NEW DELHI: The Congress ended a long spell of electoral setbacks, wresting major Hindi heartland states Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan from the BJP in 2018, which saw a more aggressive Rahul Gandhi, be it on social media or in Parliament.
Reeling under election losses until a while ago, the Congress regained some control at the hustings forming a government with the JD(S) in Karnataka and winning some important parliamentary by-elections.
The most significant Lok Sabha bye-poll win for the Congress-JD(S) combine in 2018 came in Bellary, a BJP stronghold for years. The victory marked happy tidings for the Congress which under its president Rahul Gandhi aggressively advocated state-level coalitions to keep the BJP at bay by preventing the division of non-BJP votes.
The year also saw Gandhi come into his own as a leader, as he completed one year in the post of Congress president and made his place in the larger and crowded grouping of opposition titans.
Putting the question of prime ministerial candidate of a potential non-BJP coalition aside, Gandhi told his non-NDA partners publicly and privately that defeating the BJP in 2019 was the bigger goal than worrying over who the prime minister of the anti-BJP alliance would be.
"We all agree that defeating the BJP is the bigger goal. This is a fight between two ideologies, the BJP-RSS ideology which wants to impose a uniform idea of India and the Gandhian ideology which celebrates India's diversity and pluralism," Gandhi said throughout the year gone by at various platforms, inviting opposition leaders to work with the Congress in the 2019 parliamentary election.
Gandhi also adopted an aggressive stance during the year, taking on the BJP and the RSS.
His direct attacks on Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a host of issues, including the alleged corruption in Rafale jets purchase, economic policies as evidenced in GST implementation and demonetisation and agrarian distress, also made him the principal challenger to Modi going into the next general election.
Under Gandhi, the Congress also aggressively hunted down the ruling BJP across social media spaces with controversial slogans such as 'chowkidaar chor hai' trending, bringing the Congress both bouquets and brickbats, as the focus shifted to the level of political discourse in Indian politics.
That did not deter Gandhi from attacking the prime minister, or fluster the Congress social media team which worked overtime to capture political narratives on Twitter and other platforms, in attempts to boost the party's communications which were its Achilles Heel in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
"Rahul Gandhi seems to be coming of age and peaking at the right time. He displayed political maturity by trusting the old guard in chief ministerial positions in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, keeping in view the challenge of 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
"And, even while he named veterans as chief ministers, he placated the younger leadership and ensured unity in all three states, while taking the crucial leadership decisions. That is the sign of a sagacious leader," said a senior party leader.
Another leader described this as "a sign of democratic functioning in the Congress party, which will do the party some good".
The year also saw the resurgence of the concept of opposition unity to upstage a strong rival at the Centre, something the country saw when the Janata Party defeated Indira Gandhi in 1977.
The Congress under Rahul Gandhi lent steam to this idea throughout the year gone by, managing to assemble 22 opposition parties in a show of strength this November ahead of the winter session of Parliament.
The meeting was important for two reasons it saw Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party and former NDA ally TDP join the anti-BJP group for the first time; it saw opposition stalwarts flanking Rahul Gandhi as he addressed the press on all their behalf.
Among sore points for the Congress this year was its exit from the northeastern electoral landscape as the party was defeated by the Mizo National Front (MNF) in Mizoram, losing its last bastion in the strategically critical area.
Secondly, the Congress failed to strike workable alliances with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party despite efforts in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, and could not get the two parties to join the last meeting of opposition bigwigs held on the eve of Parliament's winter session.
An opposition leader, however, said Gandhi is expected to display "a more giving" stance in keeping the opposition parties united.
Despite gloomy signals from the end of BSP chief Mayawati and SP chief Akhilesh Yadav, the Congress refused to give up hope of a larger opposition coalition with these two major Uttar Pradesh parties on board.