His silence Thursday is also the story of the Congress this Assembly election. While the party put up a brave face and its leaders pointed to a resurgence in Haryana and a better-than-2014 performance in Maharashtra despite a slow-off-the-blocks campaign, Rahul Gandhi, until midnight, had not made a single comment, not even on Twitter.
While AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, on a visit to Rae Bareli, said she was “really happy” with the party’s performance in Haryana and “the fact that here in UP our vote percentage has increased from the Lok Sabha elections”, it was left to other party leaders to lift morale and take on the BJP. And they made no secret of the fact that the showing could have been much better had key decisions been taken early in the run-up to the elections. Full list of winners constituency wise
Senior leaders said the Haryana outcome is a message to the Congress and the Opposition that the BJP can be fought. While underlining that it “dispels the false perception that… the BJP is invincible and the Opposition has capitulated”, Anand Sharma, who is also a member of the Congress Working Committee, said: “(Bhupinder Singh)Hooda has led an inspired fightback. The organisational change should have taken place much earlier. In retrospect, I can say that had it been earlier, we would have got a clear majority.”
Party veteran and Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath, in a television interview, made similar remarks. The party has gone down fighting in Haryana — it has managed to more than double its tally — and credit for the resurgence is being attributed to Hooda. This is likely to strengthen the hands of the old guard in the organisation and weaken Rahul Gandhi’s position considerably. A churn has already begun in the party with veterans openly saying that the party could have emerged victorious had Hooda been given charge of the state earlier.
Congress leaders said the key takeaway for the party from the Haryana numbers is that the BJP can be challenged in state elections if the party has a strong local leader who can exploit the anti-incumbency mood. During the campaign, Hooda did not mention the Prime Minister’s name or any big national issue, focusing instead on purely local issues.
With Delhi and Jharkhand going to polls in the next few months, party leaders say it is time to empower established state leaders. According to Congress leaders, it was Rahul who delayed the leadership change in Haryana, overruling the old guard who had argued that Ashok Tanwar had neither been able to inspire confidence among the rank and file nor unify the party. The party went to Lok Sabha elections with Tanwar, a Rahul protege, at the helm. After considerable pressure, he was replaced by Kumari Selja and Hooda was made CLP leader, barely a month before elections by Sonia Gandhi who returned as party chief.
“We are ourselves to blame. For five years, we humiliated a tall leader (Hooda),” said another CWC member. Many leaders said Sonia’s decision to set up a panel to craft the party’s strategy on important issues itself was a reflection of the changing dynamics in the party. Sources said there had been demands, ever since the Lok Sabha election defeat, for collective thinking and decision-making in the party.
Several leaders in the Congress said the party did not fight as a national party in these elections. They pointed out that even a coordination committee consisting of top leaders was set up barely 10 days ahead of the elections. “That gives you an idea how well prepared we were. The committee met for the first time on October 11 and then once or twice after that,” a leader said. Rahul himself took a back seat in these elections. Unlike in the past, he did not campaign much in Haryana.
While Sonia did not campaign at all, Rahul addressed only seven rallies — five in Maharashtra and two in Haryana. He addressed the second rally in Mahendragarh after Sonia pulled out at the last minute. Sources said there was not much demand from Congress candidates for Rahul’s rallies this time in Haryana. In Maharashtra too, the party suffered in Mumbai where a tug-of-war between Rahul loyalists Sanjay Nirupam and Milind Deora went on during the campaign period.
Many Congress leaders had been critical of Rahul’s style of appointing working presidents in states. “Appointment of a president and a host of working presidents has proved to be counter-productive. Sonia did not appoint working presidents either in Haryana or in Delhi. Just months ago, Rahul appointed a president and working president in Maharashtra. All of them contested elections, leaving the organisation headless,” a senior leader said.