Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s relentless “chowkidar chor hai” campaign against Prime Minister Narendra Modi was “negative” in its tone and the party leadership’s “inept” approach towards the Pulwama terror attack and the Balakot air strikes in its wake played a major role in shaping public opinion against the Congress, some top party leaders said a day after the Congress’s humiliating defeat in the Lok Sabha elections.
At least one former Chief Minister, speaking to The Indian Express on the condition that he not be named, argued that a Congress revival may be “difficult” with Rahul Gandhi at the helm. “Because now a huge antipathy has been developed towards this whole entitlement politics. Because I belong to a family, I can be a leader, my sister can be leader…you must accept that all. That people, especially the younger generation, is not accepting.” At least three senior leaders — all former Union Ministers — were critical of the campaign in their conversations with The Indian Express.
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“Our strategy was wrong. We took a negative attitude calling Modi.. chowkidar chor hai…that gave very negative vibes and people did not appreciate that. Even though Rahul Gandhi worked very hard, he monotonously started repeating that…which people did not appreciate,” said a former Chief Minister who lost the election.
Remember Antony report?
After the rout in 2014, Congress leader A K Antony headed a committee to study what went wrong and suggest corrective action. That report remains buried till date. Adding eight seats in five years and barely 1 crore voters when the BJP added 5 crore is the challenge the Congress faces going forward. There are voices of discontent but all eyes are on how Rahul gives them a hearing.
The Congress, another former Union Minister said, should have dealt with the Pulwama terror attack and the subsequent Balakot strike in a “more sensitive way.”
“That is how they picked. They got the advantage. That was the overarching thing which gave benefit to the BJP. The people gave votes for Modi and not candidates,” he said. Echoing the same sentiments, another former Union Minister pointed out that casual statements made by some leaders, including Sam Pitroda’s remarks on the Mumbai terror attack, helped the BJP strengthen its narrative and shape public opinion against the Congress.
Read | Spate of resignations in Congress: UP chief Raj Babbar, Amethi in-charge, 2 other state chiefs quit
He recalled that the Prime Minister had attacked the Congress after Pitroda in the context of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack said India cannot “jump on an entire nation” (Pakistan) just because some people from there came and did something.” The party, he said, had to indulge in damage control then.
AICC secretary Manickam Tagore said the party should have projected Rahul Gandhi as the Prime Ministerial candidate. He said had the party projected a PM candidate “voters will choose…when we don’t what for they will vote…Hope CWC corrects the mistake in future for states too.”
Amid the first voices of discontent within the party, Rahul Gandhi has convened a meeting of the Congress Working Committee Saturday. Many leaders expect him to offer his resignation which would not be accepted. At least one senior leader said: “Don’t be surprised if he proposes some drastic restructuring of the party…attention has to be diverted. Creating new posts…like Working Presidents, asking all PCC presidents to resign for a revamp…all these can be put on the table.”
Meanwhile, efforts have also begun to insulate Rahul from any blame for the defeat even though he has taken full responsibility for it. State Congress presidents of Uttar Pradesh and Odisha Raj Babbar and Niranjan Patnaik announced their resignations taking responsibilities for the debacle.
A former Congress Chief Minister said Rahul placed “self above party” and pitted himself against Modi with the “Chowkidaar chor hai” slogan.
Also, people seem to be unwilling to accept Rahul and Priyanka as a leader since they believe it is “family entitlement” that has placed them in leadership positions in the party. “How can you anoint Priyanka as party General Secretary one fine day when many workers are tirelessly working for the party for years without any organisational position,” the senior Congress leader said.
Many things Rahul did were questioned by party seniors. “Right from hugging the Prime Minister in Parliament to his hesitation about contesting in Wayanad or even the confusion regarding fielding Priyanka in Varanasi, reflected poorly on his decision-making,” the leader said.
While arguments linking allegations of corruption in Rafale to Modi “lacked sophistication”, calling GST a “Gabbar Singh Tax” went against the party’s stance on economic reform, a former Congress CM said.
“A scheme like NYAY requires that it be professionally communicated to the poor in very simple terms… at many places, the poor thought NYAY had something to do with legal justice,” the former CM added, pointing out to Rahul’s poor messaging skills about party’s key planks in the run-up to elections.
Former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi told The Indian Express that the Congress could not match Modi’s “emotional” pitch on several issues and argued the Congress “will have to give an impression that we are not anti-Hindu. Naturally, the propaganda against us that we are appeasing Muslims, that we are anti-Hindus…that image we have to change. Because that is the game he (Narendra Modi) has been playing. That impression he has been able to create and he has been successful also.”
Gogoi, a member of the Congress Working Committee, said: “People have gone for issues, certain principles. Now Modi has changed the whole tactics. He is not going for the main issues. He plays the sentiment card much more…emotionally he wants to win over the people…and emotion is a very important part…sometime people forget about their hardships…so how to counter that. It is not easy but we will have to counter it.” The Congress, he said, could not convince the people that it would ensure the interests of the “majority”.