With the Congress set to snatch Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh from the BJP and locked in a neck and neck fight with the party in Madhya Pradesh, the challenge from Rahul Gandhi to the Narendra Modi-led government appears more serious than ever before, and is expected to reflect in 2019, say experts.
The gains for the Congress in the Hindi heartland states -- exactly a year after Gandhi took charge of the grand old party -- assume significance through the party suffered a severe drubbing in Telangana and Mizoram.
The BJP has been in power in the politically crucial states of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, which played a key role in the saffron party's spectacular performance in the 2014 polls. The three states have a total of 65 Lok Sabha seats out of which BJP won 62.
A good leader must understand the aspirations of people and Gandhi has been learning from his past mistakes, said political analyst Sushila Ramaswamy
"It was not that Rahul Gandhi was not prepared before. A good leader must be connected to the people and know what their aspirations are," Ramaswamy, who teaches at Delhi University's Jesus and Mary College, told PTI.
The result of the elections in the three states is likely to help the Congress re-energise party workers, who have been demoralised by a string of electoral defeats in a number of states, including Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Assam.
It was the first major electoral fight for Gandhi after he took the reins of the Congress on December 11 last year, and the results are expected to help it take a central role in the "mahagathbandhan" (grand alliance) of opposition parties to take on the Modi-led NDA in 2019.
The outcome is also seen as a validation of Gandhi's leadership as he was mocked regularly by the BJP following a string of electoral defeats since the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.
"It is a good performance by Rahul Gandhi but it is not a decisive performance. He could have done better in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. The election results will give a boost to opposition's preparations for 2019 polls," said Manisha Priyam of the Centre for Advocacy and Research.
According to the political analyst, Gandhi's success as a leader in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls will depend on how he takes along other opposition parties in forming a formidable alliance to take on Modi.
"He has taken Modi head on and has been successful in touching base with rural India," Priyam said.
The Congress was leading in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and appeared to be able to form government on its own in the two states. Madhya Pradesh was witnessing a neck and neck fight with the Congress marginally ahead of the BJP.
K Chandrasekhara Rao's Telangana Rashtra Samiti will retain power in Telangana while the Mizo National Front was poised to appearing to wrest power from the Congress in Mizoram.
In Priyam's view, the results in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have punctured the myth that the Modi-Amit Shah combination was invincible.
Ramaswamy added that Gandhi's real test will be the Lok Sabha polls, asserting that the credit for victory should also go to state leaders of the Congress.
Elections to the five states were seen as a semifinal before the mega parliamentary polls next year. Close to 20 opposition parties are holding talks to form a grand alliance to throw a serious challenge to Modi in upcoming mega fight.
"The semifinal proves that BJP is nowhere in all the states. This is a real democratic indication of the 2019 final match. Ultimately, people are always the man of the match' of democracy," said West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee as trends showed that BJP was looking at serious reversals in the polls.