UP: Even more than the assembly results, especially in Uttar Pradesh, being a disaster for the Congress, it represents a personal setback for Rahul Gandhi, who had invested so much political capital in the outcome by campaigning intensively.
In fact, it is also a body blow to the dynasty since Priyanka Vadra-Gandhi had emerged out of her seclusion to join Congress president Sonia Gandhi to boost the party's electoral prospects.
Considering how Rahul had similarly drawn a blank in the 2010 Bihar elections, it may not be too far-fetched to suggest that the fabled charisma of the dynasty is no longer effective. The negative impact of the results on the party's avowed objective of grooming Rahul for the prime ministerial post in 2014 is also obvious.
Arguably, what went wrong for the Congress were its too-clever-by-half policies of playing the caste card when the party's traditional image and, indeed, its inestimable heritage has been its all-inclusive character which makes no distinctions between caste and community.
Yet, it tried to wean some of the non-Yadav groups among the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) - known as the Most Backward Castes (MBCs) - away from the Samajwadi Party, and the anti-Dalits, or the non-Jatav group of Dalits, from the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). Needless to say, the Yadavs constitute the Samajwadi Party's core base of support, and the Jatavs or Chamars of the BSP.
Along with its caste card, the Congress also tried to play the minority card by promising 4.5 percent quota for the OBC Muslims within the overall 27 percent OBC quota and defying the Election Commission in the process with one union minister even urging the commission to hang him if he was not allowed to speak in favour of the underprivileged.
There were also uncalled for, veiled suggestions of an imposition of President's rule if there was a hung assembly, recalling the days when such rule was the stick which the centre routinely wielded against non-Congress governments.
But, neither this threat nor the other tricks worked. The MBCs and the anti-Dalits were not impressed. The sops for them were seen as mere campaign rhetoric.
Even Rahul's theatrical act of tearing up a rival party's manifesto did not create a ripple. If the Congress has to learn any lesson from the reverses, it is that the party must adhere to its core values - secularism instead of minority appeasement, and a non-casteist approach which shuns sectarianism.
It also has to act in a more dignified manner and show respect to autonomous institutions. And, if its national-level leaders are to make an impact in the states, the government at the centre has to demonstrate a greater sense of purpose and not give an impression of policy paralysis.
Just as the voters saw through the Congress' opportunistic manoeuvres of trying to erode the support bases of other parties and treating the minorities as purchasable commodities, the electorate was also clear-sighted enough to realise that Mayawati's grandiose projects of building statues of herself and other Dalit icons, as well elephantine monuments to its election symbol, were not the answer to Uttar Pradesh's manifold problems.
What the voters yearned for was not a sentimental, even cynical, appeal to Dalit 'asmita' or pride, but potable drinking water in the villages, schools with teachers and hospitals with doctors in attendance, and roads which did not turn into muddy stretches during the rainy season.
Instead, what they saw was the state sinking into corruption, which led to six murders in connection with the rural health mission scam, and the chief minister being described as 'daulat ki beti' (daughter of wealth) and not Dalit ki beti (daughter of a Dalit), as before.
By the time, Mayawati realized how recklessly she had squandered the massive goodwill she had acquired by cobbling together her rainbow, Dalit-Brahmin coalition in 2007, it was too late. Even the sacking of more the 20 ministers did not help, for it confirmed the extent of the prevailing corruption.
As the voters lost faith in Mayawati, they were willing to accept at face value the assurances of the Samajwadi Party, and especially those of its personable young leader, Akhilesh Yadav, that the party's focus will be on the preservation of law and order and empowerment of the youth and the deprived.
The pledge was needed because it lost in 2007 because of its reputation of being hand-in-glove with anti-social elements.
As a major regional party, the Samajwadi Party could not but be the beneficiary of the electorate's disenchantment with the BSP, but the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has also managed to edge past the Congress to get to the third spot, although it was not seen as a serious player.
If there is a single message from the voter, it is that in the post-liberalisation days, it is governance which matters, and not tinkering with castes and communities.