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Where does the Congress go from here?

LiveMint logoLiveMint 16-05-2014 Liz Mathew

Our party has done pretty badly. There is a lot to think about,” Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who headed the party’s election campaign, said, conceding his party’s defeat in elections to the 16th Lok Sabha. The party, which returned to power with an impressive performance in the 2009 elections, has been reduced to 44 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha.

Both Congress chief Sonia Gandhi, and Rahul Gandhi took responsibility for India’s grand old party’s worst-ever performance since Independence.

Political analysts say the poor performance cannot only be attributed to the party’s leadership. They point out that the 128-year old party, now facing what could possibly be its sternest test, suffered from the performance of the United Progressive Alliance government it headed. The government mismanaged the economy, resulting in slower growth and inflation and was involved in several corruption scandals.

Can the Congress pick up the pieces?

The party’s current tally does not even make it officially the opposition party in the lower House of the Parliament. The victory of the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the first non-Congress party to win a clear majority on its own in India’s democratic history, has underlined the fading charisma of the Nehru-Gandhi family that dominated the country’s politics for more than six decades. Rahul Gandhi himself won after a tough fight in his pocket borough Amethi, one of the two seats the party won in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP’s stunning performance may well indicate that one of its slogans, of creating an India free of the Congress, has gone down well with the electorate. There are certain to be questions asked of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. For years now, Gandhi, now 43, has sought to establish that he is part of the solution, not part of the problem. His inability to establish himself as an outsider trying to change the system hasn’t worked simply because the Congress has ruled India for 55 of the 67 years since the country’s independence. Gandhi, whose attendance of the Lok Sabha is patchy, and who has rarely expressed his views in the House, did initiate a reorganization of his party, seeking to make it more democratic and inclusive. In the run-up to the elections, he took the responsibility for the party’s campaign.

It didn’t work, say analysts.

So much so that in the final weeks of the campaign, with the writing on the wall clear, several party workers took to the street demanding that his sister, Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra, take over the party. The party lost touch with the people, said the member of a rival party. “There was a technocrat Prime Minister and a battery of lawyers in the cabinet. None of them had mass contact or could sense the ground realities. This detachment (from the masses) was very much visible inside Parliament and in their policy initiatives,” said M.B. Rajesh of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). There is more to the results than this, according to sociologist Shiv Visvanathan. “We had a whole generation and an entire country which banished the Congress Party. In a way, it was a kind of zamindari (feudal) system that was challenged. It was an attempt to challenge a dynasty and mediocrity of that dynasty for a society which is so aspirational they looked like anachronism.”

Is it the end of the road for the party?

Not really, said another analyst.

“It’s time for the Congress to introspect. Being away from governance, it will get time to understand the rationale behind the rout,” said A.K. Verma, professor, political science, Christ Church College, Kanpur.

“The party leaders should not get demoralized.”

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