- The Congress drew a blank in 18 states and Union Territories and could reach double figures in only one — Kerala.
- In Uttar Pradesh, where the Congress had in a belated attempt at taking on the BJP pulled out its trump card of Priyanka Gandhi, the party’s vote share dipped from 7.53 per cent to 6.31 per cent while the total votes came down from 60.61 lakh to 54.57 lakh.
- In the 22 UP seats that the party won in 2009 — identified as priority seats this time — the Congress polled fewer votes in 14 seats as compared to 2014. Among those who saw a dip in their votes include big names such as Salman Khurshid, R P N Singh, Annu Tandon and Jitin Prasada.
- In Madhya Pradesh, the state it wrested a mere five months ago from the BJP, its vote share and total votes dipped over 2014. The vote share dip in Karnataka, another state where it’s in power, was a massive 10 per cent.
- The party’s votes and vote shares also dipped in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Odisha and Himachal Pradesh, which together account for 115 seats.
- Barring some Union Territories, smaller states in the Northeast and Goa, the party’s vote share touched 40 per cent only in Punjab and Chhattisgarh.
In these numbers lie the story of the enormity and extent of the Congress’s decimation at the hands of a gigantic Narendra Modi wave 2.0.
While the party’s rout — the second-worst defeat in the 134-year-old party’s history — has been ascribed to the overpowering Modi magic, it’s also true that a series of missteps over the last five years, organisational ineptness, misconceived strategies, tactical blunders and poor or clumsy messaging played their part. And as party chief who took over in December 2017 and who led the Congress campaign as its face against Modi, Rahul Gandhi will have to take much of the blame for the rout.
So all eyes were on the Congress Working Committee meeting on May 25. Would Gandhi step down? Or would he bring about much-needed changes, the kind that many read in his promise to “transform the party in ways you cannot imagine” after the party’s loss to the Aam Aadmi Party in the 2013 Delhi elections? But when the party’s highest decision-making body met, there were no surprises – Gandhi offered to step down, but the CWC unanimously rejected his offer and authorised him to “overhaul” and “restructure the party at all levels”.
The same old script
With the Congress ending up with 52 seats, the second-worst performance in its 134-year-old history, it's clear that the party is no match for the BJP's winning might. If the BJP's strength is its structured organisation and its powerful messaging, the Congress finds itself on the backfoot on both these elements that are key to winning any election. Despite a string of setbacks and with its vote share steadily shrinking, the Congress has failed to script a new narrative. The CWC has now authorised Rahul Gandhi to carry out a “complete overhaul” of the party, but that’s a familiar script.
A similar script had unfolded in 2014, when both Sonia Gandhi and Gandhi had offered to resign from their posts and the CWC turned down their offers. Then too, there were promises of change and restructuring, but the Congress stayed the same, barring a few organisational changes.
It was the summer of 2018. Every MP, politician and media personnel was talking about Rahul Gandhi’s bear hug to Prime Minister Modi in Parliament. Sitting in his Parliament office, one senior leader had then candidly observed “a good idea is as good as its execution”.
Love against hatred and anger — that, he said, was a powerful idea, coming from a person who had seen his grandmother and father assassinated. “But that message was lost in its execution… We all know that the BJP, RSS and Modi were spewing hatred but going and hugging the Prime Minister took the seriousness out of that incredible message,” the leader, a former Union minister, had said days after that famous embrace.
Looking back and analysing the debacle, the same leader says, “Our messaging has been very poor. Be it on a rather manufactured issue like triple talaq law or emotive issues like surgical strikes or Balakot attack… we often ended up standing against the public mood and sentiment. Elections are rarely won by campaigning in the last 90 days. It can only firm up a person’s resolve and at best influence a minuscule section of the undecided voters. We perhaps lost the battle even before it began.”
Bewildered Congress leaders argue that the party’s messaging to the youth, who are increasingly shaping opinions within families, have been clumsy. Gandhi may have harped on ballooning unemployment and bread and butter issues, but many top leaders believe it had limited impact when compared to the BJP’s aggressive and mawkish nationalism pitch and its not-too-subtle Hindutva. Adding to that, they say, was a growing impatience with, even revulsion for, dynastic politics.
“Emotions play an important role in India. It is a big factor. We have to realise that and change our strategy accordingly,” says former Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi. It is not just emotive issues where the Congress failed, says another former Union minister. “What message were we conveying by calling GST Gabbar Singh Tax? The Congress president came across as a non-serious politician despite all the hard work that he had put in,” he says.
Lack of ground work
After its loss in 2014, the first election where social media played its part, Congress leaders, some willingly and some grudgingly, had got on to the platform. Many accepted the power of social media and new-age communication tools. But critics say that in their enthusiasm to be seen on social media, many Congress leaders may have missed the fact that this was no substitute for real groundwork.
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“The Communists could organise a kisan march in a state like Maharashtra where they have virtually little or no presence. What were we doing? Look at Jagan (Mohan) Reddy in Andhra. He was on the roads for months together. I think his padayatra touched every district and look at the results… DMK’s Stalin too was active on the ground,” says a former AICC general secretary.
Many in the party believe its leaders sat in Delhi, addressing press conferences and giving out their views on Twitter rather than channelising people’s anger and discontent into movements. “There was agrarian distress, Dalit unrest, anger among traders… and we were not visible on the ground. Most of the PCC presidents were interested in organising street protests, uploading the photographs on social media and sending newspaper clippings of those to Delhi the next morning…Those are not genuine people’s movements,” says a former chief minister who now finds himself out of favour within the party.
“We were happy ceding space to the likes of Jignesh Mewani in Gujarat, Chandrasekhar Azad in UP and Prakash Ambedkar in Maharashtra… even in Madhya Pradesh, we ignored heroes of the farmer agitation like Kedar Sirohi and D P Dhakad when it came to distribution of tickets in the Assembly elections. And the result? We lost three out of four seats in a place like Mandsaur and lost all three in Neemuch. We could have co-opted them,” says a senior leader from Madhya Pradesh.
Many Congress leaders were surprised when Rahul Gandhi decided to hand over the charge of Gujarat, the home state of both the Prime Minister and the BJP president, to 45-year-old first-time MP Rajeev Satav. Many could not simply digest his rise, but the obvious heartburn aside, many senior leaders wondered if he was any match for the Modi-Shah duo.
And then came another shocker. Just three months before elections, Gandhi appointed his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra as AICC general secretary for eastern Uttar Pradesh. “As Congressmen, we cheered and ignored the negative perception Priyanka’s entry into politics had created. But the more important question was that how can a state like UP be treated like this? You are appointing new general secretaries virtually on the eve of elections. And then Ghulam Nabi Azad was sent to Haryana which did not have an active general secretary for long,” says a senior leader.
The results were clear in all three states. The Congress drew a blank in Haryana and Gujarat and its vote share saw a dip in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. With four key elections coming up over the next few months – Haryana, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Delhi early next year— the story of organisational blunders is staring the Congress in the face in state after state.
“In Karnataka, the alliance between the JD(S) and the Congress became fatal to the Congress party. They did not work at all. There was no cohesion between the chief minister and the Congress ministers. The statements by leaders sent a wrong message. Moreover, the Lingayats and Vokkaligas have become hostile to the Congress because of the statements and attitude of former CM Siddaramaiah. Having known that these communities have gone against us, nothing was done to rectify that in the last one year by the high command or anybody here. These things continued to brew,” says a senior leader from Karnataka.
Many of the leaders were heavily critical of AICC general secretary in charge of Karnataka, K C Venugopal. “PCC president Dinesh Gundu Rao has no control over the party and the person in charge (Venugopal) is wishy-washy. He did not apply him mind and nobody could approach him for anything,” says a veteran Congress leader.
In Maharashtra, former Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan said the rout in the state was because of the state leadership.
While Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, who had quit as leader of Opposition in the state Assembly, was “completely compromised from day one” (he had campaigned for his son Sujay Vikhe Patil who joined the BJP), state Congress president Ashok Chavan could not effectively attack the Devendra Fadnavis government on corruption since he himself was facing “criminal, corruption charges”, says Prithviraj Chavan.
Another senior leader said the Congress’s failure to get Prakash Ambedkar on board also cost the party.
In Haryana, the Congress could never get its act together and decide whether to play Jat- or non-Jat politics. “The first thing Ghulam Nabi Azad did after taking charge in January was to organise a bus yatra. And in the forefront were Bhupinder Singh Hooda and his son Deepender Hooda. And both of them were given tickets too. The BJP could easily play the non-Jat card and consolidate all the non-Jats. We did our best by fielding Kumari Selja and all but the result was a whitewash for us,” says a senior leader from the state.
The difference was seen in neighbouring Punjab, where Captain Amarinder Singh was seen as decisive. “Be it on national security issues — Balakot and all — he spoke his mind which was at variance with what the high command was saying. But he did not let the BJP exploit the sentiments. He was much more practical and prudent for a change,” says a senior leader, a long-time critic of Singh.
The tactical blunders in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi when it comes to alliances are just part of the larger problem.
There has been disquiet within the party about Rahul’s core team and anger against the likes of Sam Pitroda for his ill-timed remarks on Pulwama and the 1984 Sikh riots.
“The same team which was in charge of election management in 2014 was there this time too, the only addition this time was Praveen Chakravarty (head of the Data Analytics department of the Congress). And they told Rahul that they have formed 10 lakh booth committees in three weeks,” says a senior leader.
The assertion, sources say, was questioned in the Congress core committee, but the data team managed to prevail. “They also said that in 10 days they had trained all the booth committees, that the Shakti app has 12 million people connected and that there are 10 people per booth. That means over one crore. What can we say if the Congress president bought all of this,” he says.
The biggest factor, say top leaders, is that the Congress lacked a credible story.
“People wanted to hear what we have to offer, especially to the younger India. There was no message for them. And the Data Analytics department kept telling the Congress president and the top leadership that his attack on the Prime Minister on the Rafale issue, the NYAY promise all have got traction…” says a senior leader.
Despite this huge setback, this may not be end of the road for Rahul and his party, but many believe a revival is a steep uphill journey, especially under his leadership and with a politics that has revolved around him and the family.