He was billed as the Congress party’s star campaigner in the Uttar Pradesh elections, the one who would revive the fortunes of the party, out of power in the politically key state for more than two decades.
But despite the gruelling hours on the road in Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 lawmakers to the national parliament in Delhi, and scores of public rallies addressed by Rahul Gandhi, the 41-year-old scion of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, the Congress came in a poor fourth—way behind the Samajwadi Party, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Going by the numbers, India’s grand old party won just a handful of seats more than it did in the 2007 assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh when it won 22 seats in the 403-member assembly. The party fared badly in its pocket boroughs of Rae Bareli and Amethi, the latter being Gandhi’s parliamentary constituency, places where his sister Priyanka also campaigned, prompting critics to ask whether it was time to start writing his political obituary.
Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi.
Not yet, according to analysts. “He put up a courageous fight when the odds were against him,” said Balveer Arora, former head of the political science department at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.
“It was always seen as an uphill task and no one really expected a dramatic reversal in the Congress fortunes. He has taken on the task of reviving the Congress in Uttar Pradesh and that is a sound strategy,” he said, referring to the Congress party’s base that has seen a steady erosion since 1989. That was the year the party last completed a five-year term in office. “It is a long and slow process of reviving the party ahead,” Arora said.
Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi talks about his party’s setback in Uttar Pradesh and what he plans to do next
Still, fighting the regional parties may be an uphill task.
“I think the Congress belongs to an era or an epoch when there was nationalism and when nationalistic parties talked about issues that would appeal to the voters then. With the decline of nationalism and nationalist parties, there was a rise in regional parties (which affected the Congress),”said Vidhu Verma, professor of political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
UP’s sizable Muslim population also moved away from the party after the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, which was seen as a failure of the Congress party.
Against this backdrop, the Congress winning 21 parliamentary seats from the state in 2009 was seen as a direct consequence of Gandhi’s campaigning. It was this that the Congress was hoping to better but as the results poured in, a smiling but subdued Gandhi on Tuesday promised to keep up with his efforts.
“I told the people of Uttar Pradesh (during campaigning) that I would be with them even after the elections and I intend to keep that promise,” he told reporters during a brief appearance during the day.
Taking “responsibility” for the poor results, Gandhi said, “This is one of my defeats and I take it in my stride,” he said. “I expect to have victories along the way and I expect to have defeats. I think it will make me think in detailed ways, which I like to do.” He pinpointed the Congress’ weak organizational structure as the primary cause for the loss.
N. Bhaskara Rao, head of the Centre For Media Studies think tank, was of the view that despite the poor showing by the Congress, Gandhi had established himself as a prominent campaigner for the party—a far cry from the days when he was known as reluctant or shy with a self-declared, back-office role.
“There were some ill-advised actions by him like the tearing up of the Samajwadi Party manifesto,” Rao said, referring to an incident on the Uttar Pradesh campaign trail. “Such things should not have happened. So, when Rahul talks about introspection, he should do a rethink about the kind of advisers he has around him. On his own, I think he would have done better.”
According to Rao, the Congress was still looking to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty—three members of which have been prime ministers—to deliver victory. But for this the party and the government needed to team up with him.
“The Gandhi name alone is not enough to win votes. You need sound policies and a good organizational structure to back up charisma. The party has to support the government and the other way around,” Rao said, making it clear he was talking of corruption-free public services and good governance rather than election-time sops.
The Congress government “seems to have lost its connect with the people and the aam admi slogan that had propelled it to power seems to ring hollow these days,” said Rao.
He was referring to the Congress party’s election slogan that brought it back to power in 2009 for a second term at the head of a coalition government.
“They have lost their USP (unique selling proposition). They introduced some novel measures like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act. But the impact of these have been lost on the people because of ineffective communication. It seems out of sync with the people. It’s time for the (Congress-led) United Progressive Alliance to reposition itself,” Rao said, adding that the poll results in Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Uttarakhand and Punjab were a public response to this disconnect. “There is an urgent need for introspection and course correction otherwise it will be too late to arrest the downfall.”
Anuja contributed to this story
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