Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s unwillingness to own personal responsibility for the electoral drubbing in Uttar Pradesh, a key northern State that drives the national narrative, holds mirror to the crisis gripping the grand old party. The enormity of the defeat doesn’t seem to have shaken the Congress out of its slumber. If loyal Congress workers expected an honest introspection and articulation of future road map from their leader, they would have been hugely disappointed with Rahul’s rather casual reaction to poll verdict, that too coming nearly 72 hours after the announcement of results. The Congress scion had campaigned extensively in UP but the party managed to win just seven seats out of 103 it contested as part of an alliance with the Samajwadi Party. The party lost ground in parts of Amethi and Rae Bareli, the traditional bastions of the Gandhi family. Rahul’s talk of the need for “structural changes” in the party sounds hollow because his promise of a thorough overhaul of the organisation, made soon after the party’s rout in the 2014 general elections, is yet to materialise. The top leadership still appears to be in a state of lethargy even after losing power in State after State since 2014. Questions are bound to be raised over the efficacy of Rahul’s leadership at a time when the rival BJP has been displaying extraordinary energy, aggressiveness and hunger to go an extra mile in its pursuit of power.
Internal rumblings have already started with a senior party leader saying it was time the leadership considered drastic steps since the need of the hour was “cardiac surgery”. Congress whip in Rajya Sabha Satyavrat Chaturvedi put it bluntly when he said that party leaders were losing hope of any corrective measures and frustration was growing. Another party veteran Mani Shankar Aiyar spoke of the need for the Congress to take the lead in putting together an “inclusive alliance of secular forces” if it wants to defeat the BJP in the 2019 elections. The party needs to revisit some of its strategies and restructure the organisation to stay relevant. The inability to nurture strong regional leaders has been its biggest failure leading to a string of electoral defeats. The outcome in Punjab, which provided a face-saver in the latest round of elections, shows that strong regional leaders can make a difference to the party’s fortunes. Despite emerging as the single largest party in Goa and Manipur, the party failed to move in quickly to cobble together alliances with smaller parties to capture power. The party leadership must now realise that making anti-Modi rhetoric the sole campaign plank will not work. Personalised campaign, without offering an alternative policy agenda, will not appeal to an increasingly aspirational Indian voter.