Look at the narrative before the five states went to the polls. Uttar Pradesh and Punjab were considered as the trophy states. The Congress was expected to win Punjab, but was never considered a player in the cow-belt. It was Rahul Gandhi who tried to change this narrative by going in for a high voltage tie-up with Akhilesh Yadav. Perhaps he was hoping to do a repeat of Bihar and piggyback on another regional leader’s charisma. He obviously miscalculated. After that the Congress went into such deep depression that it failed to embrace the two states that had voted in its favour: despite being the single largest party in Goa and Manipur, “Team Rahul” allowed the BJP to walk away with the government.
It is not UP, as much as Goa and Manipur that have exposed the leadership lacuna in the Congress. Some would even add Punjab to this, for it’s an open secret that Captain Amarinder Singh swept the state despite Rahul Gandhi (he was not named the party’s Chief Minister face until the last ten days of the campaign, for one). The leadership apathy and the fact that the Narendra Modi government has not been hit by any visible anti-incumbency, have plunged the Congress worker into an even deeper depression than 2014.
While the Congress grapples for answers, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley does not mince words when he says: “A dynasty can be an asset or a liability. A party is as strong as the strength and competence of that generation. So an Indira Gandhi or a Jawarharlal Nehru could make it strong. Rahul Gandhi can take it where he has taken it today. We are now seeing the diminishing returns of dynasty.”
Privately, many Congress leaders would agree. But publicly, no one has asked Rahul Gandhi to step up, take responsibility and step down. It’s not just out of subservience. They need Rahul as much as he needs them. Says political analyst Arati Jerath, “Dynasty matters less and less for the voter. But it’s the only glue holding the Congress together.” She is right. If there was no Gandhi-Nehru at the top, the Congress would disintegrate into a leadership tussle. Will Jyotiraditya Scindia support Sachin Pilot as the Congress president or vice versa? Will Digvijaya Singh or Ghulam Nabi Azad step aside for each other? Catch Jairam Ramesh writing speeches for A.K. Antony or Mallikarjun Kharge.
The only name all these leaders agree on is Rahul Gandhi. The party experimented with a non Gandhi-Nehru at the helm under P.V. Narasimha Rao and the Congress split. The only ideology that holds the party together is allegiance to the dynasty. And with Sonia Gandhi ruling herself out on health grounds, the only solution for the Congress is to go ahead and elevate Rahul Gandhi as the Congress president. “What we need is a leadership change, not a change of leader,” says Congress veteran Mani Shankar Aiyar. He points out that for the last 20 years there have been no elections to the Congress Working Committee, although the Congress Constitution decrees that at least half the members should be elected. Not only is the entire 36-member CWC nominated, but it has only four Lok Sabha members. Apart from the two Gandhis, the others are Kamal Nath and Mallikarjun Kharge. That’s not it. Of the 11 general secretaries, only one—Kamal Nath—is from the Lok Sabha. How can the party expect a grassroots connect with such a rootless leadership?
The party experimented with a non Gandhi-Nehru at the helm under P.V. Narasimha Rao and the Congress split. The only ideology that holds the party together is allegiance to the dynasty.
One could argue that these complaints are academic. For Rahul Gandhi is not known to consult the party leadership, nominated or otherwise. The team he has operating out of his residence at Tughlaq Road does not belong to the Congress cadre, but is comprised of either young laptop toting professionals or else rejects from other parties such as Raj Babbar, Mohan Prakash or the itinerant Beni Prasad Verma.
Aside from revamping his team, Rahul also needs to redo his narrative. Before the UP results came out, Milind Deora, a former Union minister, spoke to NewsX. He strongly felt that no matter what the results, the Congress needed to go back to the drawing board. “The Congress does need to come up with a credible narrative, which has to go beyond criticising the BJP and Modi. Simply expecting people to vote for a party because they are disillusioned with an incumbent, is not a strong enough strategy for any political party to deploy.”
This is sound advice. No one is quite sure what the Congress stands for today. Earlier Rahul claimed he was the messiah of the poor and jeered at Modi for being pro suit-boots. That argument got nailed after demonetisation. The Congress vice president needs to quickly come up with a credible narrative that he can own and communicate to the voter. “We do not have any strategy,” says an exasperated CWC member. “Our only strategy is to wait for Modi to fail. Rahul feels he has age on his side.”
How long can the Congress afford to wait Narendra Modi out? Unlike them, the Prime Minister already seems to be readying the next generation of leadership, especially with the elevation of Yogi Adityanath as UP CM.
Aiyar has a suggestion. He suggests that the Congress should form a rainbow alliance of like-minded parties that do not shun the minority community. He points out, “From 1990, it has become evident that the Congress party’s claim to be an inclusive party, while true, does not have the endorsement of a large section of the population. And so a lot of parties have gone it alone. But the time has again arisen to go back to the Sonia Gandhi formula of 2004 which is—forget an inclusive party, we need an inclusive alliance.” The Congress has one advantage over the other “secular” allies. Unlike a Mamata Bannerjee, Nitish Kumar or even Arvind Kejriwal, it has a pan India presence. But will any of these leaders accept Rahul Gandhi’s leadership? They may have accepted Sonia Gandhi, but certainly not her heir apparent.
The BJP, however, interprets this move as an anti-Modi platform. Cabinet Minister Nitin Gadkari remarks, “Any opposition on basis of hatred of ‘xyz’ is not a good opposition. In a democracy, it should be a fight against ideology.”
Interestingly, Rahul Gandhi had begun the move to cobble together such a platform. Buoyed by the exit polls, which predicted an average of 180-190 for the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance, he called on Sharad Pawar on 10 March and asked the NCP leader to reach out to other secular allies to come together against the BJP. But that was before the real results poured in. Since then Pawar has not heard from Rahul.
Neither has anyone from the Congress. Therein lies rock bottom.