He has learnt “very good lessons” in Uttar Pradesh poll outcome

For the Congress, a possible recovery in Uttar Pradesh was at the centre of its plans for the 2014 general election: a substantially improved result could have reduced its dependence on undependable allies, such as the Trinamool Congress, and serve as a launch pad for its prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi.

Following the advice of a top market research analyst, the party made Mr. Gandhi its star campaigner, who addressed more than 200 rallies, and put together a high-voltage publicity campaign.

In the end, the party, far from even doubling or trebling its numbers, added less than half-a-dozen new seats to its 2007 tally of 22, though it had entered into an alliance with Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) in western Uttar Pradesh.

The first instinct of Congress leaders — whether it was Pradesh Congress Committee chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi or Congress general secretary in charge of the State Digvijay Singh or Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid — was to say that the party and organisation had failed Mr. Gandhi by not converting the goodwill he had created into votes.

Finally, shortly before 4 p.m. on Tuesday, Mr. Gandhi emerged from 10 Janpath, where he was conferring with his mother and party president Sonia Gandhi to end the spate of sycophantic statements. Looking composed, he congratulated Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh on his victory, before saying that he took the responsibility for the party's abysmal showing. He also promised the Uttar Pradesh people that he would continue to work in the State, “on the streets, in the villages and in the towns.” These elections, he said, had taught him some “very good lessons” — the Congress had fared poorly, he said, because it was “organisationally not where it should be” and because of the “mood for the Samajwadi Party.”

Party sources told The Hindu that while Mr. Gandhi's dignified response was to be applauded, till such time as he began to “implement a system of punishments” for patently bad advice he was not really going to move forward. If organisational weakness was acknowledged in the party as its biggest flaw, there were other mistakes too, they said.

For instance, in the last Assembly poll, the party gave ticket to many rebels or rejects from other parties. That project failed in 2007, as it did in 2012 when the same formula was adopted. Second, flying in the face of the image that the Congress was an umbrella party, one of Mr. Gandhi's senior advisers spun a theory that the party should focus on the non-Yadav Other Backward Classes (OBCs) to prevent them from consolidating around the Samajwadi Party. That strategy failed, especially as it was accompanied by the Centre's pre-election gambit to carve out a 4.5 per cent quota for religious minorities from the 27.5 per cent reservation for the OBCs. Hindu OBCs saw this as an effort to hive off a part of their share; the Muslims saw it as an empty poll promise.

During the elections too, the Congress' public declaration that it would not back the Samajwadi Party to form a government, followed by the disastrous announcement that if the party did not get a majority, President's rule would be imposed in the State, annoyed voters hugely, as this correspondent noticed.

For those who were looking forward to a SP-Congress-RLD government, this sounded like a betrayal: one even heard the stray remark more than once: “In that case, we will have to give the Samajwadi Party a majority.”

And then, as in the Hans Andersen tale, The Emperor's New Clothes, one leader, party sources said, assured Mr. Gandhi that the Brahmins of the eastern Uttar Pradesh were voting Congress, another that the Muslims were flocking to the party and yet another that Ms. Mayawati's Dalit base was crumbling and trickling back to where it once belonged. Halfway through the polling process, Mr. Gandhi realised that all was not well and sought to place in the public domain the fact that the Congress was not doing well, but, regardless of the results, he was in for a long haul. This is what he repeated on Tuesday once the import of the results became clear.

But while the verdict in Uttar Pradesh, as well as in the other four States, underscored the fact that Mr. Gandhi has no magic wand — and that may adversely affect his public image — it is unlikely to impact his position in the party. He remains the heir apparent, and whether he is projected as the party's prime ministerial candidate in 2014 will depend on the collective wisdom of the Gandhis — of Mr. Gandhi, his mother and sister. To those who say these results have made the position of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh more secure, party sources reply that Mr. Gandhi would not have replaced him mid-way, whatever be the results. And that Dr Singh will only become stronger the day he is able to implement his own policies.

Mr. Gandhi's future, entwined as it is with that of the Congress, will depend on whether he has learnt some lessons from these elections — as he said he had — and brings in some new advisers, those willing to tell him some painful truths about electoral politics.

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