Congress debacle raises questions about Rahul Gandhi's leadership
The Congress Friday touched its lowest ever tally in a general election raising questions about Rahul Gandhi's leadership abilities, the fading charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family and its future role in Indian politics.
The party has a tough road ahead with many of its biggies biting the dust and its strongholds under siege.
The results of the Lok Sabha elections came as a rude shock to the party as it was poised not to cross even the 50 seat mark. The defeat came at the hands of Narendra Modi, the leader most unpalatable to the Congress leadership.
The Congress tally is likely to be less than a fourth of the seats it won in the 2009 general elections. It could not open its account in some states and was unlikely to reach the double digit mark in any state.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi, who briefly spoke to the media as the results poured in, said they took responsibility for the party's defeat. They, however, did not indicate a roadmap for the future.
Rahul Gandhi, 43, who led the Congress campaign, managed to win his own seat of Amethi but with a considerably reduced margin compared to the 2009 elections.
Rahul Gandhi was up against rivals considered lightweight and could manage to salvage his seat, considered a family pocket borough, partly due to the efforts of his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra who campaigned there vigorously especially towards the fag end of the campaign.
But Congress leaders sought to firewall Rahul Gandhi, saying that they were collectively responsible for the results. They, however, said there would be introspection over the results as "too much was at stake."
Rahul Gandhi started his national campaign late, almost four months after Modi had set into the role following his annointment as the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate in September last year.
Modi tapped into people's discontent and anger over price rise, corruption, unemployment and a sense among the middle classes that India had wasted its opportunities during 10 years of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance rule.
Though Rahul Gandhi sought to paint Modi as "divisive" and dictatorial and talked endlessly of the UPA government's welfare initiatives, his strategy did not succeed.
Rahul had little to show by way of achievement in governance as he had not taken a role in government despite repeated invitations. Modi, on the other hand, built his campaign around the Gujarat model of development, having led the state as chief minister from 2001.
Modi raised hopes of a bright, promising future among the people, basing his promises on the work he had done in Gujarat.
The Congress made a strategic move not to declare Rahul Gandhi as prime ministerial candidate but that did not prevent a "presidential type" contest between him and Modi in the age of television. Modi got much more television space than Rahul due to his oratory.
Unlike Modi, who used technology and social media to bolster his campaign, Rahul Gandhi appeared not to have brought any innovation to his campaign. The Congress scion is not on twitter, a social media popular among the youth.
Gandhi has been slammed by his critics for being a reluctant politician, a leader who goes into virtual hibernation after phases of political activism and does not follow through on the issues he raises. His not being present at the farewell dinner his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi hosted for outgoing prime minister Manmohan Singh earlier this week was widely noticed in the media.
Congress leaders said Rahul Gandhi addressed over 160 rallies during the Lok Sabha campaign, a third of the number Modi addressed. Sonia Gandhi also addressed public meetings across states. Priyanka Gandhi campaigned extensively in Amethi and Rae Bareli.
Voices are likely to be raised in the coming days in the Congress for a bigger role for Priyanka Gandhi, considered more charismatic than Rahul, but the party has no clear roadmap ahead. There would also be demands for Sonia Gandhi to again play a more hands-on role in the party.
Congress will face elections in party-ruled Haryana and Maharashtra in the coming months and has little time to put its act together.
Among Congress leaders who lost the election were Kapil Sibal, Salman Khurshid, Ajay Maken, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Pawan Kumar Bansal and Ambika Soni.
Congress general secretary Shakeel Ahmed said that there have been demands from different parts of the country for Priyanka Gandhi to expand her role beyond Amethi and Rae Bareli but it was for her to take a decision.
He also said that Rahul Gandhi "will remain our leader" and there would be no change in the hierarchy in the Congress.
Ahmed said that responsibility for success or failure "was collective."
"He (Rahul Gandhi) worked very hard. There were other factors (for defeat)," Ahmed told IANS.
He said that the party failed to effectively communicate the achievements of the UPA government and rebut opposition criticism of its alleged failures.
Former union minister Ashwani Kumar, MP, said the party will "go in for very serious introspection" as the results had "jolted us" and "were a wake up call."
"Responsibility will have to be fixed," Kumar said.
He admitted that Modi ran a very successful campaign and "succeeded in selling hope for a better future."
"We have to examine and (there is) no doubt Congress leadership will do so. Too much is at stake," he said and added that there was a threat of unipolarity in the country's politics.
Asked about the role of Rahul Gandhi, Kumar said "he is today our leader of the future."
Meanwhile, the BJP and its allies said that the results were also a rejection of "dynastic politics" of the Congress.
"The people of India have put the last nail in the coffin of royalty of the Congress party," Shiromani Akali Dal MP Naresh Gujral said.
(Prashant Sood can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 16-05-2014)