Assembly elections have a simple message for Congress: Dump the Gandhis

After a humiliating defeat in two states, Maharastra and Haryana, Congress president Sonia and Rahul Gandhi issued statements, suggesting the outcome was a routine vote for change. While both of them thanked party workers, there was not a word on introspection or why the Grand Old Party had suffered such an upset, and gone from being the rulers to finishing a poor third.

In his written statement after results were announced Rahul Gandhi simply said “the Congress party will work hard on the ground to once again earn the confidence of the people.” Will that be enough to inspire confidence and rejuvenate a deeply demoralised Congress rank-and-file?

Sonia’s statement was even more bland, carefully constructed to avoid mentioning the victor: “The Congress party accepts the election verdict delivered by the people of Maharashtra and Haryana with humility and resolves to play a constructive and vigilant role. The people of Maharashtra and Haryana trusted us with their mandate thrice and twice respectively. We hope that the parties forming the Government will fulfill the promises that they made. We thank our supporters and voters for having stood by us, and our workers for their tireless and unstinting commitment to the party and its ideology.”

This kind of denial has become a pattern for the Congress. The party refuses to face up to the reasons for its performance, be it the popularity of Modi’s appeal for a Congress Mukt Bharat, the total failure of the leadership at the top, or Robert Vadra's rather ingenious money-making schemes that took advantage of his mother-in-law’s position.

In the space of one year, the Congress has lost five states: Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, Maharastra and Haryana. In all these states, the party was not just defeated but was fully routed, often falling from number one to number three or four -- and often to the point where they couldn’t even claim to have the post of leader of opposition in the assembly after the election.

This pattern bodes ill for the party as history shows that where ever Congress has suffered such a decline in a multi-cornered contest, it hasn't been able to muster the spine or the vigour to bounce back. The examples include Bihar, UP, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and more.

 Assembly elections have a simple message for Congress: Dump the Gandhis

Rahul Gandhi during a recent visit to Amethi. PTI

The underlying problem is that the Congress has steadily lost much of its voter base. In Maharashtra and Haryana, Congress’s idea of luring dominant Marathas and Jats by placing them in OBC category has badly boomeranged on the party. While it split the Maratha and Jat votes with Sharad Pawar and Om Prakash Chautala, respectively, the non-Maratha, non-Jat OBC felt cheated and voted with for the party (BJP) which could defeat it.

Narendra Modi's personal appeal swept up a large chunk of supporters from almost all segments, urban middle class, neo middle class, women youth, upper caste, OBC, dalits. With Muslims also disenchanted with Congress, the party is almost bereft of a core social constituency.

The bottom-line is that the Congress no longer looks like a national party. At the Centre, its bench strength of 44 in the Lok Sabha is nearly matched by regional parties like AIADMK and Trinamool Congress. It hasn't managed to get the Leader of Opposition post in the Lok Sabha despite the public campaign by Sonia, Rahul and rest of the Congress leaders. And then there is this basic and alarming statistic thrown up by the parliamentary polls: The party which had complete hegemony over the whole nation failed to open its account in 14 states and 7 union territories.

Among the big states, Congress only rules Karnataka. Assam and Kerala. Beyond those, it has only two smaller hill states, Himachal Pradesh and Uttrakhand, along with a handful of north-eastern states. Jharkhand and Jammu & Kashmir end up in the Congress column but due to coalition governments. Till two days ago, the party official website proudly claimed to be still ruling Andhra Pradesh under the category titled 'Congress in States'. It is telling that the whole section has been removed since the results of Maharastra and Haryana poured in.

In the lead up to the election, a number of Congress leaders kept claiming that Maharastra and Haryana elections bring back the party into revival mode. That obviously was not to happen. But now that the Congress has slid down to a hopeless third position in both the states, a smug Congress spokesman called it a “fluke”.

And yet the 'Priyanka Lao, Party Bachao' chorus by sections of party men has already started. Workers assembled outside the Delhi party office the moment the counting spelled out the impending defeat. As in the aftermath of the Lok Sabha, it is once again a measure of the disillusionment with Rahul who has become the problem, rather than the solution, and the same also holds true of Sonia.

While Modi campaigned relentlessly, over three dozen rallies in the two states that went to the polls, Sonia and Rahul put on a lackluster performance, chalking up half the number of rallies led by Modi. That the crowd in each of those Modi rallies was five times the size of that of the Gandhi's speaks volumes, as well.

It is then inevitable that the cries for Priyanka will rise in the rank-and-file. But Robert Vadra's baggage will likely prove far too costly for Priyanka's political career. It has impacted this round of assembly elections, at least in Haryana. While official agencies have not filed any legal proceeding against Vadra, he came to symbolise all that went wrong with Haryana under Hooda, including nefarious land deals and broader corruption -- as it happened in Rajasthan, the other state where he actively operated.

Whatever the solution to the party's woes, the Gandhis are unlikely to provide it. If the Congress party is serious about saving itself from total irrelevance, it must start first by junking the self-destructive denials, and perhaps those who make them.

Updated Date: Oct 20, 2014 08:20:20 IST