The defeat in assembly polls to four major states on Thursday has come as a big disappointment to Congress and a dampener to its ambitions to replace the Narendra Modi government in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. The results could delay elevation of Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi and lead to demands within the party for immediate organisational revamp.
The results of polls in Assam, Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu showed that decline of Congress since the Lok Sabha elections has not ebbed. The party has lost nine assembly elections after the 2014 Lok Sabha elections when its tally had touched a historic low of 44 seats. The Congress was on the winning side in Bihar elections but as the third junior partner of the alliance.
In the results announced on Thursday, Congress lost its government in Assam, the party-led government in Kerala and finished third in Tamil Nadu. In West Bengal, it finished a distant second to Trinamool Congress but performed better than the CPI-M with which it had an understanding. The good news for Congress came from Puducherry, where it is poised to form government in alliance with the DMK.
Congress leaders talked of introspection and correctives as results showed that geographic spread of Congress rule in states had shrunk to a few states- two states in north India (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand), one in south India (Karnataka); three states in east India (Manipur, Mizoram, Meghalaya). The party is also part of the ruling alliance in Bihar.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi said the party will introspect reasons for its loss and rededicate itself to the service of people with greater vigour.Rahul Gandhi said the party will "work harder" till it wins the confidence and trust of people.Rahul Gandhi has in the past fiercely contested Prime Minister Narendra Modi's suggestions to make India "Congress-mukht (Congress-free)" but there is growing concern in party circles over the series of defeats.
Analysts said Congress does not have a proper strategy to win states and this is crucial for it to stay in serious contention for power in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Senior journalist and political commentator H.K. Dua said Congress state units were ridden by factionalism and the party faces a major challenge to win back states.
"How will they govern the country when they are losing state after state. You cannot come to power at the Centre unless you win major states. It is very important to win Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Gujarat but Congress strategy is not clear," Dua told IANS. He said Congress needs to forge unity in its units and promote new leadership in states.A Congress leader, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that the morale of workers was down after the series of defeats. "The party morale is at its lowest ebb," he said.
"Today you need fighters who put in their heart and soul in the work given to them. People have got tired to seeing the same faces in states. There should be generational change. The young leadership should be in the forefront," he said. The leader said parties such as BJP were far quicker in bringing about correctives compared to Congress. "Whatever is the party's strategy for revival, it should be unveiled fully," he said.Senior journalist and political commentator Kuldip Nayar said BJP was replacing Congress as the dominant national party.
Nayar said Rahul Gandhi was not attracting votes and the Congress should get out of "dynastic obsession"."The party seems to have lost its way. If there is no strong alternative, people will go to BJP in 2019," he said.Congress leaders also said they were on the wrong side of the electoral cycle in both Assam and Kerala.The party had expectations of pulling it off in Kerala, of at least a hung assembly in Assam and finishing victorious in Tamil Nadu as a junior ally of DMK.Party leaders reaffirmed their faith in Rahul Gandhi after the results."He is the undisputed leader of the party," party leader Randeep Singh Surjewala said.
While Rahul Gandhi emerged as a more articulate leader over the last year following his over 50-day sabbatical, he has not brought about any major organizational change in the party's central set up since the defeat in Lok Sabha polls. He has also faced criticism from some of leaders who left the party including Himanta Biswa Sarma, who has been instrumental in BJP's victory in Assam.Sonia Gandhi has been Congress president for a record 18 years and there is no clarity in the party when Rahul Gandhi will step into her shoes despite suggestions from senior leaders.
There is also a section which wants Sonia Gandhi to continue at the helm at a difficult time for the party.There also have been occasional suggestions that Rahul Gandhi's sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra should be more active in politics.