Several in the Congress believe Rahul Gandhi made poor choices in UP, for which he needs to take responsibility.
Some hard questions are being asked about Rahul Gandhi’s leadership following the Congress’s shocking election debacle in Uttar Pradesh, with the Narendra Modi juggernaut ensuring the BJP steamrolled all rivals.
In the immediate aftermath of the results, Rahul’s friend and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah summed it up that there is no leader today with a pan India acceptability who can take on Modi and the BJP in 2019.
While Abdullah’s blunt statement has not been taken kindly by the All India Congress Committee (AICC), many in the party are raising the same question.
Congressmen are suggesting that a naive Rahul played into the hands of Modi by agreeing to a pre-poll alliance with the Samajwadi Party (SP).
Former AICC spokesperson Rashid Alvi, however, put it differently. “Congress made a pre-poll alliance with SP and this alliance became an alliance of Muslim community. The BJP took advantage of it and played the game of polarisation in UP politics.”
Former Congress Working Committee (CWC) member Harikesh Bahadur said that the politics of alliances in Uttar Pradesh doomed the party as partymen became “frustrated” because they were raring for a fight with the BJP all over the state.
Suggesting that the Congress opposition to demonetisation became counterproductive, Bahadur, who hails from eastern Uttar Pradesh, claimed that the note ban issue helped the BJP in a major way in rural areas.
Former Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit’s remarked that “In Congress it can’t be business as usual… We have to seriously decide if we are going to do the ideological and strategic change that is required” to make a comeback in the future, which reflected the deep frustration among partymen who see no light at the end of the tunnel.
Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee general secretary Umesh Pandit made it plain, demanding that Rahul quit owning moral responsibility for the debacle, the latest among a series of defeats for the party, beginning from the Lok Sabha elections in May 2014.
“We don’t have able leadership has been proved time and again by the way BJP is setting up governments in Goa and Manipur too despite Congress getting more numbers,” he lamented.
Pitching for Priyanka Gandhi’s leadership, Pandit, who hails from Mathura district, insisted that the Congress under Rahul had become a “private limited company” in which the ordinary worker and leader felt “neglected”.
A CWC member raised a larger question of whether the Congress could form and lead an opposition alliance to take on Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The leader, who declined to be identified, wondered “how can Rahul claim to be the leader of any opposition alliance at the national level when Congress has played second fiddle to Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad in Bihar and Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh?”
The Congress had led the UPA for ten long years from 2004 to 2014, the party’s first experiment at sharing power at the Centre.
Although the Congress did sweep Punjab, partymen are not giving Rahul credit for this victory. Instead, credit is going to Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee chief Amarinder Singh, who many believe was the credible face that people voted for after being fed up by the “misrule” of the Badals.
“Punjab elections have proved that we should have credible leadership in every state,” Alvi remarked, echoing the sentiments of many in the party.
Incidentally, Amarinder had a few months ago threatened to leave the party and float a regional outfit if he was not given the command of the state unit. This had prompted party chief Sonia Gandhi to tell Rahul, who de facto runs the party affairs, to mollify Amarinder.
Meanwhile, developments in Goa showed that the Congress leadership has not learnt any lessons from the politics played by the BJP when Congress was in power in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh.
Despite the Congress emerging as the single largest party in the state, with 17 seats in the 40-member Goa assembly, the BJP retained power despite getting only 13 seats by sealing tieups with smaller parties and independents with alarming speed brokered by former defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who is set to became chief minister once again.
Congress general secretary Digvijay Singh, who is in charge of party affairs in Goa, was left accusing the BJP of “hijacking” the popular mandate. Goa could have seen a Congress-led government if the top leadership of the party had moved fast to make deals with smaller parties and independents.
The good show in Punjab apart, the question being asked in Congress circles is who will take responsibility for the debacle in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Rahul’s failure to appear before the media and instead field party general secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad after the assembly results were declared, did not stop the questions of accountability.
The AICC has rejected demands that Rahul accept responsibility for the party’s poor show, pointing to Punjab and the party securing the most seats in Goa and Manipur.
However, the refrain in a section of the party is that Rahul failed to understand Modi and the challenges posed in Uttar Pradesh as Amit Shah meticulously went about building social coalitions to effectively checkmate both the Yadav-led SP and the Jatav-dominated BSP.
A party general secretary said that the Congress has no leg to stand on in Uttar Pradesh, the home turf of the Gandhi-Nehru family, as it has got just seven seats in a house of 403. The BJP has also put up a good show in Amethi-Rae Bareli, the pocket borough of the Congress ‘first family’.
A senior party leader said that it was common knowledge that Rahul had worked hard to tie up with the BSP, but turned to Akhilesh Yadav and the SP after Mayawati rejected an alliance.
Another party leader said the Congress would have been better off without any alliance but Rahul failed to understand the political game and instead relied on poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who should be sacked immediately.
Partymen say that the crisis facing the Congress is far deeper given that Rahul was the party face in the Lok Sabha polls.
Besides, he also virtually led the party in the assembly polls in Maharashtra, Haryana, Kerala and Assam, where the party lost. The victory in tiny Puducherry is no consolation.
The Congress’s cup of woes is full to the brim. The local body polls held recently in Maharashtra and Odisha were a setback to the party.
Partymen are already baying for blood and want Azad gone since he had pitched hard for the alliance with the SP. Incidentally, Azad was the AICC general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh when the party lost power 27 years ago.
A Congress leader from Uttar Pradesh accused the leadership of deliberately failing to project any Muslim leader in the UP campaign. He said the party was doomed from day one given the fact that “you cannot beat Hindutva with soft Hindutva.”
Seeking to highlight the magnitude of the Congress defeat in UP this time, a CWC member recalled that in 1989, when Congress lost power in the state, the late Rajiv Gandhi had secured 94 seats out of 425 in the undivided UP.
A former union minister turned philosophical as he lamented that the 131-year-old Congress is suffering from fatigue.
“How can it compete with parties which are just 30 years old unless it goes for a metamorphosis? It needs to have new ideas, new idiom, a new narrative that will appeal to the young and the aspiring classes,” he said.
The debacle now raised big questions over Rahul’s elevation to party chief, which was hinted would happen after the UP polls. Is he up for the job, partymen would like to know.
Sunil Gatade is a senior journalist.