Drawing a blank in as many as 19 states and Union Territories and managing only 52 seats elsewhere, the Congress Thursday suffered a humiliating defeat yet again in the Lok Sabha elections. The strongest pointer to the rout and decimation of the Congress was the loss of Gandhi stronghold Amethi after 15 years where party president Rahul Gandhi was defeated by Smriti Irani of the BJP.
His win from the second seat of Wayanad ensured Gandhi’s passage to Lok Sabha but his party was trounced, not managing to touch double digits in any state barring Kerala. As he took responsibility for the drubbing, there were indications of unrest within the party, many targeting Gandhi’s team. There were also indications that he could offer to step down when the Congress Working Committee meets.
Several Congress leaders acknowledged that the party had failed to send a message to the young and aspirational India, provide a credible vision or counter-narrative, and played into the hands of the BJP by harping on issues like removal of AFSPA in a campaign driven by hyper-nationalism. They also said the party erred in targeting Narendra Modi, placing him at the centre of the Congress campaign with slogans like ‘chowkidar chor hai’ .
These leaders are calling for fixing of accountability. At least two leaders said they plan to write to the Congress president, demanding an urgent meeting of the CWC to “discuss what went wrong and the way ahead”.
The defeat was so comprehensive that the Congress drew a blank in as many as 19 states and UTs, including Odisha, Rajasthan, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, and picked up one or two seats in the other states barring Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Punjab. If the party’s 15 seats in Kerala and eight each in Tamil Nadu and Punjab are to be discounted, then the tally would have dipped to 20. The Congress, one of its leaders said, has become a South India party. He was not very wrong, Punjab being the only exception where Chief Minister Amarinder Singh held out.
The drubbing was so severe that in the three Hindi heartland states where it returned to power in the assembly elections last winter, the Congress drew a blank in Rajasthan, won only one seat in Madhya Pradesh and managed just two seats in Chhattisgarh. The good showing in Tamil Nadu too came largely with help from the DMK. It could win only one or two seats in state after state, among them Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Bihar, Goa, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh.
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Many of the Congress big guns lost — Mallikarjun Kharge and M Veerappa Moily in Karnataka, Digvijaya Singh in Madhya Pradesh, Bhupinder Singh Hooda and Kumari Selja in Haryana, Ashok Chavan and Sushil Kumar Shinde in Maharashtra, Meira Kumar in Bihar, Pawan Kumar Bansal in Chandigarh, Sheila Dikshit and Ajay Maken in Delhi, Salman Khurshid, Raj Babbar and Sri Prakash Jaiswal in Uttar Pradesh.
Many of its younger faces, including the baba log around Gandhi in Lok Sabha, too fell by the wayside — Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sushmita Dev, Deepender Hooda, Milind Deora, R P N Singh and Jitin Prasada.
In Uttar Pradesh, the only seat the Congress could win was that of Sonia Gandhi in Rae Bareli, making it more than clear that the entry of Priyanka Gandhi into politics and her appointment as AICC general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh had no impact whatsoever. So much so that Rahul Gandhi lost in Amethi, a constituency she had nurtured and where she had spent considerable time campaigning.
Gandhi accepted full responsibility for the defeat and congratulated Modi for the BJP’s victory. “The people are supreme and they have clearly spelt out their decision today. So first of all, I would like to congratulate Narendra Modi and the BJP. I would like to also thank the Congress candidates who fought with all their might. Our battle is an ideological battle. There are two schools of thought — one represented by Narendra Modi and the BJP and the other by the Congress. Two visions. But we will have to accept that Narendra Modi and the BJP have won in this election,” he told reporters.
Asked whether he would step down, he said “we will have a meeting of the Working Committee and we will decide that there.” On whether he would offer his resignation at the CWC, he said “that you can leave between me and the Working Committee if possible”. He did not go into analysing the results or lack of alliances in many states, saying “today is the day of the mandate and I don’t want to colour the decision of the people of India by getting into a long conversation with you about what I think went wrong. Frankly, today, it doesn’t matter what I think wrong.”
“The people of India have decided that Narendra Modi is going to be Prime Minister and as an Indian person, I fully respect that,” he said. He asked the Congress rank and file not to lose heart, and claimed that a vast section of the people in the country still follow the Congress ideology and believe in the party. On his defeat in Amethi, he congratulated Smriti Irani and hoped she would “take care of Amethi with love”.
As the enormity of the defeat became clear, there was churning in the party. “I am not surprised,” senior Congress leader Janardan Dwivedi told The Indian Express without elaborating. Senior leader Anand Sharma said “we lost the narrative and there are many things for that matter which should have been seriously reflected upon on which I don’t want to comment now.”
Several other leaders did not, however, hold back. One leader said many seniors had “serious reservations on certain things which were put in the manifesto like dilution of AFSPA and all… in an election fought on hyper-nationalism, Pulwama, Balakot… you are saying that you will remove AFSPA and redeploy the Army… repeal the sedition law. And then you question Balakot and the Indian Air Force. It went down very badly with the people.”
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“We failed to reached out to the youth… you can’t give them 6000 rupees… there was total disconnect,” another senior leader said. “People wanted to hear what is your message, vision… they did not want to hear nonsense… none of the senior leaders, from the very beginning, were in favour of usages like chowkidar chor hai, Gabbar Singh Tax and all… these are not Congress phraseology. What will happen if you rely on former JNU activists,” one senior leader said.