In 2014, after Congress slumped to its worst ever performance in the Lok Sabha polls winning 44 seats, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi told the media, “There’s a lot for us to think about, and, as vice president of the party, I hold myself responsible.”
Five years on, the Congress has suffered yet another defeat at the hands of the ruling BJP this time winning just 52 seats. Congress President Rahul again took “100 per cent responsibility”.
Merely owning up responsibility means nothing. This time people not only rejected Rahul Gandhi but also the top echelons of the party such as former chief ministers B.S. Hooda and Sushil Kumar Shinde. With every electoral defeat the Congress finds its footprint shrinking in the country. From ruling the Centre and a majority of states, big and small, it has now been pushed into a corner with its governments in only seven states.
The Congress scored zero in 18 states and Union territories in 2019. The Congress Working Committee met on Saturday to discuss the poll debacle. Following the humiliating defeat, some senior Congress Working Committee members are unhappy at the state of affairs in the party. Some have questioned the election strategy and they feel that Rafael and ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ slogans of Rahul did not click.
Some others are concerned about the dominance of Rahul’s coterie, which has no electoral experience. There is despair and apprehension whether Rahul will be able to steer the party in future. But these can only be murmurs. If anybody expects the Congress to dump the Gandhis, it is not likely to happen.
The Congress would rather become a regional party than question the leadership of the Gandhi family. There are no challengers to the family and the party will not find a consensus candidate other than a Gandhi. Who would dare question Rahul when three Gandhis were sitting in the CWC? It could only adopt the philosophical view that you win some elections and lose some.
After all almost all the CWC members are hand-picked and loyalists of the family. This was the first election held under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi. Now the party has lost two successive Lok Sabha polls since 2014. No doubt Rahul worked hard leading the party and after the Congress snatched three states in December 2018 (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chattisgarh) in the Hindi heartland, everyone believed that the party president was in some position to challenge the prime minister.
The party lost because of its lack of vision, lack of effective campaign strategy, proper alliances, poor communication and failure to project itself as the credible alternative. Secondly there is a leadership crisis. Thirdly, state level leaders were not promoted. Fourthly, the party organisation was sadly neglected though the Congress had been in power for ten years from 2004 to 2014.
Fifthly, the Congress is still dreaming of its glorious past and has not come to terms with its present irrelevance. Sixthly, people also resented the dynasty and rejected the dynastic candidates. Seventhly, the party did not come up with a coherent narrative. Eightly, failure to present a clear alternative choice to Modi was important as people vote out the government only when they know who to vote in. People did not see Rahul as the alternative.
Ninthly, the family’s trump card Priyanka Gandhi did not work. Overall, the Congress was not able to match the BJP’s leadership, party organisation, campaign finance, ideological battle and narrative. The only way to defeat the BJP would have been a united opposition giving oneon- one fights. The Congress should address these issues seriously as it faces the challenge not only of re-establishing its electoral dominance, but also of sending a message to cadre that it is not a spent force.
The first priority for the Congress is to lift the sagging morale of workers. For this, it needs a bottom-up approach and leaders should reconnect with the masses. The immediate priority is to restructure and revitalise every state unit even up to the district level. Experienced people should be involved in party decisions. It is time for a brainstorming session like Pachmarhi, and Shimla conclaves. Congress insiders are now talking of the 2022 UP elections and 2024 Lok Sabha polls.
It is good to think ahead but there is a long way to go before that and the Congress could survive only if cadres are built up, down to the booth level, to match the BJP. The Left parties have almost disappeared this time. Will the Congress too vanish?
The Congress party is 132 years old and there is a Congressman in every village even today. There will come a time when the candidates depending on the leader to get them elected would strive to get elected by their own efforts and that is the time the Congress will revive. The Congress is passing through an existential crisis and it has to overcome it.