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India's Congress party clueless after defeat

Crushing loss in country's elections has put the dominant role of the Gandhi dynasty within the party under scrutiny.

Last updated: 23 May 2014 08:20
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The polls saw Congress gain a mere 44 seats in the 543-seat parliament - its worst performance ever [AP]

New Delhi – India's Congress party has begun the painful process of soul searching after crashing to its biggest political defeat since its creation 128 years ago.

Influential Congress leaders have gathered in New Delhi to examine the role of campaign leader Rahul Gandhi, and his mother and party president Sonia Gandhi in its recent elections run.

 

Infighting and backroom efforts by party dissidents to unseat Rahul are now becoming apparent following the landslide victory of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by populist leader Narendra Modi.

"Everyone is shocked. Our internal survey had predicted some 110 seats - but it's a complete rout," one party insider privy to the developments, who wished to remain anonymous, told Al Jazeera. "I feel our campaigning lacked punch."

The polls saw Congress party gain a mere 44 seats in the 543-seat parliament - its worst performance ever - and a key issue that has emerged within subsequent party discussions is the role of the Gandhi dynasty in its fortunes.

Both Rahul and Sonia offered to resign but a specially convened party body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), rejected the offer.

Modi, India's prime minister-elect, vowed at campaign rallies to purge the country of Congress and to engineer the political annihilation of the Gandhi family that he derided for their "dynastic politics".

Congress leaders are now putting on a brave face and insist the defeat is a "collective failure" and that the party will return.

"Rahul led it nicely, but overall it was a collective failure," said Shakeel Ahmad, a Congress spokesperson. "We will bounce back."

Youth support

However, many party workers still seem to be standing behind Rahul Gandhi.

In the sweltering summer heat, Naresh Dhanda stood for hours outside the Congress headquarters in New Delhi shouting slogans and waving the orange and white flag of the party’s youth wing.

Youth followers of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi have hinted at more divisions down the line [Baba Umar/ Al Jazeera]

Dhanda, 35, along with dozens of other workers had gathered to back Rahul Gandhi, who along with 38 other top party leaders had assembled for the CWC meeting inside the fortified building.

"Why are they blaming Rahulji for everything? The senior leaders must blame themselves [for the defeat] … and let the party remove dead wood from its core headship," Dhanda said.

"Let the young hold the party reins," he added.

Questions are being asked within Congress about how Rahul, the party's youth icon and vice-president, led the campaign. A party insider criticised the 15-member campaign committee formed prior to polls but which "never met".

"I think most of the battle was fought on media and social media," the insider said. "Congress was very late to utilise its power. Then we failed to sell people our successes. And the BJP succeeded in selling our weaknesses to voters."

Old fissures

However, long-standing internal divisions may have also played a role. The Gandhis have ruled India for all but 13 years since Independence in 1947 and the party has become completely dependent on a family that has produced three prime ministers.

Observers say that when Rahul entered politics in 2004 in the Congress stronghold of Amethi in northern Uttar Pradesh there was a question mark over whether he could change the party.

"He tried to reform Congress but he failed. He did not get the chance to run the party the way he wanted to," said Rasheed Kidwai, a journalist and the author of two books on the party and the Gandhis.

Kidwai said two power bases existed within Congress; an old guard of senior national and state leaders behind Sonia, and a team based around former environment minister Jairam Ramesh, intellectual Mohan Gopal, and other apolitical experts behind Rahul.

"And they [both camps] worked at cross-purposes and that actually cost them dearly in the elections," said Kidwai.

Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi took responsibility for Congress' defeat when results favouring the BJP rolled out [Baba Umar/ Al Jazeera]

"Rahul Gandhi is good at managerial things but not politics," Kidwal said. "He was thinking of himself as a Barack Obama [the US president] but he didn't realise the entire journey of Obama has been very different. You need to have a proven track record."

Sources within the party agree that all the decisions about running the campaign, such as its advertising strategy, were decided by the Rahul Gandhi camp, which lacked organisational experience.

"Now that there is a defeat, there is a blame game," one party source said. "It calls for deep introspection."

Rahul's own declining popularity is exemplary. In a 2010 survey for a popular Indian magazine, he was placed way ahead of Modi. Yet six months before the elections, the same magazine showed a complete reversal of fortunes.

Critics also point to lack of consensus on many potentially popular Congress policies such as tribal rights, forestry, human rights and the environment. "Team Rahul" is believed to have come in the way of more than 100 industrial projects.

Congress' achievements have also come back to bite them - such as passing the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which civil liberties activists and journalists then used to snare the government in multi-billion dollar corruption scandals, enabling the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to damage its credibility.

"If you ask me, Congress lost the plot two and a half years ago when the 2G spectrum and Commonwealth Games corruption scandals surfaced," Javaid Ansari, national affairs editor of the English-language channel Headlines Today, told Al Jazeera.

Ansari, who has covered the party, said the Congress party had lifted 150 million Indians out of poverty "but the party needs to take a hard look at why the message couldn’t get down to the people".

"Congress lives in its own world," he said. "They are in time warp. Look at the BJP, they are everywhere on social media, TV, internet, everywhere."

Congress without the Gandhis?

Inevitably, the crushing defeat and Rahul’s role in it has raised the prospect of a post-Gandhi Congress party, although observers such as Ansari believe this is unlikely.

"I don't visualise a Congress, the way it is structured, without a member of the Gandhi family leading it," he said. "The Gandhis act as a glue which keeps the party together. With them at the helm, the question of leadership is out of the window."

Nonetheless, he admitted that this may not be to the party's ultimate advantage either.

Rahul Gandhi's youth followers have continued to back him [Baba Umar/ Al Jazeera]

"There is no competition for the leadership. That's a weakness too, because other leaders then don’t sprout up," he said.

Observers believe a key challenge facing the Congress party is to create strong regional leaders, like the BJP, as a way of ending its reliance on the Gandhis.

"If you look at the elections, the only leaders who managed to stem the Modi wave were regional leaders like Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Naveen Patnaik in Odisha and Jayalalithaa in [southern state] Tamil Nadu. Congress needs to emulate it," Ansari said.

Kidwai added to that point: "Congressmen will not on their own like to part ways with the Gandhis, it is for the Gandhis to take a call and decide whether they would continue to lead Congress or withdraw."

With age and health not on Sonia's side and anger mounting against Rahul, eyes are now turning within Congress to Rahul's sister, Priyanka Gandhi.

"Ninety nine percent of them [Congress members] believe that she [Priyanka] is the answer. She is touted as the Brahmastra - the ultimate weapon," Ansari said.

"She is a very charismatic, she has got the common touch, and people immediately identify with her."

Kidwai said democracy is all about numbers, "and if numbers are with Priyanka Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi should take a call".

He now expects Sonia to call a meeting of party leaders and give them the democratic choice instead of orchestrating the succession. Off the record, many Congress leaders agree - but prefer to remain tight-lipped in public.

Nonetheless, Rahul's youth followers like Dhanda vow to resist such a move - suggesting more division down the line.

"Priyanka is a family member, no doubt, but we would resist it if she becomes the cause of Rahul stepping down," Dhanda said.

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Al Jazeera
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