India’s grand old party Congress missed a great opportunity to correct itself by bringing about a leadership change after Thursday’s humiliating defeat in the parliamentary elections.
The Congress Working Committee (CWC), which met on Saturday to examine what led to the party’s pathetic show in elections, repeated a resignation drama played at a similar meeting in 2014 when the party lost the general election. The only difference was that there were two players then — party chief Sonia Gandhi and her deputy and son Rahul Gandhi.
This time, the new party president Rahul Gandhi tendered his resignation and withdrew the offer after the CWC unanimously rejected it and reaffirmed its faith in his leadership.
The CWC also requested him to restructure the party to give it more strength, momentum and direction.
To begin with, Rahul is likely to ask the resignation of leaders in charge of several states and regions where the party performed badly.
CWC members, who emerged from the party headquarters after a four-hour closed-door meeting, followed “orders” and declined to interact with media on what transpired at the meeting. When confronted, each of them told journalists to wait for the press conference.
Later, at the presser, party spokesmen did not explain why Rahul was asked to continue as party chief despite the crushing poll defeat.
Reports said a section of the CWC members wanted Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh to take over as Congress president. Congress candidates had put up a good show in Punjab by winning eight of 13 seats.
The Congress spokesmen at the presser remained silent on whether the CWC discussed potential candidates to replace Rahul.
Congress still has talented people to take over the reins and transform the party to stop BJP’s juggernaut. Unfortunately, it cannot think of a leadership beyond the Gandhi family.
Since Congress leaders still believe Rahul can lead the party to victory in the 2024 elections, he has to make himself more credible and evolve new strategies to win back voters.
His immediate task will be to save the governments in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka where some of the legislators are planning to jump the ship and join the BJP.
Four states are going to polls later this year and Rahul has opportunity to prove himself by avenging the recent electoral debacle.
On Saturday, Congress had a chance to shed the dynastic politics and pick a non-Gandhi member as party chief. Such a drastic change could have prompted many people to vote for Congress in the forthcoming elections. That opportunity was wasted.
The party needs a leader with a vision to reinvent it. One wonders whether Rahul can transform himself to take the party to a different level.
He will bring organisational changes by removing some leaders and inducting his own team. But such changes will serve no purpose unless the party starts winning elections.
To cite one example, ahead of the recent polls, Rahul made his sister Priyanka Gandhi party general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh, a BJP stronghold. She joined him in many road shows that drew huge crowds and there was talk about the ‘Priyanka wave.’
However, during the seven-phased elections, Rahul and Priyanka failed to inspire people to vote for change. In the 2014 general elections, the Congress had won 44 seats. Five years later, the party could add only eight more seats to its tally.
But to be fair, Rahul did make sincere efforts to have tie-up with Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) in the decisive Uttar Pradesh state which sends 80 lawmakers to Parliament.
The SP-BSP alliance, which viewed the “scam-tainted” Congress as a liability, rejected Rahul’s offer and performed better than in 2014 elections by securing a total of 15 seats against BJP’s 62. Congress won just one seat while BJP’s ally Apna Dal got two.
Rahul’s defeat in Amethi, the family’s winning seat for decades, has come as a big blow to his party. Media highlighted his poll loss along with BJP’s historic win. Rahul’s supporters were shocked when he conceded defeat even as counting was still under way.
The Amethi debacle exposed the truth Congress had been denying all along — that Rahul contested from a second and “safe” constituency Wyanad sensing defeat in Amethi.
In fact, the day Rahul announced his plan to contest from Wyanad, where he won by a massive margin, his rival in Amethi Smriti Irani of BJP quipped, “Bhago, Rahul, Bhago” (Run, Rahul, Run).
Irani, who was defeated by Rahul in the 2014 polls from Amethi, worked hard for the voters of the constituency after her poll loss and wrested it back from Rahul on Thursday.
According to Irani, Rahul hardly visited Amethi after his 2014 victory and he knew he was going to lose the seat.
The big question now is whether Rahul can do an Irani and win back Amethi.