NEW DELHI: With exit poll projections painting a bleak picture for the Congress, the grand old party appears set to draw a blank in another election cycle, except in Tamil Nadu, where it could piggy-ride a regional party to victory.
The Congress, however, appears in no position to challenge its rivals in Kerala, Assam, West Bengal and Puducherry, and could face further decimation if the exit poll projections hold on May 2, the result day.
The party says exit polls are only projections and it would wait for the final verdict of the people.
In what could come as a huge blow to former Congress president Rahul Gandhi, the Left Democratic Front (LDF) is projected to retain Kerala, bucking the trend of governments alternating every five years in the southern state.
For the first time in four decades, the ruling alliance, led by the Left, is set to retain power in Kerala, with the Congress's internal factionalism looking to prove costly for the opposition party, according to the exit polls.
Senior leader from the southern state P C Chacko quit the party on the eve of the polls, triggering anxieties and rumblings in its Kerala unit.
The fact that the Congress has the maximum number of Lok Sabha MPs from the southern state, including Gandhi from Wayanad, would make matters worse for the Nehru-Gandhi scion.
Knives would be out for the former Congress chief and his sister and AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra should the party lose the electoral contests in Kerala and Assam, the only states where it was in a position to win.
The exit polls have predicted victories for the incumbent governments in both these states -- the BJP-led dispensation in Assam and the LDF in Kerala -- with the Congress failing to make a mark or win people's confidence.
If the poll results follow the estimated trends, the leadership of the Gandhis would once again come under question in the party, where the "G-23" (Group of 23) leaders, including Ghulam Nabi Azad and Anand Sharma, are waiting to make their next moves.
Considering Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were the principal campaigners for the Congress in both Assam and Kerala, question marks on their performance would be evident.
"Exit polls are always an estimation exercise for laying the groundwork for discussions. The Congress party fought a good election unitedly and we shall await the final verdict of the people," Congress's chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said.
Senior Congress leader Ashwani Kumar agreed that the exit poll projections are disappointing for his party and said, "I hope the actual results are better."
He said in any case, the party needs to revisit its processes and politics to remain relevant as the alternative pillar of national politics.
"Hopefully, the results of such introspection will yield a stronger party," the former law minister said.
It is also important for the Congress to take the lead in bringing the opposition parties together on a single platform, he said.
"In these extraordinary times, when there are no easy answers, the nation is looking for credible, moral and ideological leadership that can translate into reality the national aspiration for a liberal democracy, based on inclusion and justice," Kumar said.
In West Bengal, the Congress is projected to end up a distant fourth, with insiders saying the alliance with the Indian Secular Front (ISF) could have cost it dearly.
One of the G-23 leaders, Sharma, had publicly opposed the Congress's alliance with the ISF, saying a secular party could not strike communal pacts.
Similar alliances of the Congress in Assam and Kerala will also be dissected should the May 2 results disfavour the grand old party.
With Puducherry likely to go the BJP-led alliance's way, the Congress's sole ray of hope would be Tamil Nadu, where the exit polls have predicted a clear victory for the DMK-led coalition.
But that would hardly be any succour to a national party, which would fail to make its independent mark in any state and need to piggy-ride the DMK to secure a lame victory in one state.
The post-election phase in the Congress would be crucial with the debate on leadership set to get revived, especially in light of the January 22 decision of the Congress Working Committee (CWC) that the party "will have a new president by June at any cost".