24/05/2019 3:06 PM IST | Updated 25/05/2019 1:36 PM IST

How Long Can Rahul Gandhi And The Congress Survive These 'Final' Reckonings?

In the wake of the results, there’s anguish. A lot of it.

SAJJAD HUSSAIN via Getty Images

NEW DELHI Banda dil se lada hai,” a Congress party worker in Uttar Pradesh said, speaking about how he had come to “respect” Rahul Gandhi over the course of the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign.

“I will honestly tell you that I was not a fan of Rahul Gandhi but now I have come to respect him,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity a day ahead of the election result.

He then ticked off the number of rallies that Gandhi had addressed and the places he had campaigned in, concluding that the Congress president had worked just as hard as Prime Minister Narendra Modi, without half the media attention.

He spoke highly of Gandhi, even though the Congress’s campaign in UP never took off the ground — even after Priyanka Gandhi, often dubbed the party’s “secret weapon”, was deployed in the country’s most politically significant state.  The Congress did not enter into an alliance with the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (SP-BSP) in UP, and only managed to win one seat in the state that sends 80 lawmakers to the Lok Sabha.

The Congress’s tally in 2019 has only seen a single-digit increase since 2014, bringing it to just over 50 seats, while the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has returned with a bigger mandate than in 2014.

And to add insult to injury, Rahul Gandhi lost his family bastion of Amethi to BJP’s Smriti Irani. Gandhi, whose family includes three former Indian prime ministers, will have to answer some tough questions in the days to come as the BJP’s opposition comes to terms with the sheer size of the behemoth it’s up against.

But for now, there’s anguish. A lot of it. 

Banda dil se lada hai.

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A few hours after 48-year-old Gandhi conceded defeat in Amethi and congratulated Modi, the worker quoted above said that he was “speechless.”

“What is happening? Is there something going on that we just don’t know about. What are we missing?” he said. “I don’t know how I will wake up in the morning. Where do we go from here?”

Faced with the real prospect of political wilderness, members of the Congress party, from grassroots workers to senior leaders, expressed panic and confusion.

The result, they said, was “unbearable” and there seemed to be no hope in sight.

A day before the results, they had spoken of how hard Gandhi had worked, and that even if the BJP were to come back to power, the Congress president had emerged as the “strongest opponent” to Modi.

But on 23 May, in the wake of the results, they were left without answers.

Concerns about Gandhi’s ability to lead, the old guard, the new guard, the sycophants surrounding him, have all been raised multiple times over the years. Instead of anger and finger-pointing, the prevailing emotion now is overwhelming sadness at the pitiful state of India’s oldest political party, and desperation about the future.

There is little doubt that Gandhi had put his best foot forward in the year leading up to the election. He helped dash BJP’s chances of forming a government in Karnataka and led his party to victory in three state assembly elections, foiling Modi’s dreams of a Congress-mukt Bharat. He addressed 145 rallies, three more than Modi, addressed press conferences (in contrast to Modi, who never addressed a press conference during his first term as PM), gave an unprecedented number of interviews, upped his social media game and even challenged the prime minister to a debate.

By the end of the campaign, Gandhi had managed to give the impression that he was not the bumbling “Pappu” that the BJP constantly mocked him to be.

I don’t know how I will wake up in the morning. Where do we go from here?

So what went wrong?

Without forging the right alliances, building a strong grassroots organization, carrying out door-to-door campaigning, and running a tighter ship, all of Gandhi’s efforts remained superficial.

It was never clear how the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY),  a scheme to give Rs. 72,000 to 20% of the poorest Indians, would work, and the Congress failed to sell it. The ideas in its manifesto, hailed as ‘liberal’ and ‘visionary’, didn’t make a dent on the people it was supposed to reach. The Rafale fighter jets controversy, which Gandhi spent months talking about, didn’t find any resonance on the ground.  Not only was the ”chowkidar chor hai” slogan jarring to the ears, it backfired when Modi countered with the “main bhi chowkidar” campaign.

While Gandhi’s efforts picked up steam in the months ahead of the election, the Congress’s campaign for the 2019 election was neither consistent nor sustained.

After the Pulwama attack on 14 February, Gandhi allowed the BJP and Modi to run away with the national security question. They let the ball drop on unemployment and the sluggish economy, which had been the most potent issue in its arsenal until then. Around the same time, the newly formed Congress governments in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh failed to meet the deadline for its campaign promise to provide allowances for unemployed educated youth.  

The Congress also failed to tie up with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in Delhi and the SP-BSP combine in UP, and the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) and Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in Gujarat.  In Delhi, the BJP swept all seven seats. In UP, the saffron party has bagged 62 out of 80 seats and all 26 seats in Gujarat.

While the numbers suggest that in many places, even an alliance may not have been able to stop the BJP, there’s no doubt that it would have at least led to a better fight.

Kerala, where the Congress-led United Democratic Front (including the Indian Union Muslim League, the Kerala Congress (M) and Revolutionary Socialist Party) won 19 out of 20 Lok Sabha states, witnessed massive minority consolidation against the BJP.

The BJP, on the other hand, made compromises to forge the right alliances, latched on to Hindu nationalism in the guise of national security, and along with its vast network of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) supporters, carried out door-to-door campaigning for months on end. As one BJP youth worker in Aligarh told HuffPost India, last month, “The BJP never stops campaigning.”

In contrast, the Congress worker said, “Rahul Gandhi has carried the Congress campaign on his shoulders. The campaign did not carry Rahul Gandhi.”

Rahul Gandhi has carried the Congress campaign on his shoulders. The campaign did not carry Rahul Gandhi.

While trying to make sense of how hard the Gandhi had worked, and how poorly he had performed in Amethi, the party worker in UP said that he had “done a lot” to lead the campaign as the Congress president, but had failed as an MP by taking his constituency for granted.

And what about Priyanka?

Her campaign in UP, HuffPost India has learnt, was haphazard and disorganized. Her schedule, for instance, was more often than not drawn up just a day or two before she hit the road.

Congress workers in UP called it a “start stop, start stop, campaign.”

While every party has internal problems, these workers say that the infighting and indiscipline within the Congress inflicted real damage. For instance, Jyotiraditya Scindia, who was made general secretary of western UP, didn’t do much work in the state.

Scindia was presumably chosen for the post because he had agreed to the Madhya Pradesh chief minister’s post going to Kamal Nath. But the result was that even Scindia lost his family bastion of Guna in Madhya Pradesh by more than 1 lakh votes.

Of Priyanka Gandhi and Scindia, this party worker said, “I don’t understand it. Why would you make such a big announcement and then not take it seriously?”

Start stop, start stop, campaign.

What next for Rahul Gandhi?

While the BJP increased its vote share from 31% in 2014 to 37% in 2019, the Congress’s remained the same — around 19%.

While the Congress’s poor performance is deeply painful for its members, there are some who have been completely thrown by Gandhi losing Amethi by over 50,000 votes.

First, it was the starkest example of how distant the Congress’s top leadership is from ground realities. And second, a significant amount of effort in the election went into rehabilitating Gandhi’s image, both inside the party and among the voters. A Congress insider in Delhi said that various departments of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), which would have normally worked with state campaigns and leaders in an election, were “co-opted” into the campaign for building Gandhi’s image.

From the NYAY scheme to the Right to Healthcare, it was Gandhi who made all the major announcements during the course of the campaign.

Former Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s mother, HuffPost India has learnt, was adamant that her son’s image feature prominently on the cover of the party manifesto.

Despite infighting between various departments of the AICC, its officials worked to cast Gandhi as a friendly and amicable leader, in contrast to Modi’s larger-than-life persona.  

But these efforts did not compare to the scale of the operation for building Modi’s image, which banks on a massive social media network (controlled by Modi’s right-hand man Amit Shah) and a largely supine national media. In Gandhi’s case, there was no “grand design,” no Public Relations (PR) firm that was hired to draw up character sketches, and no organised social media campaign.

There was, as the Congress insider said, a “concerted effort” to revive Gandhi’s image, but given the general chaos and disorder within the party, it was far from “coordinated”.

Another Congress official said with resignation, “The Congress fumbled along. That is the way of the Congress.”

The Congress fumbled along. That is the way of the Congress

At the very least, Congress leaders said as if comforting themselves, the ghost of “Pappu”  the term coined by BJP president Amit Shah to describe Gandhi and used by right-wingers everywhere to mock Gandhihas been laid to rest.

Now, in light of the results, Congress leaders wonder whether making Gandhi the focus of the campaign was the right move.

For one thing, it pitted Gandhi against Modi—even with an improvement in his image, he still paled in front of the carefully crafted, larger-than-life persona of the PM. It also reminded people of the dynastic aspect of the Congress.

This “direct contest”, some believe, is precisely what the BJP had hoped for, and the Congress gave it to them.

The Congress insider said, “For voters, it seemed as if these were the only choices they had. Rahul Gandhi has come a long way, but he is still not an alternative to Modi.”

Others, who believe it was the right move, say it was Gandhi who emerged from the gaggle of opponents as the strongest contender against the PM.

In light of his defeat in Amethi, they are at a loss for words.

Ground realities  

“This is wrong. This is wrong, you cannot put the blame on Rahul Gandhi,” a Congress official in a southern state protested over a phone conversation. “There is no doubt that he made an effort, as much effort that could be made. He worked hard, he was sincere, but he did not get justice.”

Even as he valiantly defended Gandhi, this official believes that the Congress is in deep crisis because officials of the AICC, and the coterie around Gandhi, knew little about ground realities. Misinformation, in turn, led to “planning that was only good in the hypothetical, but was not practical.”

Noting that no one in Gandhi family since Rajiv Gandhi had held any position in government, this official said that the top leadership failed to grasp “reality.”

And yet, he described Gandhi as a “brilliant guy.”

He worked hard, he was sincere, but he did not get justice.

The one thing that did stand out on 23 May was how differently Gandhi handled losing the national election compared to 2014.

Five years ago, Gandhi had smiled awkwardly for the cameras, while offering no words of encouragement to the thousands of workers who had invested their time and energy for the party.

This time around, not only did he handle defeat with grace and vowed to continue Congress’s ideological battle with the BJP, he made sure he addressed the workers.

“I want to tell all the workers ghabrao mat, daro mat,” he said.