Verdict 2019 is also a resounding vote of no confidence in the Congress, its leadership and the narrative it offered to voters. The party has barely managed to improve its tally from its all-time low of 44 seats and 19 per cent vote share in 2014 — it has now won 52 seats while the vote share indicates no change. Rahul Gandhi has been defeated in the family borough of Amethi and the Congress’s success has been limited to Kerala in the south and Punjab in the north-west. Voters in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, who voted the party into office in assembly elections less than six months ago, have rejected the Rahul Gandhi-led party’s bid for power at the Centre.
But is the Congress willing to read the verdict honestly and act on the message? Soon after the 2014 debacle, the party authorised senior leader, A K Antony, to study the causes of its defeat. Antony submitted a report to then Congress President Sonia Gandhi — nothing has been heard about it since. The leaders who led the Congress to defeat in 2014 continue to manage the party in 2019. It is unlikely that they will be held accountable for the 2019 defeat. And why would they, if the Gandhis who preside over the party’s destiny are not compelled to engage its leaders and workers in a conversation on why the party has been on a downhill course since the 1980s. The absence of accountability, born out of a sense of entitlement of those at the party’s top echelons, is an important factor in stalling the party’s revival. It breeds complacency, reflected in the party leadership’s failure to carve out a coherent poll strategy. The party was unable to firm up alliances in states including UP, West Bengal and Delhi. It seemed unable to decide if its primary task was to oust the Modi government in 2019 or rebuild itself for a future election. The Congress came up with NYAY to project an alternative welfare narrative to the Modi government’s schemes and financial handouts to farmers — but it came too late, only days ahead of polls. Prime Minister Modi could remain in command of the political narrative through his tenure also because the Congress could not seize the initiative at any point. Be it on demonetisation, farm distress and GST or the BJP’s championing of a muscular nationalism, the Congress was in a reactive mode and its leadership appeared incapable of setting the agenda.
Young and aspirational India refuses to be awed by legacy and patronage. It is likely to reject a party that privileges dynasts and treats leadership as a matter of inheritance. The Congress must know that, in the final instance, a political party that is a family enterprise makes an uneasy fit in a democracy.