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India's storied Gandhi family in crisis after Modi's big win

There are doubts among the rank and file over whether the Gandhi family should continue to lead the party.

Bloomberg|
Updated: May 30, 2019, 12.09 PM IST
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Stung by last week’s resounding defeat, workers on the ground have been criticizing the leadership for lacking the wisdom to build strong pre-poll alliances.
by Bibhudatta Pradhan, Archana Chaudhary and Shivani Kumaresan

Narendra Modi not only surprised the world with a landslide victory last week, he also put the 134-year-old Indian National Congress on life support.

Some candidates from the storied party, home to many of India’s founding fathers when it won independence from the Britain in 1947, simply gave up ahead of the May 23 election. One checked himself into a hospital to avoid campaigning after the party wouldn’t give him enough money to run a polling booth, according two members of his campaign who asked not to be identified as they’re weren’t authorized to speak to media.

He ended up losing, along with hundreds of others as the party managed to win only 52 of 543 seats -- nearly as bad as its worst-ever performance in 2014. It failed to win a single seat in about half of India’s 29 states.

“The Congress I believe is close to extinction, and given its recent record it probably deserves to die,’’ said Ramachandra Guha, historian and columnist. “But let’s not forget that while it lived and thrived, the Congress nurtured the elements of a plural democracy that has outlived the party.’’

The big question now is what to do with Rahul Gandhi, the reluctant heir in a dynasty that includes India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and its second longest-serving leader after him, Indira Gandhi. Congress Party leaders rejected Rahul Gandhi’s resignation after the defeat, and tasked him with rebuilding the party.

Yet, there are doubts among the rank and file over whether the Gandhi family should continue to lead the party.

Stung by last week’s resounding defeat, workers on the ground have been criticizing the leadership for lacking the wisdom to build strong pre-poll alliances and an inability to cash in on its electoral gains in three major states where Congress had wrested power from Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party just six months ago.

“To some degree, Congress has a leadership vacuum in some of the campaign teams, people who can make decisive, correct and timely decisions and execute them over a long period,” said Akshay Bajaj, 29-year-old, technology professional, who has worked for the party.

As the first political group to lead a government in independent India, Congress oversaw the making of its liberal, secular constitution. Three decades ago it also liberalized the Indian economy, ushering in more foreign investment.

While historically Congress secured more than 25% of the vote share, it now hovers at less than 20%. That could signal the party is headed for a death spiral, according to research by Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

A lack of funds proved to be a major obstacle, hampering the party’s ability to build a network of supporters, nurture new leaders or promote a populist electoral agenda featuring farm loan waivers and basic income support.

Modi, by contrast, has constructed a formidable electoral machine that highlighted his government’s pro-poor flagship programs and measures appealing to his Hindu nationalist base. That led to the first back-to-back majority for any party in India since the Congress won a massive victory in 1984.

“Elections are a game of perception, and that is what was lost,” said Anil Shastri, senior Congress leader and the son of former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri. “Congress couldn’t counter the BJP’s campaign on nationalism.”

Gandhi himself campaigned hard: He built his own team, hired strategists, collected data for better planning and used a social and digital media team to boost the image of him and his party. He held as many as 145 rallies, criticizing Modi’s administration for failing to create jobs and overseeing a corrupt defense contract.

But his efforts were in vain, and the way forward is uncertain.

“A structural response from the leadership has not come yet,’’ said Salman Khurshid, a former minister from the Congress party. “We need large interface and interaction. Right now there is a kind of a shock.’’
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