Rahul Gandhi’s fall from grace in a family bastion holds answers to the Congress’ wider electoral washout
Smriti Irani regularly attended religious congregations in Amethi. Before polling day, local TV channels showed her running around to douse the fire in a crop field
Amethi ka MP. 2019 ka PM (Amethi’s member of Parliament (MP). Prime Minister PM in 2019). That is the prophecy which still adorns the walls of the Congress’ office in Gauriganj, Uttar Pradesh, a town of 300,000 people in Amethi district. But things went horribly wrong on 23 May. On that day, as the rest of the nation was coming to grips with Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s unexpected loss in a seat which has seen only two non-Congress MPs since 1967, Amethi was rather calm and unsurprised. Even the party’s grassroots workers now admit, although in private and with the benefit of hindsight: “Yeh to hona hi tha (This was bound to happen)."
In many ways, the shock defeat in Amethi mirrors the predicament of the grand old party—a party which played a defining role in India’s independence is now largely unable to defend itself when branded “anti-national" by its opponent. In Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 elected representatives to Parliament, the most among all states, the Congress won just one seat—the family bastion of Rae Bareli. In as many as 15 states and Union territories, the party failed to win a single seat. In 10 states, it won just one.
The reasons why Rahul Gandhi lost Amethi by a margin of 55,000 votes (he won the Wayanad seat in Kerala by over 430,000 votes) are also indicative of the party’s poor performance elsewhere, except Punjab (where it won eight seats out of 13), Kerala (15 seats out of 20) and Tamil Nadu (where it won eight seats and its ally DMK won 23 seats out of 38 seats where elections were held). The only shocking element on the ground in Amethi is that most people are not shocked by the results—not even the grassroots workers of the Congress, who blame poor campaign management for the defeat.
“The Gandhis should realize that Ta Ta Bye Bye does not get votes anymore," said Hasmat Ali, a grains trader from Tiloi in Amethi, referring to the roadshows and meetings where leaders wave at the public from a distance. “Sanjay Gandhi lost Amethi in the elections which followed the Emergency in 1977 due to anger against nasbandi (forced sterilization)... then Rajiv Gandhi (former PM and father of Rahul Gandhi) worked a lot for the people here. But how long can a son keep winning on past legacy?" asks Ali.
Many residents of Amethi, whom Mint spoke with during a visit last Sunday, three days after the election results were announced, echoed Ali’s sentiments and squarely compared Gandhi’s popular disconnect with Union minister and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Smriti Irani’s efforts to bond with locals.
“After losing the elections in 2014 to Rahul Gandhi, she came repeatedly. Once the 2019 election dates were announced, Irani camped here for more than a month-and-a-half, travelling and meeting villagers," said Ali.
Congress slept, BJP swept
At a tea shop in Jais tehsil in Amethi, a young farmer put up a spirited defence of PM Narendra Modi’s schemes when asked why he voted for the BJP. “We received two instalments of ₹2,000 each from the PM-Kisan scheme... he gave us ₹4,000 (the second instalment came a few days before the day of polling). No one before him even gave us ₹4 in our hands," said 30-year-old Visweshwar Verma.
The overall consensus of the group sitting inside the tea shop is that the BJP was expected to win these elections: “Man, dhan se chunav lada BJP ne... koi Kasar nahin choda (the BJP put its heart and resources to win the elections). An alert Congress should have seen it coming but they kept on sleeping."
The Gauriganj office of the Congress from where the campaign was managed wore a deserted look on Sunday—locked from inside, with most district-level party functionaries’ phones switched off. A short distance from the party office, Brijesh Kumar, 40, a Congress party worker, was fuming. “Our local leaders expected to win without doing anything... there was no campaign in the villages, nor was anyone there to listen to people’s problems."
His biggest complaint, however, is that the local leadership prevented workers from meeting Rahul Gandhi whenever he visited. “We could only see him from far away. We were told that a 134-year-old party will not function according to our suggestions." The disconnect and lack of grassroots campaign also meant that the Nyuntam Aay Yojana (NYAY)—the ₹72,000 per year minimum income guarantee scheme for the poorest which was promised in the Congress manifesto—escaped popular imagination.
According to Jay Prakash Kaushal, a resident of Gauriganj, the widening gap with the ordinary people coupled with the gatekeeping by local leaders cost the Congress the crucial seat. “The results will hold a mirror to Rahul Gandhi... the party should have seen this coming," he said.
The people who gathered at the shop of Brijesh Kumar, who runs a spectacles business, also refer to the past election trends which should have raised enough warning flags. In the 2014 general election, Rahul Gandhi’s margin of victory fell to a little over 107,000 votes from 370,000 votes in 2009. In the 2017 state assembly elections, the Congress lost in each of the five assembly constituencies in Amethi. It was nowhere to be seen during the Panchayat elections in 2018. The conclusion: the poor election management in Amethi is indicative of the Congress’ wider decimation in states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, where the party witnessed a washout despite winning state elections less than four months ago.
According to Akhilesh Pratap Singh, a senior Lucknow-based leader and spokesperson of the Congress, the lack of foot soldiers who could campaign for the party, coupled with the BJP’s dominance of television and social media, were major reasons for the electoral loss of the party. “We were fighting a moral battle... the (popular) support for Modi is grounded in astha (faith), which does not see any merit or demerit," he said.
Gandhi family legacy
From infrastructure to restoring agricultural land, the Gandhis have indeed done a fair share of work and managed to change the face of Amethi, but the youth of today has no attachment to this history of development, said Sudhir Panwar, professor at the University of Lucknow and a former member of state planning board. “When the Jat farmer leader, Ajit Singh, lost in the 2014 general election, there was anger in the villages of western Uttar Pradesh. But after he lost this time, there is none. The same goes for the Congress in Amethi. Ordinary workers of the Congress are also deserting the party since it is not in a position to benefit them in any way," Panwar said.
The shaky foundation of the Congress campaign compares starkly with the BJP, which took care of minute details. Smriti Irani regularly attended religious congregations held by women in the villages. Before polling day, local television channels beamed visuals of her running around to douse the fire in a crop field.
According to Vivek Mishra, a young booth-level worker of the BJP, dislodging Gandhi from Amethi took months of hard work. “The BJP fought these elections at a micro level as if it was Panchayat elections. We worked as social workers, helping people enrol under the Ayushman Bharat (the PM’s flagship health insurance) scheme, and ensured that farmers received the PM-Kisan money transfers."
That is not all. Polarization on religious lines was also an integral part of the election strategy. “The beef eaters had to be taught a lesson... who else but the BJP can protect the interest of Hindus?" asked Rajwant Singht, a 65-year-old resident of Gauriganj.
Hrishik Pandey, 21, from Pure Dhana Pandey village in Jais, who voted for the first time, said: “Hindus have been suppressed for far too long... see, Rahul also knew that he will lose, so he ran away to Wayanad (in Kerala) where Hindus are in minority... but don’t you think southern states are odd. Why did they vote the other way?"
The way ahead
With uncertainty looming large on the entire Congress parivar in the aftermath of the defeat, huddled discussions have become common among the few workers of India’s grand old party who line the corridors of Nehru Bhavan, the party’s state headquarters in Lucknow. Rahul Gandhi has insisted he wants to quit as party president.
Most in the Nehru Bhavan corridor, however, think that Gandhi will be back in charge: “The party will collapse without him."
According to one, the attitude of local leaders in Amethi—shisha upar karke chalna (those who commute in cars with the windows rolled up)—and the BJP’s effective propaganda that damaged the Gandhi family’s reputation were the major reasons why the party lost Amethi. “The campaign to call the PM a thief (chowkidar chor hai) also seems to have backfired."
In hindsight, the 2019 results show where the opposition went wrong: by directing all their criticism against Narendra Modi, they also aided in shifting the focus away from other pressing issues like farm distress and rising unemployment. That is nowhere truer than in the dusty heartland of Uttar Pradesh.
An overwhelming 47% of respondents in Uttar Pradesh preferred Narendra Modi as PM, shows a recent CSDS Lokniti post-poll survey. For voters, the survey said, party or candidates mattered very little—their vote was for Modi, whose absence would have cost the BJP up to 12% of its vote share in the populous state. The Modi wave, following the Balakot retaliatory airstrikes against Pakistan, which sealed Modi’s image as a decisive leader, not only swept away the chances of Gandhi in Amethi but also undid the caste arithmetic which the mahagathbandhan (grand coalition) of the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party banked on.
While the saffron party’s organizational might and grassroots reach certainly were factors, one also needs to understand the mass psychology when it comes to the electorate’s fascination with Modi, said K. K. Kailash, who teaches political science at the University of Hyderabad. “The only thing which could have made a difference, NYAY, which was promised as an answer to the politics of mandir (temple) and mandal (the Mandal Commission), was announced a little too late," he added.
The Congress had hoped that the road to Delhi in 2019 would be paved via Uttar Pradesh. Instead, Uttar Pradesh may have shown the party a road to its future, if it chooses to read the signs.
The Amethi defeat has clearly stung the party out of slumber, inviting a flurry of resignations from state units—a meltdown which it has not witnessed since 1998 when Sonia Gandhi first took over as party president.
“The crisis is unique in the sense that no one expected this situation in the history of the Congress: consecutive miserable defeats," said Badri Narayan, a social historian and professor at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute in Prayagraj. From the block to the central level, most leaders in the party are part-time politicians—they lack commitment for the organization, he said. “The Congress needs to acquire a new body and new soul in order to respond."