Facing its worst moment in its 128-year-old history, not even winning enough seats to secure the position of the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, a stunned Congress stared into a bleak future, its leaders recognising that this was no ordinary defeat without a massive course correction.
The party had expected to lose these elections, but had believed, as senior party functionaries had been saying, that it would get around 120 seats, with a few of the more realistic saying “around 100.” But what emerged from conversations on Friday with the same leaders was that none of them had anticipated the extent of defeat, with several Union Ministers losing their seats.
There is a clear realisation inside the party that it stands at the crossroads, that there is an urgent need to change the narrative, Congress leaders acknowledged. But they were all unanimous that the party’s fate — for better or worse — is inextricably entwined with that of the Gandhi-Nehru family: choosing a new leader is out of the question. Party general secretary Ajay Maken told The Hindu: “There can be no compromise on the leadership question — the Congress is built that way.”
Indeed, the transition in the Congress that started with the elevation of Rahul Gandhi as party vice-president will continue, these sources said, adding the Congress parliamentary leader in the Lok Sabha will, in all probability, be Mr. Gandhi, not his mother, Sonia Gandhi. There will probably be a demand from within the party that Ms. Gandhi take on the job, but a senior party functionary said, “She will take the call on who will be the party leader in the Lok Sabha.”
A meeting of the Congress Working Committee, its apex decision-making body, has been called for May 19 to take stock of the situation as well as begin the process of reframing the party’s strategy.
“Our party workers, who are the cutting edge of the organisation, must be celebrating the defeat of so many top leaders,” a senior party leader said bitterly on Friday. “The leadership no longer values them and so when it comes to elections, individual candidates have to build their own team to contest elections — the party has hollowed out.”
If Ms. Gandhi and Mr. Gandhi conceded publicly that the mandate in the Lok Sabha polls was “clearly against” the Congress, adding there was a “lot for us to think about,” special invitee to the CWC Anil Shastri said on Friday that there was need for “very serious introspection” but, more importantly, that this time corrective measures would have to be implemented, unlike in the past.
Two general secretaries told The Hindu that there was need to take a fresh look at how the Congress has dealt with the secular-communal question, insisting in the early part of the campaign that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi should not be targeted, resulting in a “neutrality” that appealed neither to Hindus nor Muslims. A third spoke of the need to address the AAP’s emergence with seriousness: “It is still a movement, an expression of revolt against the current political system. But if we don’t tackle it quickly, we don’t know what shape it will take,” said the party leader.
But simultaneously, a fourth general secretary stressed that there was need to focus not just on new media and new technology — that was used so effectively by the BJP — but also on why the Congress was not able to address the aspirations of the youth or grapple with the impact of growing urbanisation.