as the court has now asked.
This kind of an unthinking initiative was also seen in the government's decision to freeze the controversial Italian businessman Ottavio Ouottrochi's London bank accounts, said to be connected to the payoffs in the Bofors howitzer deal.
Unless the Congress' top leaders become more sure-footed in their words and deeds, there is more trouble for the party in the coming days.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)