Were the elections a thumbs down for Rahul Gandhi?

New Delhi, Dec 8: The results in four Hindi heartland states Sunday came as a shocking blow to the Congress and led its lead campaigner Rahul Gandhi to admit to the need of transforming the party. Analysts said the results have raised questions about Rahul Gandhi’s political strategy and skills to sway voters.

The rude shock to the Congress comes just six months ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha election. The party, which leads the ruling United Progressive Alliance at the Centre, not only lost its governments in Delhi and Rajasthan but the margin of its defeat left party sympathisers bewildered.

The Congress was reduced to single-digit in Delhi at the hands of Bharatiya Janata Party and the debutant Aam Aadmi Party. It was badly thrashed in Rajasthan and won less than one-fourth of its tally in 2008 elections. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress margin of defeat increased over the last election and in Chhattisgarh the party again fell short of simple majority.

Rahul Gandhi, 43, who became party vice-president in January this year, was both the lead campaigner and key strategist of the party for the assembly polls. The polls to four states were his first big electoral test in his new role and had Bharatiya Janata Party as the main adversary.

The BJP leads the rival national alliance which is the main adversary of the Congress for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Rahul Gandhi addressed the largest number of rallies among party campaigners and played a role in selection of candidates for the polls. In his rallies, Gandhi sought to identify his party with the poor and pitch-forked its role in getting legislations on food security and land acquisition passed.

The Congress sought to downplay comparisons of Gandhi to Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi in the media but the effort did not appear to succeed. Modi was direct in his attack on Rahul Gandhi while the Congress leader avoided returning fire in the same vein.

Political commentator S. Nihal Singh said the Congress leaders would try to shield Rahul Gandhi from the party’s debacle but there was question about his strategy for the future.

“He has been a reluctant politician and leader. His future is uncertain as of now,” Nihal Singh said.

Subrata Mukherjee, a political analyst who taught at Delhi University, said Gandhi “has not demonstrated any particular achievement till now”.

“He (Rahul Gandhi) appears superficial to voters who are looking for action. In Delhi, when the gruesome rape incident happened last December and people were agitating, he was not to be seen. People expect a responsible leader to be there all the time,” Mukherjee asid.

He said the people decry “over centralisation” in a party and want a cooperative arrangement.

Mukherjee said bringing Rahul Gandhi’s sister Priyanka Gandhi, who is considered more charismatic, in active party campaign may not help the Congress.

“It is too late for that kind of personalised election. It is not dynasty but linkage with electorate that counts,” he said.

Mukherjee also said that Rahul Gandhi should be clear whether he wants to be named prime ministerial candidate or not.

“Unless the Congress decides the name of its prime ministerial candidate, the party will slide further,” he said.

A.S. Narang, a professor of political science at the Indira Gandhi National Open University, said that though Rahul Gandhi was not the prime ministerial candidate of the Congress, he was the star campaigner. He said Rahul Gandhi’s talk of changing the party structure has not worked with people as he owes his own position to dynasty.

“He has not been able show his mettle. His efforts to rejuvenate the party have not worked in the elections,” Narang said.

He said Rahul Gandhi’s future prospects “were not bright as of today”.

Narang added that the Congress has to take hard decisions on tackling corruption, law and order and inflation if it wants to improve its prospects for the Lok Sabha elections.

Congress leaders admitted that the results of four states were disheartening for the party but said that the party can bounce back by the Lok Sabha elections.

“We had won all these states in 1998 but fared poorly in the 1999 Lok Sabha polls. Similarly, BJP won three of these four states in 2003 but lost the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. There is no need to get demoralised but make hard efforts,” a party leader said, speaking on the condition on anonymity.

They said the four states where the party lost together accounted for about 70 seats in the Lok Sabha and the general election was much bigger.

After the results were out, Congress president Sonia Gandhi admitted that the results call for deep introspection and the party would study the many reasons for this defeat and rectify its mistakes. She said the party will examine any weakness in campaign and noted that many people were unhappy with the party due to factors such as price rise.

Rahul Gandhi said the Congress has the “ability to stand up to the expectations of the people” and he would put all his efforts in “transforming the party” so that the voice of the common man is firmly embedded in it.

Brave words, say many, but are these enough to move the electorate in the national battle ahead?

(Prashant Sood can be contacted at prashant.s@ians.in)

IANS