The Congress is staring at a credibility crisis following its poor show in the Lok Sabha elections, particularly when it comes to taking on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The results are a poor reflection on party president Rahul Gandhi’s leadership capabilities, besides the Congress’ election strategy to take on the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The gravity of the loss can be understood from Gandhi’s loss to Union minister Smriti Irani in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, which was represented by the Gandhi family for over three decades.
India’s oldest political party was limited to just 51 seats, marginally improving from its worst ever tally of 44 seats in 2014 with a 19.3% vote share.
To make matters worse, for the second time in a row, the party will not be able to claim the position of the leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, falling short of the minimum requirement of winning one-tenth of total seats, or 54 seats, in the Lower House.
Addressing a press conference on Thursday evening, Rahul Gandhi said that the “public has given its mandate". When asked if he would resign from the post of party president, Gandhi said “We will have a meeting of the working committee and then it would be decided there...That you can leave between me and the working committee."
While Congress performed poorly across all key states in North India, it faced an electoral bloodbath in a direct contest with the BJP. Out of this, the biggest disappointment was in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where it had defeated the BJP in state elections just six months ago. Out of the 65 parliamentary seats three states represent, the Congress managed to retain just three, virtually giving a walkover to the BJP.
Even in Gujarat, where it had remarkably improved its performance in the assembly polls, the Congress did not win any seats this time. The same story played out in direct contest states such as Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, where it failed to open its account. The shrinking of electoral footprint in the North-East continued, with the Congress conceding half of its 2014 seats largely to a resurgent BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
“We have suffered huge losses in the Hindi heartland. All our gains are only from the South. The BJP ran an aggressive campaign, we could not take on their nationalism narrative and people voted for Modi. Top leaders will sit and introspect on what went wrong where," a senior party leader from Uttar Pradesh said, requesting anonymity.
The leader added that the party should have tried more to stitch up alliances like the one in Uttar Pradesh, where the opposition vote was split between the Congress and the Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) combine.
“As a political party, we need to decide whether our main aim is to take on the BJP or grow as a party. Both can happen simultaneously, but if at all we have to chose one, there should be a uniform approach. Even in states where we did have an alliance, there was hardly a common narrative," a senior party leader from Bihar said, requesting anonymity.
In all, the party drew a blank in over a dozen states. Its only bright spot came from Kerala and Punjab, which together accounted for 23 out of the 50 seats it won. Congress gained maximum seats from the south, including Tamil Nadu.
Party leaders said that despite their push for a ‘constructive campaign’ around a nationwide farm loan waiver and minimum income guarantee scheme, or NYAY, its campaign did not find resonance with the people and only those candidates who were strong locally, ended up winning.
“Unexplainable," said a senior party functionary from Madhya Pradesh, expressing his disappointment on the outcome. “How do you make sense of this result? How do you explain that after winning Chhattisgarh six months ago with two-thirds mandate, we are back to 2014 tally?" he added, also requesting anonymity.
This is the first general election, which was being overseen by Rahul Gandhi as the national president, since he took charge in 2017. Following the historic drubbing in 2014, former party president Sonia Gandhi withdrew herself from active political engagements, while Rahul Gandhi was given the charge to lead from the front.
With the exception of Punjab in 2017, Congress did not win any state poll on its own until last year. A ray of hope for the party came last December, when it won the three state elections. But according to political analysts, Thursday’s results puts the focus back on the leadership crisis in the party. “After 2014, everyone kept talking about how Congress is facing a leadership challenge. People and particularly party workers hoped that they will do much better this time. But that did not happen. Post this result, the questions on Rahul Gandhi will grow. From a leadership challenge in 2014, this has become a leadership crisis in 2019," said Sanjay Kumar, director at the New Delhi-based Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
Party leaders, however, said that it will be a while before voices of dissent come to the fore from within the party to question the leadership. “People will either desert the party or not question the leadership. If not the Gandhis, then who?" a senior party functionary said, requesting anonymity.
Senior party leaders were also wary of the fact that many Congress top guns lost from their seats, and this would have an impact on the party’s state units.
While sitting Lok Sabha members Mallikarjun Kharge, Sushmita Dev, Ranjeet Ranjan and Jyotiraditya Scindia have lost the elections, former chief ministers Digvijaya Singh and Sheila Dikshit, too, had to concede defeat.
After the results were announced on Thursday, Congress’ challenge will not be limited to putting its house in order, but to stand up to a stronger and resurgent BJP in key assembly polls. Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Delhi and Bihar will go to polls over the next one year.
Besides, considering that it will have a minor presence in the Lok Sabha for the second time in a row—it may not stake claim for the post of the leader of opposition—the party will have to build greater consensus among all opposition parties to make any strong pitch in the Lok Sabha.
According to analysts, the larger challenge, or ‘crisis’ as they put it, will be to accept that the party needs to reinvent itself to adapt to the new political realities.
“Frankly, Congress has multiple challenges and that is not restricted to this election alone. Everyone can predict what happens next from here. Almost like a clockwork, Congress will form a committee with its old war horses, who will prepare a report on what went wrong, but those issues will never get discussed. People will offer to resign taking responsibility, but almost everyone will continue to be on board," said Ashutosh Kumar, professor of political science at Panjab University.
“Congress is like an old elephant, which has an idea attached to it, but that too is fading gradually. The challenge for the party is to either arrest that decline or allow it to happen rapidly," he added.