New Delhi, May 25: The widespread view in the Congress is that Rahul Gandhi needs to change his style and some of his ideas to succeed in future, although senior leaders are shielding him in public and the party has reaffirmed faith in the Gandhis.
One message that came out from informal conversations with a large number of party members, from ordinary workers to MPs and general secretaries, is that they believe the Gandhi family is integral to the party’s existence and identity.
But while Sonia Gandhi’s supreme status remains unquestionable, party members harbour varying degrees of preferences for Rahul and Priyanka.
Senior leaders, however, argue that any such “dilemma” is meaningless because the party cannot now “disinvest” in Rahul.
Most leaders and workers feel that Sonia cannot afford to withdraw herself now as she had earlier planned because the election results have deepened the suspicions about Rahul’s abilities.
They, however, expect the jolt to force Rahul to introspect and review his political philosophy and human resource management. Both his critics and admirers accept that he needs to learn from his mistakes.
Almost everyone believes that Rahul’s “overemphasis” on age (youth) in politics was a recipe for disaster. One of his aides who repeatedly asked leaders above 60 to retire is being seen as the “biggest villain” of the rout.
“It is true that Rahul does not feel comfortable working with senior leaders. He has scant regard for political acumen and experience. This has to change,” a party insider said.
“The seniors have accepted him as their leader. He must develop a harmonious relationship with those who have served the party for 30-40 years. Transition is inevitable but doesn’t necessarily entail exclusion.”
But this is a complex issue, not least because the party lower rungs insist that Rahul must jettison “coterie politics”, which means getting rid of those entrenched in Sonia’s system for years.
“Loyalty is a factor but dynamism, mass appeal and commitment are greater factors. He has to expand and strengthen the party, not just protect the status quo,” one source said.
“There is no doubt his choices have been terrible but he can’t give up after one setback. He has to change the Delhi-centric high command structure and groom leaders who can connect with the masses.”
Most in the party recall how Rahul’s hyped experiment with the Youth Congress and student arm NSUI played out politically. There is almost a unanimous view that the youth wings have been destroyed and the phenomenal rise in their membership shown on paper is a hoax.
Barely 15 Youth Congress members were available to shout in favour of Rahul outside the party headquarters when the working committee met to review the results.
Most candidates in this election complained that the Youth Congress was invisible. Some of them even argued that the elections for party posts had created divisions in the party at the grassroots.
Another of Rahul’s perceived deficiencies relates to his reading of the caste arithmetic. His critics argue that the Congress is now the only Indian party without a core support base.
“There is no doubt that Rahul has failed to understand the issue of caste. He sought to give undue importance to the OBCs, ignoring the Brahmins who along with the Dalits and the Muslims had sustained the Congress for decades,” a source said.
“In a large number of constituencies in this election, the Muslims and the Dalits didn’t vote for us because they knew we didn’t have a core base to pull it off.”
The Congress lacks a single Brahmin state unit chief, a situation unthinkable in the past. Many leaders from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar blame the rout on Rahul’s “misreading” of caste realities.
They say that while the upper castes in Bihar were looking up to the Congress at a time the BJP, Lalu Prasad and Nitish Kumar were wooing the lower castes, he appointed a Dalit state unit chief.
In Uttar Pradesh, both the state Congress chief and the legislature party leader are from caste groups that make up less than two per cent of the voters.
Most party workers and lower-rung leaders also say that decision-making will have to be fast-tracked, and that the current tendency to procrastinate has a paralytic effect on the organisation.
They cite how the appointments of state unit chiefs and the formation of district committees get delayed for months and years, and organisational shuffles are postponed on flimsy excuses as the office-bearers keep misleading the Congress president to protect their own interests.
Another widespread grouse relates to the leaders’ lack of respect and concern for the ordinary party worker.
“We are treated like dogs at the party headquarters. We come here from remote corners of the country but no one is willing to talk to us at 24 Akbar Road,” one worker said, expressing a common grievance.
“Most of the general secretaries resent it if we enter their offices. Even MLAs and former MPs come, roam around, spend some time in the canteen, and go back. Nobody is willing to lend us their ear but expect us to garner votes for them.”