|Rahul Gandhi at the news conference in New Delhi where he accepted responsibility for the Congressís worst-ever defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. (PTI)
New Delhi, May 16: As Congress leaders licked their wounds, no one shed any tears for them. Party workers across the country had only scorn to pour on them.
That’s the real crisis, revealing the extent of the rot in the once-grand organisation and the enormity of future challenges. Veterans grumbled about chaotic election management by inexperienced leaders; younger elements pointed to debilitating anti-incumbency. But party workers condemned both sides, arguing that they collectively scripted this foreseeable catastrophe.
The entire high command was a target of ridicule. Be it a multi-term MLA from Maharashtra, an office-bearer of the Bihar unit, a former minister in Madhya Pradesh or a budding leader in Delhi — everybody was seething with rage, accusing the party brass of disinterest, bungling and working with narrow self-interest. The vanquished army of the world’s oldest and biggest political party is today unwept, unrespected and unsung.
Unlike the senior leaders who had looked for straws to clutch at till the last moment, dreaming up a third front government to further perpetuate the status quo, several others, including a large number of MPs from the last Lok Sabha, had predicted doom much in advance. They had talked of the looming disaster when Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh muddled along, when scams surfaced and the Anna Hazare-Arvind Kejriwal duo butchered the government’s credibility. They feared worse when Rahul Gandhi took over, describing his leadership as naÔve, directionless and idealistic.
Most senior leaders admitted that Rahul was a reluctant leader. His antagonistic approach towards entrenched forces in the party who ran his mother’s system for years and apparent dislike for the politicised and the seasoned caused much unease at the top. He focused more on changes within the party and systemic reforms instead of trying to renew the lapsed social contract with the people by offering a new vision and promise.
Sonia Gandhi at the news conference where she also accepted responsibility for the defeat. (Reuters)
Despite talking of a new deal by opening up the system, which meant little to the voters except vague idealism, he relied on the old Congress narrative built so carefully over the decades by the same leadership he wanted to replace. This was a narrative of public welfare, handouts and of growth primarily as a weapon to sustain anti-poverty measures.
Rahul used primitive political metaphors and talked of pride and protection, not of aspiration and hope, thus creating confusion about his project. His language showed him as a sensitive man, a well-wisher, a partner-in-grief, not a leader who promised to solve problems and usher in a better tomorrow.
Many leaders had spoken of the defeatist path Rahul had drifted towards by relying on boys and girls boasting classy foreign-university degrees instead of hardcore politicians who could read the pulse of the masses. “Analysing ground realities with ivory-tower perceptions and with feet on the ground are different things.
Rahul needs an experienced adviser who can build his leadership but he feels comfortable with academics, rootless people and sycophants. They are going to destroy his politics,” a Congress veteran had said almost 10 months ago.
He had predicted the worst-ever tally for the party, saying: “Rahul is talking about changing the Congress. He wants to change horse in the middle of the race when Modi is providing the thrills of speed and triumph.”
The Congress committed a series of strategic blunders. First, Sonia withdrew from the scene and even allowed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who represented the UPA regime to disappear, cementing the impression that this government was on its way out. Second, the party initially refused to accept Modi as a challenge, poking fun at him as a poor chief minister who aspired to be prime minister. Spokespersons would laugh away queries with who-is-he disdain. Some leaders, who saw the threat and wanted to confront him, were discouraged by those that headed the party’s communication then.
When Modi successfully constructed a national profile, the Congress assumed a diverse country would not accept a divisive leader, refusing to acknowledge that the Modi cult meant more than communalism. The Congress was blind to Modi cultivating the image of a man of development and decision. It relied on India’s intrinsic politico-cultural instincts of tolerance and secularism more than its own action plan to confront Modi.
When the writing on the wall began to show up as “Abki baar/Modi sarkar” it was panic stations. The party started behaving as if it were lost at sea: the flip-flop on snoopgate was the worst example of bewilderment.
It blamed crony capitalism and big money for playing a role in creating the Modi phenomenon as if it were he who had introduced these evils in Indian polity. Sonia and Rahul adopted a narrative that smelt like self-pity, questioning if one leader could claim to solve all of India’s problems.
Sonia repeatedly asked in her speeches: “Kya Modi ke aane se Bharat rato-raat swarg ban jayega (Will India turn into a heaven overnight if Modi comes?” This was a stunning self-goal, a confession that Modi could do a lot but not turn India into a heaven.
The election management committee was almost disbanded, and the campaign was run by an ad hoc group from Rahul’s residence, not from the designated war room. Party slogans lacked political message, rhythm and couldn’t develop a chemistry with any section of society.
A party that punctured the India Shining balloon with a masterstroke of “Congress kaa haath/aam aadmi ke saath” demonstrated amazing intellectual bankruptcy by delivering a dud, “Har haath shakti/har haath tarakki”.
A party leader said: “If campaign material is examined, the Congress should get 10 marks against the BJP’s 90.” The Congress theme was restricted to inclusive politics, without making any attempt to align with aspirational India.
Although some leaders tried to rationalise the defeat by expressing helplessness before the Modi wave, such alibis were cultivated on the wilder shores of farce as bad strategies turned good states like Karnataka, Punjab, Maharashtra and Assam into disasters. While every single leader has been saying that the Congress would be finished in Maharashtra under Prithviraj Chavan, the leadership looked the other way. In Karnataka, the party demolished its own anti-corruption plank by inducting some disreputable leaders into the cabinet and remained inactive in Punjab when the Aam Aadmi Party was slowly building its blocks.
Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, where Sonia aide Ambika Soni looked comfortable throughout, lost by around 24,000 votes because the AAP candidate pocketed over 300,000 anti-incumbency votes.
Even Manpreet Badal could have pulled off a coup against Parkash Singh Badal’s daughter-in-law Harsimrat Kaur in Bhatinda but he lost by 19,000 votes, again because the AAP offered an alternative and sliced off 87,000 votes.
The story of the party’s incompetence is best manifested in the Chhattisgarh results. While the difference between the Congress and the BJP vote shares was barely 0.75 per cent in the assembly election six months ago, the gap has widened to over 10 per cent in the Lok Sabha polls.
At its worst in 1977 in the post-Emergency era, the Congress had polled 34.50 per cent votes. It dipped further in 1999 when the party sank to its lowest tally of 114 seats with 28.30 per cent votes. Now, it has plunged to barely 20 per cent. The Congress may be too scared to think of the future today. When it does it might feel that only a miracle can dispel the gloom.