ON June 1, 10 days after the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) inflicted a second, successive monumental defeat on it in a general election, the Congress leadership, including the president Rahul Gandhi, made a relatively longish public appearance at the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) meeting, convened primarily to elect the chairperson of the CPP.
The re-election of Sonia Gandhi, former party president, was, of course, a mere formality for the newly elected Congress Lok Sabha members. However, their expectations and apprehensions as to how Rahul Gandhi himself would engage with the CPP were far beyond the routine. For, the Congress president had literally been playing truant, making himself scarce even to senior leaders, after the announcement of the election results on May 23.
The Congress performed far below expectations in the election, winning 52 seats, a negligible rise from 44 in 2014, while the ruling BJP boosted its tally from 282 in 2014 to 303, an all-time high for the saffron party.
In the days immediately preceding the CPP meeting, top-rung leaders of the party indicated that Rahul Gandhi was firm in his decision to step down as party president, owning responsibility for the resounding electoral defeat, and that repeated efforts to persuade him to not do so, by organisational affiliates and family members like Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, his sister and the All India Congress Committee (AICC) general secretary, did not have any effect.
A pall of gloom descended on the AICC headquarters in New Delhi after the results, with the offices of most affiliated organisations and individual leaders shut firm. One came across sundry office staff sitting in some rooms, with the lights switched off and the televisions on, watching the news.
A senior leader from Haryana said the scene at the party headquarters was the effect of “cumulative disasters, both in the election in the larger political space outside and inside the organisation in the spiralling leadership confusion”. When Rahul Gandhi finally engaged with the CPP, he attempted to lift the sense of despondency that had spread across the party’s political and organisational apparatus.
His speech at the CPP meeting contained elements of combative rhetoric aimed at enthusing the party’s Members of Parliament as well as the rank and file.
His political observations constituted a nuanced, objective assessment of the situation the party found itself in. The combative part was apparent in several remarks he made, including one that asserted that the Congress would work like a “pride of brave-hearted lions” despite having only 52 members in the Lok Sabha. He also said that the party’s MPs would discharge their duties as members of the leading opposition party to ensure the BJP did not enjoy a walkover in Parliament.
He said that the party would relentlessly fight against the BJP, without ceding an inch. “The people opposing us use hatred. Hatred, cowardice and anger are fighting against you. Lack of confidence, lack of self-belief, is fighting against you…. There is only one way to fight hatred and anger. And that is the love and affection and compassion of the Congress party,” he said.
He also urged the Congress members to be more aggressive than before. “You are going to shout a little more than usual…. Last time, if the Speaker used to give us five minutes, this time it may be two minutes, but in those two minutes, we will put forth what the Congress party believes,” he told his MPs.
He elaborated on the “beliefs” that would guide the party over the next five years, with the thrust on putting forth a strong defence of the Constitution and its values.
Speech to MPs
“You have all fought and won not against a political party but against every single institution in this country. There is not one institution that did not try to stop you from coming into the Lok Sabha. And you fought every single one and you forced your way into the Lok Sabha. And that is something you should be extremely proud of. The battle is not over. There is no institution that is going to support you in this country, not one…. It is like during the British period… yet we fought and won, and we are going to do it again.”
At the CPP meeting, Sonia Gandhi praised Rahul Gandhi for “his valiant and relentless campaign”. She said: “As Congress president, he has given his all and toiled night and day for the Congress party. He demonstrated his fearless leadership by taking the Modi government head-on. He has rejuvenated the Congress organisation in many States, and most recently led us to victory in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. As Congress president, he earned the respect and love of every worker and crores of voters…. Emotional messages are coming from all corners, vindicating his leadership. We all express our gratitude to him for his sincerity of purpose, his relentless effort, his hard work and leadership.”
She called upon all sections of the party to introspect and find out what went wrong.
After the CPP meeting, at an informal gathering at Sonia Gandhi’s residence, MPs and party leaders met Rahul Gandhi, individually and in groups, and many of them apparently requested him to continue as the party president. By all indications, he did not reveal his reaction to their requests.
During interactions with a clutch of Congress leaders and workers at different levels, from the top and middle leadership to the ones at the grass roots, it was palpable that they considered Rahul Gandhi’s interaction with the CPP as adequate and proactive, similar to his popular campaign speeches .
“In a nutshell, this is a typical Rahul Gandhi speech of the past three years. There is no doubt that considerable thinking and planning into people’s issues, concerns and sentiments, as well as national, social and economic interests, goes into his public presentations,” a veteran Congress leader from Kerala said.
He added: “In spite of such lofty characteristics, his public interface and the campaign was no match for the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah propaganda machinery, driven by Hindutva-oriented sectarian politics. This sense is also deeply ingrained at all levels of the party.” Senior and middle-level leaders said that some facts relating to the verdict had added to the perception about Rahul Gandhi’s capacity to streamline the party organisation as well as formulate and implement electoral tactics that would yield success.
These include the fact that 23 of the 52 MPs hail from two States—15 from Kerala and eight from Punjab. The Congress has no representation in as many as 18 States and Union Territories. This is true even for a State like Rajasthan, where the party won the Assembly election in November 2018.
The dismal results from Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka, where the party managed to form State governments in elections held in 2018, are also cause for worry. “If we are not able to hold on to regions where we have shown our ability to win, how can we move back into areas where we have been marginalised for decades, especially Hindi heartland States like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar?” asked a veteran leader from Uttar Pradesh.
The difference in context between the elections of 2014 and 2019 is also a point of debate in this background. When Narendra Modi coined the “Congress Mukt Bharat” slogan on September 25, 2013, at a rally in Bhopal as the BJP’s Prime Minister–designate, the then Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government was neck deep in charges of corruption and problems arising out of a disconnect with popular sentiment. Modi had then said that dismantling the Congress was the last wish of Bapu (Mahatma Gandhi) and that it was his duty to fulfil Bapu’s wish.
This had tremendous resonance among the public, chiefly because of the huge anti-incumbency factor working against the UPA government. The result of the 2014 election made it appear that Modi had almost achieved what he had promised. The Congress was reduced to an all-time low of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, with its vote share plummeting to a dismal 19.5 per cent.
Rout and rebound
The subsequent rout of the party in various State elections cemented the perception that the Congress was actually on its way to being annihilated in large parts of the country. In May 2018, however, the picture changed slightly; in Karnataka, the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) came together to form the government even though the BJP had emerged as the single largest party.
From then on, it seemed the Congress was back in the reckoning, a perception further strengthened by its good performance in the Gujarat Assembly elections, when it gave a good fight to the BJP. In the Assembly elections that followed in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the Congress bounced back, forming the government in all three States, defeating the BJP convincingly in Chhattisgarh and edging past it in the other two States. However, the 2019 Lok Sabha election has firmly put the clock back as far as the Congress is concerned. Defying signals from the ground and belying the very vocal popular discontent against many Modi government policies and the visible anger of Dalits and minorities, the BJP steamrolled its way to power again, winning more than a 50 per cent vote share in many Hindi-belt States.
More importantly, despite the marginal increase in seats, the Congress’ vote share remained the same as in 2014—at 19.5 per cent. The colossal failure to lift the party’s vote share is one of the major factors that has left the party organisation in a shambles.
In many ways, this is a crisis of confidence, according to several party leaders at different levels, especially because the three Assembly election victories in 2018 had fuelled the hope that the party was on its way back in many parts of the country. This hope and Rahul Gandhi’s aggressive campaign focussing on several issues such as the agrarian crisis, unemployment and the Rafale deal led to the belief that 2019 would script a new story for the Congress. The collapse of this hope has left the leadership and the rank and file in many States in an absolute state of shock, according to insiders.
Evidently, even Rahul Gandhi’s pep talk at the CPP meeting has not helped remove this state of bewilderment. The party leadership itself has barred spokespersons from appearing on television debates, with the ostensible reasoning that it is a time for deep introspection and course correction. “What is the hurry? We can do all the analysis we want at leisure. We are free for the next five years now,” a senior leader said sarcastically.
Several grass-roots workers are also upset with the way Rahul Gandhi responded to the crisis. “Victory and defeat are part and parcel of the democratic process. If the BJP won 303 seats today, there was a time, in 1984, when it won only two seats. If their leaders had then run away, would the party be where it is today?” asked a party functionary demonstrating in front of the Congress office after Rahul Gandhi announced his resignation from the party chief’s post.
Still, several leaders and workers believe that the resignation offer was a spontaneous response in anger as not a single leader stepped forward to take responsibility.
“There were specific people entrusted with specific responsibilities in all the States, but unfortunately no one stepped forward to own up. Accountability has to be fixed if we have to move forward,” said a senior leader, who added that Rahul Gandhi’s resignation was certainly not the solution.
There is also the view that the party president issue is not the only one facing the Congress at this juncture, and that if Rahul Gandhi insists on stepping aside, he would be walking straight into a trap laid by the BJP.
“History is witness to the fact that whenever a non-Gandhi family person led the party, it disintegrated. We should not forget the tenure of Sitaram Kesri and where the party went at that time. Had Sonia Gandhi not stepped in, the party would have disintegrated,” a senior leader said.
As the pros and cons get debated, the only concrete post-election measure with regard to the party organisation seems to be asking all candidates to give their booth-level reports, as party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said on June 2. These are the reports that every candidate gets after counting. The party is collating these reports amid media and social media reports of a huge mismatch between the votes polled and the votes counted. Sections of the Congress hope that this exercise will lead to a concrete programme of action.
Many senior party functionaries told Frontline the Congress should now come out fully against the use of electronic voting machines (EVMs) and demand a return to ballot papers for any election now onward.
“We should just sit there on the road and raise this demand. There is no way we should go back on this. We should announce that we will not participate in any election if it is conducted with EVMs,” said a senior leader. The doubt that EVMs may have played a big role in the BJP’s landslide victory has gained traction after the Karnataka urban local body elections, which were held just after the Lok Sabha results were announced. The Congress emerged a huge winner in this election, with the JD(S) coming second and the BJP third. This election was held with ballot papers.
“How is it possible that a public which gave such a resounding victory to one party only a few days ago would give it such a drubbing?” a party leader asked. In this context, the only option is to go back to the people, stay with them and convince them, according to P.L. Punia, a Congress Rajya Sabha member.
“We need to go back to the street, sit in dharna, hold demonstrations, make people aware of the reality and simply insist on a ‘no EVM’ policy. Our electorate is intelligent and they will never forgive if it is found that the mandate has been tampered with. We should have faith in people’s intelligence,” he added.
The road ahead
It is not clear what form of action these studies, analyses and plans will ultimately lead to. Broadly, the idea seems to be building a wide coalition of opposition parties to stand together on a number of identified issues and raising a movement on the ground, supplemented by joint action in Parliament. The meeting between Rahul Gandhi and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) chief Sharad Pawar is considered important in this context. However, there is little doubt that any strategy for the Congress to get out of this slump will have to involve creative formulation of political and ideological themes and, equally importantly, building up an effective organisational machinery to implement these ideas. Its failure during the election campaign to take an idea like NYAY convincingly to the grass roots highlighted its lack of an organisational machinery that is ready for battle.
In State after State in the Hindi heartland, the telling difference between the BJP and the opposition, including the Congress, and smaller parties such as the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, is the superior organisational machinery of the BJP and its associates in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS)-led Sangh Parivar. Indeed, matching that machinery, built up over several decades of cadre work, requires imaginative use of all political tools, both conventional and new age.
Party leaders agreed that cosmetic reforms, as the ones that the Congress has witnessed from time to time over the last few years, would be of no use in building up a robust organisational structure.
From achieving the pinnacle of electoral success in 1984 by winning 414 seats with a 48.1 per cent vote share, to being reduced to 52 seats with a 19.5 per cent vote share today, there is little doubt that the Congress leadership has a lot to account for. A section of party leaders and political observers said that if the party could regain power in 2004 against heavy odds, in the face of the BJP’s India Shining campaign and the charismatic Vajpayee-Advani duo, it should still be possible for the grand old party to bounce back, especially in the context of issues of transparency in the Election Commission of India’s conduct leading to the massive BJP victory. But that is easier said than done. The Hamlet-like frame of mind (to be or not to be) that many perceive in Rahul Gandhi is not of much help to the Congress in charting a new course with definitive aims and objectives.