Congress rout raises more questions over Gandhi leadership

Amitabh Tiwari
·Columnist
·4-min read
Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Photo: Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Congress leaders Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Photo: Ajay Aggarwal/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The election results for the four states and one Union Territory are out. Incumbents have retained power in Assam (NDA), Bengal (TMC) and Kerala (LDF), while the opposition has stormed to power in Tamil Nadu (DMK+) and Puducherry (NDA).

It has been a disastrous result for the Congress party. It failed to retain Puducherry. In Kerala, it was not able to dethrone Vijayan despite a strong trend of four decades (people throwing out incumbent every five years) in its favour.

The grand old party was unsuccessful in unseating the Bharatiya Janata Party in Assam despite significant anti-CAA protests in the state and a strong alliance with AIUDF and BPF.

It scored a naught in Bengal where it has a stronghold in 32 seats which it had won in every election since 2006. It’s tally from 44 in 2016 fell to zero this time.

The only consolation which the Congress has is that it is part of the grand alliance, led by the DMK, which won the elections in Tamil Nadu. However, we all know, here it is a minor partner piggybacking on the DMK’s strength and it cannot be called a Congress victory.

So what went wrong for the party?

It has been noticed in the past elections that Congress is normally the weak link in an alliance. The strike rate of Congress in Assam (27%) and Kerala (27%) is much lower than that of its allies: AIUDF (80%) and IUML (64%), respectively.

With the Congress contesting more than 3/4th of the seats in states being the bigger brother, it pulls down the prospects of the alliance with its weak performance.

Be it the BJP in Assam or the LDF in Kerala, wherever the incumbent faced regional parties, there was a tough contest, and they gained the upper hand.

However, wherever BJP/LDF faced Congress in head to head contests, the grand old party has languished. Slowly and steadily there is a trust deficit building amongst voters against the Congress.

The party didn’t announce chief ministerial candidates in the two states where it was in serious contention. The party units are plagued by factionalism, although to be fair there is groupism in all parties. The Congress top leadership needs to sort it out and back the strongest leader of the unit.

Since the days of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress high command has encouraged such factions so that there doesn’t emerge a leader strong enough to challenge the authority of the Gandhi family.

State elections are also increasingly becoming a personality contest. Voters like strong leadership like that of Modi, Vijayan, Mamata, Stalin, Himanta. Thus you need a charismatic leader to counter in a presidential-style election battle. This hasn’t been the case with Congress.

When there is no leader and you contest under a combined leadership, there is no accountability for failure. Now who should Congress blame in Assam for the loss: Gogoi or Sushmita Dev? Who should it balme in Kerala for the loss: Chandy or Chennithala? Where should the responsibility lie?

The party high command is akin to the bureaucracy in the country, it sits on important files/matters, and doesn’t press into action unless there is a fire right under their chair.

The Congress’s top as well as regional leadership gets active very late and only during election season while throwing out a state government is a 5-year project.

In the first three years one has to create a negative environment / perception about the party in power and in the next two years you have to go for the kill. Clearly it lacks such leaders both in states and at national level.

Since Rahul Gandhi was leading the campaign in Kerala and Priyanka in Assam and the party had not declared any chief ministerial face, the responsibility for the loss squarely lies at their doorstep.

They acted late, weren’t decisive enough and failed to build a strategy to take advantage of the anti-incumbency against the LDF in Kerala and the BJP in Assam. Kerala voters display a strong penchant for change but the Congress wasn’t able to tap it.

In Bengal, the party seems to have systematically transferred its vote to the TMC in stronghold seats of Malda, Murshidabad and Uttar Dinajpur. While in the short term this strategy has worked as Congress succeeded in preventing the BJP from coming to power, in the long term it will have disastrous implications.

One more state has become Congress-mukt. These short-sighted tactics without taking into account the bigger national picture shows the party lacks long-term vision.

Knives will be out in the Congress: the top leadership was already facing pressure from the rebel G-23 group. The party has to appoint a new president by June and Sonia’s plans of passing on the mantle again to Rahul have received a big setback.

Interesting days ahead for the Congress and the high command.

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