|A security guard stands in front of the Congress headquarters in New Delhi on Friday. (AFP)
New Delhi, May 16: Sonia and Rahul Gandhi stepped out after the results to accept responsibility for the party’s worst defeat ever, ending speculation about a party ploy to shield them from blame.
While Rahul made a brief statement owning responsibility for the defeat as party vice-president, Sonia dwelt on the expectations from the next government and threw hints of her resolve to fight Narendra Modi on ideological grounds.
Both tried their best to conceal their disappointment by wearing cheerful expressions.
Rahul, who had promised to change the Congress “in ways you cannot even imagine” after the drubbing in the December Assembly polls, today said: “We have done pretty badly. There is much to think about.”
He and Sonia avoided answering questions. As Rahul dithered, Sonia was seen signalling to him to leave with her.
Their joint media appearance at a time the rest of the party leadership had disappeared from view appeared to lend credence to Narendra Modi’s jibe of a “Maa-bete ki sarkar (mother-and-son government)”.
Congress general secretary Janardan Dwivedi, who had been invisible during the campaign, was at the party office with Ahmed Patel, Motilal Vora and Ajay Maken while Sonia was speaking to the media.
Although the slogans had referred to a “Team Congress”, Rahul was the face of the campaign, during which many in the party had faulted his concepts, methods and approach to politics.
Realising the widespread discontent in the party against Rahul, Sonia did the talking today and is likely to play a more active role in navigating the party through the crisis.
A few sources, though, suggested that Sonia was toying with the idea of offering to resign as party chief at the next working committee meeting. She will apparently argue that her continuation could stand in the way if sweeping changes are to be made to bring about a generational shift.
A large section in the party, however, does not want a generational change and would be wary of Rahul getting elevated further in Sonia’s absence. Party insiders said that if Sonia indeed offered to step down, they would not let her.
“The Lok Sabha results are before us. The Congress faced its rivals in this election on the basis of our achievements, policies and principles,” Sonia said today.
“But we did not get the kind of support we were expecting. We believe victory and defeat are part of democracy. This verdict is clearly against us. We accept this mandate with humility and respect.”
She added: “But we also hope the government that would be formed at the Centre would not compromise on unity and national interests. I congratulate the new government. As far as the Congress is concerned, we will constantly struggle and not compromise on the fundamental principles and ideals of the party. I thank party workers and voters for whatever support we got. I am the party president and hence I accept the responsibility for the defeat.”
The next few months could witness a churning in the party. Although there is little possibility of a rebellion against Rahul, he is expected to come under pressure to accommodate various lobbies, especially the seniors feeling isolated under his watch.
Rahul had promised radical changes to the party organisation after the election and there have been hints about the possible dominance of younger leaders. His aide Jairam Ramesh has been openly asking the seniors to retire, creating a deep sense of disquiet.
If such a brazen push continues, sources indicated, Rahul may face stiff resistance.
Many in the Congress feel the entire idea of “yuva josh (energy of the youth)” is misplaced in politics, and have been citing the examples of Mahatma Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan to buttress their point.
Several young Congress dynasts close to Rahul have lost this election, anyway, with the exception of Jyotiraditya Scindia. Among the losers are Jitendra Singh, Jitin Prasada, R.P.N. Singh, Milind Deora, Sachin Pilot, Arun Yadav and Priya Dutt.
Rahul’s move to appoint young state Congress chiefs, such as Pilot in Rajasthan and Yadav in Madhya Pradesh, have upset the regional equations. The Congress failed to win a single seat in Rajasthan while in Madhya Pradesh, only seasoned campaigners like Scindia and Kamal Nath prevailed.
Many feel Rahul should return to the “basics” instead of trying to implement “fancy” ideas like holding primaries, proposing fixed three-year terms for elected representatives, or focusing on inner-party democracy.
At least two senior leaders argued that Rahul would need to adopt a harmonious approach if he planned to revive the party, else the discontent with some of his close aides could burst in the open.
One Delhi leader held a demonstration at the party headquarters today, demanding the reins be transferred to Priyanka.
Since the January 2013 meeting in Jaipur where Rahul was appointed party vice-president, the Congress has internally been working at cross-purposes.
A mega campaign committee, ostensibly appointed to oversee the party’s election campaign, met just once. Several ad agencies and public relations companies were hired without the knowledge of party general secretaries.
On one occasion, Rahul had to travel to London for a photo shoot while campaigning was on in full swing.
Ramesh, Sam Pitroda, Deep Kaul and a former journalist known for his proximity to Rajiv Gandhi formed a crack team that met at Jawahar Bhavan to take decisions.
Deep Kaul, son of former diplomat T.N. Kaul, was in Cambridge when Sonia and Rajiv were studying there. He and Rajiv used to share an apartment at 28 Derwent Close, Cambridge. This group reportedly lacked political understanding and remained unpopular in the Congress organisation at all levels.
An aging Congress Working Committee member, who was in tears, told this correspondent: “I’m 70 and I think I’m not going to see another Congress government at the Centre. Like the Liberals of the United Kingdom, it’s curtains for us.”
Some seniors, though, had words of advice and encouragement for Rahul. One of them visited him today to tell him a story about Yasser Arafat’s condolence visit to Delhi in May 1991 following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.
A group of Congressmen had told the West Asian leader, “Brother, we see darkness all around us”, the leader told Rahul.
Arafat, himself deeply moved, quoted an Arabic proverb to console them: “When a dust storm engulfs us, we lie low instead of battling it. Once the storm passes away, we regroup.”