Down But Not Out
Although the Congress has been thumped in the elections, it would be premature, and even reckless, to write it off.
Does the belief that the Gandhis are the glue which keeps the Indian National Congress together still hold good?
India's 2014 general elections were historic and the result was far from any expectation. The oldest political party of the country, the Indian National Congress, came out traumatized after facing an unprecedented debacle. As one party leader said, "Everyone is shocked. Our internal survey had predicted some 110 seats – but it's a complete rout." Never in its long history did the Cong suffer a defeat of such magnitude. With only 44 seats in a house of 543, it was not even in a position to assume the role of the leader of the opposition.
A debate is raging about the Congress’ future. According to doomsayers, the last elections were the party's swan song. Many believe that it must shed the dynastic hold of the Gandhi-Nehru family and infuse
new blood. Others counter this line of argument by invoking the famous German proverb: "Aufgeschoben ist nicht aufgehoben,” which means postponed is not abandoned or, in simpler words, down is not out.
To support their case, they point out that the Congress has also been down before – in 1977 – when it was drubbed at the polls after Indira Gandhi enforced emergency rule, and also in 2004, when a BJP-led government swept into power for the first time. On both occasions, the party recovered to win the next national elections. Therefore, it would be premature and even reckless to write it off.
What went wrong is the question on everybody's mind both within the party and outside. The insiders are in an introspective, soul-searching mode. The outsiders seek clues as an academic exercise.
In the first reaction to the defeat, both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi accepted responsibility and offered to resign. But the Congress Working Committee would have none of it. Jawaharlal Nehru set the newly independent nation on a stable course. His daughter Indira and his grandson Rajiv sacrificed their lives while serving the country. Their services and sacrifices are too precious to be forgotten. Moreover, like the once popular slogan ‘Indira is India’, the Congress is Nehru-Gandhi. In fact, most observers are of the view that the Gandhis act as the glue which keeps the party together. Therefore, a statement released by the committee said, “We failed to read the profound challenges that had taken place in the country during the 10 years” (when the party had been in power).
Questions are asked within the Congress about how Rahul, the party's youth icon and vice president, led the campaign. Rahul Gandhi started his national campaign quite late, almost four months after Modi had set into the role. Modi exploited the people's discontent and anger over price rises, unemployment and corruption. Rahul had nothing to counter these charges effectively.
Moreover, Rahul had little to show for achievement in governance as he had not taken any position in the government despite repeated requests by the party. Modi, on the other hand, had solid credentials and built his campaign around the Gujarat model of development that he had led as the state's chief minister for fourteen consecutive years since 2001. In fact, he had been chief minister for far longer (14 years) than Rahul has been in politics (10 years).
Rahul Gandhi addressed over 160 rallies during the election campaign. By contrast, Modi – about 20 years senior – addressed three times that number. Older Modi also made the fullest use of the latest communication gadgets like Twitter to reach out to a wider mass of people, while younger Rahul stuck to the old, primitive methods of mass contact.
Among the reasons offered by analysts for the Congress’ debacle one was Sonia Gandhi's decision to take a backseat in this election in favor of her son. It did immense damage to the party. Even at her age, she is said to be far more energetic and has greater organizational capabilities than Rahul.
Another reason was the failure of Brand Rahul as he did not display the requisite qualities needed to lead the party or connect with the electorate. Even after 10 years in politics, his communication skills remain poor.
Three, the Congress ran a flawed election campaign. The BJP's simple slogan 'Ab ki Baar, Modi Sarkar' got home immediately with the public. In contrast, the Congress’ message 'Har haath shakti, Har haath tarakki' was too heavy to make an impact.
The weak state leadership also contributed to the Congress party's defeat, because its local leaders enjoy little or no autonomy. A Congress chief minister, for instance, cannot make any changes in his cabinet before prior clearance from the party leadership in Delhi. In contrast, in the BJP, local leaders have full autonomy in the states and have, therefore, performed much better.
The incumbency factor also mattered. The Congress-led UPA government had been in power for ten long years. Tired of seeing the old team, people wanted to see new faces.
And finally, as a coup de grace, the Congress was dogged by unprecedented corruption scandals, including the auction of the 3G spectrum and the Commonwealth Games.
Yet, as hope springs in the human breast, one party loyalist observed, "People have written our obituary before. In five years they will be disillusioned by Mr. Modi and will come back to us."
As workers ponder over how to resuscitate the party, various scenarios are being examined. One of them, which is favored by the younger group of party officials, is to bring in Rahul's sister, Priyanka into the field. According to an analyst, "Ninety-nine percent of the Congress members believe that she is the answer. She is touted as the Brahmastra – the ultimate weapon."
She is the very image of her grandmother – charismatic and able to pull crowds because people identify with her. This was apparent from the few appearances she made in the campaign trail.
Though her real-estate czar husband Robert Vadra draws flak for (unsubstantiated) allegations of shady land deals, all this is part of the game and it does not rub on Priyanka's reputation.
But Priyanka is careful. She is determined to avoid a family feud in case her brother is sidelined to make place for her. If this is to happen, it must happen peacefully, with Rahul voluntarily abdicating in her favor.
That is why she recently issued a statement to squash the rumors: “The constant conjecture about my assuming various posts in the Congress and the manner in which this issue is brought up at opportune moments is incorrect. I would be very grateful to all concerned if they desisted from encouraging such baseless rumors.”
However, the next elections are far away. There is a long way to go. Five years is ample time for the Congress to get back into full gear. Waiting for Modi to commit mistakes to build on them will not do. The party will have to demonstrate its capability to lead and provide answers to popular aspirations.