Indian National Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign has proved to be a miserable failure. Not only has he managed to uphold the image of Congress being a political dud, he has also failed to retain his family bastion of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.
This massive debacle of India’s grand old party under Rahul’s leadership has prompted him to renounce all ties to the Congress establishment and it is uncertain what he will do next. Priyanka Gandhi, his sister, has been roped in to overhaul and revamp the party structure in Uttar Pradesh, where it has received a major drubbing, having been able to win only one seat out of the sixty seven it contested.
As all eyes are on Rahul’s next move, it would be worthwhile to analyse how and why his antics led to the effacement of Congress from its former stronghold.
The Electoral Performance of Congress in Uttar Pradesh
In the first election of independent India, the Indian National Congress managed to win a whopping eighty one of eighty five seats in Uttar Pradesh. However, except for the 1984 elections, Congress’ performance in the state has gone downhill since then.
In fact, Rahul Gandhi’s formal induction into the Congress has been considered to have been a last ditch attempt at rescuing the party from the electoral doldrums. It succeeded somewhat but his efforts did not translate into numerically greater success as Congress’s seat strength dipped from ten to nine.
However, he did manage to win Amethi, a constituency formerly held by his grandmother, father and mother. Though he was a veritable greenhorn, people chose to put their faith in him as they expected him to be the harbinger of change and better times. Despite the poor show in Uttar Pradesh, they managed to garner the majority in a tightly contested battle.
Next year, Congress’ showing was an impressive twenty one seats and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) went on to form the union government that year too. Congress’ glorious triumph was credited to him, and he was elected as the Congress President in 2013, paving the way for him to be declared as Congress’ Prime Ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Rahul Gandhi’s promotion as the next Prime Minister greatly backfired, not just in Uttar Pradesh but all over India with the Congress receiving its lowest vote share ever. Gandhi’s insipid rhetoric failed to outdo the forceful charisma of Narendra Modi and Congress lost, by an excessively humiliating number. It was able to win only two seats in Uttar Pradesh – those of party supremos, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
Congress’ track record in the Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections has mirrored its dismal display in the Lok Sabha polls. Except for the 1980 and 1985 elections, which showed a sharp upward swing for the Congress, it has been steadily losing ground in Uttar Pradesh. Rahul Gandhi campaigned vigorously for the 2007, 2012 as well as 2017 Assembly polls, yet managed to rake in twenty two, twenty eight and an abysmal seven respectively.
Therefore, it can be stated without a doubt that Rahul Gandhi has not been Congress’ best bet so far, yet Congress has persisted on making him the focus of their campaign. It is obvious that dynasty politics is to be blamed for this deleterious strategy and the Congress is not interested in digressing from this tack.
Rahul Gandhi and the Congress in the Uttar Pradesh General Elections 2019
Rahul Gandhi was very well aware of the momentous significance of the 2019 election. Narendra Modi had to be defeated and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had to be eviscerated from the country. The Indian intelligentsia were extremely hostile to Modi but unfortunately, that did not push them towards backing Rahul. In fact, most of them started pulling for regional leaders.
Although Congress did give its official support to regional parties like Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) which were staunchly anti-Modi, it was not able to showcase a strong and united anti-Modi front with them, which ultimately proved to be their undoing.
Despite efforts to capitalise on Modi’s ill-fated 2016 demonetisation and its fishy Rafale deal, Congress got just fifty two seats, merely eight more from last time’s tally.
For Gandhi, it was essential to bring about a turnaround in Congress’ fortunes and especially so in Uttar Pradesh as political strategists believe that getting a majority in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state and the one with the most seats, is crucial to getting the top seat in Delhi.
Indeed, nine of India’s former Prime Ministers have been elected from the state of Uttar Pradesh. To pass this litmus test, Gandhi took to emulating Modi on many accounts, one of which was choosing to stand for the Wayanad seat in Kerala, a fatal mistake for his political interests in Amethi.
The constituents of Amethi were already very disappointed in Rahul since he had not ushered in the changes he had guaranteed. Much-promised flyovers were yet to be constructed and some projects had not even been commissioned. Amethi still wore a distinctly rural look despite being the centre of power for the Gandhi clan.
The people of Amethi were frustrated with Rahul and the BJP candidate, Smriti Irani’s vote share in the 2014 elections which came too close for comfort to Rahul’s was an evident outgrowth of their disapproval of Rahul’s lackadaisical approach.
Rahul’s frequent and long absences also made Amethi’s electorate feel ignored. They believed that Rahul was more concerned with building a national image rather than serving the people of the constituency. His decision to contest from Wayanad added to their sense of betrayal and seemingly nailed the coffin on his re-election bid.
Compounding matters was Smriti Irani’s relentless campaigning while Rahul was away on his political jaunts. She even set up residence in Amethi to demonstrate that she was available to cater to the citizens’ every need. People were delighted by her determined loyalty and dogged insistence on coming to their assistance.
She gradually earned their trust and thus came out superior in the election. It is rumoured that Gandhi’s plan to stand from Wayanad was a result of his fear of such a change in electoral dynamics.
Furthermore, young voters were enticed by BJP’s pledges. They had not seen much progress under the Congress and failed to be impressed by the past glory of the Nehru-Gandhi family. They wanted change so they decided to give BJP a chance. Congress’ neglect of the youth vote share was an important factor which led to their downfall.
The atmosphere of nationalistic jingoism and communal polarisation in the overwhelmingly Hindu belt also made them feel more politically energised and lured them into sharing the BJP’s orthodox ideologies. The BJP fostered the idea that Hindus were being oppressed in their own country, and people eagerly played into their hands. Rahul’s shift to Wayanad was seen as an attempt to tap into the Muslim vote bank.
The lack of connect with people at the grassroots level was also a major cause for Congress’ decimation. BJP party workers made people enrol into Modi’s welfare schemes and they ensured that the people received its benefits. Smriti Irani engaged in an extensive door to door campaign, which won her a lot of followers. The Congress leaders’ distance from the masses also made them appear negligent.
Congress managed and organised their election campaign very poorly, while also chosing a shoddy opponent-oriented strategy. Instead of bringing attention to the core defects of Modi’s past governance like burgeoning unemployment, sluggish growth rate, farmer’s troubles, they focused all their energies into excoriating Modi. Therefore, Modi inadvertently became more prominent in popular imagination.
Another way in which Congress basically shot themselves in the foot was their decision to field candidates in BSP-SP bases, despite their espousal of the BSP-SP Mahagathbandhan (‘great alliance’). This served to cut into the vote share of BSP and SP though Congress had intended this tactic to hamper chances of a BJP victory.
It took away a precious chunk of the Muslim and the Brahmin vote from both the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and prevented them from orchestrating triumphs in ten seats, compared to cutting into only two of BJP’s.
Priyanka Gandhi formally took the plunge into the political arena to salvage the dismal scenario. She was appointed the General Secretary-in-charge of the Uttar Pradesh Congress Committee (East). She had charisma and was well-known to the voters of Uttar Pradesh. People believed that her entry would furnish Congress the much-needed upper class vote bank.
However, this failed to materialise. She did not make adequate use of her social media accounts and though she appeared to be an aggressive politician and a massive crowd-puller, these factors did not convert into wins. She was supposed to stand against Narendra Modi for the Varanasi seat but ultimately did not, probably fearing the saffron wave.
In the 2019 elections, Congress managed to win only one seat out of the sixty seven that it contested that too only of former Congress President, party doyenne and Rahul’s mother, Sonia Gandhi. It is uncertain how the Congress will bounce back from the bloodbath that was the 2019 election.
Resignations have come from all quarters of the state in the aftermath of the catastrophic loss. Priyanka Gandhi has started reshuffling the party hierarchy and has mandated that younger workers be given greater chance. All eyes are now on the 2021 polls in which Congress hopefully Congress will play its hand better.