Backlash against Gandhi dynasty after poll drubbing
Congress scion blamed for failure as the party is accused of mounting a lacklustre campaign unresponsive to youth
New Delhi — Rahul Gandhi is set to face a backlash from within the main Indian opposition Congress Party after it suffered a mauling for a second general election in a row from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist party.
The drubbing was so bad that Gandhi himself lost the traditional family seat in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.
As vote-counting trends on Thursday showed Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning more than 300 seats against just 49 for Congress, current and former party officials blamed a lacklustre campaign and a failure to overhaul its top team.
“If they want to change anything, change the leadership,” said a Congress official in the western state of Rajasthan, referring to the old guard around Gandhi. “You need to give young people a chance.”
Younger Indians find it difficult to accept that Gandhi was appointed Congress president only because of his lineage.
He was among five current and three former party officials who told Reuters said that Gandhi’s inability to jettison older leaders responsible for a major debacle in the 2014 general election and push forward newer, younger faces was a mistake.
All eight sources sought anonymity. Gandhi’s office did not respond to a request for an interview.
Still, the 48-year-old Gandhi remains powerful within a party that has ruled India for most of its history since independence from Britain in 1947, and is unlikely to face a leadership challenge immediately.
But Congress’s continued slide has raised questions both about its future and the role of his family.
Younger Indians find it difficult to accept that Gandhi was appointed Congress president only because of his lineage as the son, grandson, and great-grandson of prime ministers, said prominent historian and columnist Ramachandra Guha.
“The Congress should dump the dynasty,” he tweeted.
Today's @IndianExpress has a civilized debate on the future of the Congress Party. Yogendra Yadav thinks the Congress Must Die; Suhas Palshikar thinks the Congress Must Live. Neither mentions a third (and most honourable) alternative: The Congress should dump the Dynasty.— Ramachandra Guha (@Ram_Guha) May 22, 2019
In May 2014, after Congress slumped to its worst performance in a general election, with 44 seats, Gandhi said: “There’s a lot for us to think about and, as vice-president of the party, I hold myself responsible.”
Five years on, his party has suffered a further beating at the hands of the BJP and he even lost the family borough of Amethi in northern Uttar Pradesh, though he won the second constituency from which he had contested, in southern India.
Congress also proved unable to effectively parry Modi’s campaign emphasis on national security, after aerial clashes and heightened tension with arch rival Pakistan following a suicide attack in disputed Kashmir that killed 40 Indian policemen.
At the end of 2018, Congress’s hopes of upsetting Modi had increased, after it won three heartland states in elections, largely driven by voter concerns about weak farm incomes and a lack of jobs.
But Congress fumbled communications on key policies, with a publicity campaign in 2019 that escaped the notice even of some of its own workers, and failed to forge pre-election alliances in key states, said the party officials.
‘College of sycophants’
The campaign was substantially delayed because of disagreements between 66-year-old Anand Sharma and other senior leaders, two party officials said.
Sharma denied the accusation, saying that putting together the campaign was a complex process. “There was no delay whatsoever in the launch of Congress campaign,” he said.
The campaign was launched on April 7, just four days before the first round of voting began in a general election spread over seven phases across 39 days.
In Rajasthan, which Congress won in 2018 , its choice of 68-year-old Ashok Gehlot as chief minister, instead of 41-year-old Sachin Pilot, backfired, losing it the support of a key caste grouping, the official said, leaving the BJP likely to sweep all 25 seats.
Gandhi was encircled by a “college of sycophants”, said a former Congress official who joined a rival bloc in 2019 .
“It doesn’t matter if you have talent or merit,” the former official said, adding, “What matters is you have the right family name or the right mentor.”
In contrast to Modi, a tea vendor’s son who rose through party ranks, Gandhi’s lineage is a weakness the prime minister has repeatedly exploited.
In Uttar Pradesh, which elects the bulk of India’s MPs , Congress in 2019 drafted in Gandhi’s charismatic sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, to burnish its fortunes. But that made little difference to results.