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In the Congress’ drubbing, there seems to be not even a silver lining, proving to most that the party deserved the defeat for its hubris

Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

What does one make of Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s admission that the party “failed to gauge the public anger” against it? Is she being tactical or plain clueless about the raging anti-incumbency that brought the Congress party to its heels in the worst ever performance since Independence? There were so many indications that the wind was blowing against the Congress that missing it would be a criminal denial of political reality. Or an absence of acumen to read the national mood.  

Sonia Gandhi’s profound realization came during the Congress parliamentary party meeting that re-elected her as its Chairperson. She may have been re-elected, but there is a raging disquiet in the party over the extent of the loss and the inability of the party leadership to take pre-emptive steps when it was becoming crystal clear that the party was on the threshold of an unprecedented drubbing. A minister in the previous government, Kishore Chand Deo, blamed the “rootless wonders and spineless creepers” that had surrounded the Congress President, and Vice President Rahul Gandhi for the party’s abysmal state. His view was that these worthies had not informed the party leadership what was really happening on the ground. The Congress had been in a civil war with itself, and could not find a way to make an omelette without breaking an egg. In other words, how do you rebuild the party with the
existing arrangement?

Deo, one of the most credible politicians in the Congress party, is being charitable to the Congress leadership. Like
other leaders in the party, he wants to give the benefit of doubt to the Gandhi family for the mess the party finds itself in. This effort to protect the Gandhis, an accepted practice perfected by Congressmen over the years, stems from the fears that the party will disintegrate if the Gandhis are removed or diminished. This is a load of poppycock as the blame for the debacle has to rest with the Congress leadership. There was no other leader taking a decision other than the family and its chosen retainers. They did not betray any evidence about how it was for them to do well in these elections. It was not just to save the party, but also many of the values that the Congress traditionally stood for. The present leadership was lackadaisical, arrogant and smug. It is difficult to believe that they did not know what the mood in the country was like. After all, the Gandhis had the benefit of intelligence reports and advice and every resource while in the government, and if they did not get a sense of how bad the condition was, then surely the party deserves to be in
the dumps.

There were ample indications after its stunning victory in 2009 that the party was on a secular decline. Its reputation went for a free fall after the Congress botched up the handling of the corruption cases against its government. The national mood against the Congress got angrier after the agitation organized by Gandhian Anna Hazare, under the rubric of “India Against Corruption”. The handling of the agitation was weak and defensive and showed up its ministers and allies with their hands on the till. Nearly all the institutions of the state, judiciary, CAG, found the UPA government messy and venal when it came to managing government funds. Worse, they were also willing to dump their own people on charges of corruption. So Ashok Chavan, Ashwini Kumar, Shashi Tharoor were a few of their leaders that were dropped at some stage or the other on issues relating to corruption. Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi were seen to be so concerned about their own image that they were willing to jettison any convenient partymen. The message that went out was that the party leadership will not defend you if you get tainted. It was at this juncture that Congressmen began to make allegations of money-making against Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law, Robert Vadra. In fact, all the charges of malfeasance came from disgruntled Congressmen in Haryana and Rajasthan. Those who allegedly helped him in his business went around pointing fingers at the speedy manner in which he had come to riches.

How did the Congress lose so badly? They got 44 seats and the margin of loss was staggering at places. Film star-politician Raj Babbar, whom the party was betting on to win, lost by a whopping five lakh votes. In 200 seats, their candidates came second, but on average they lost by 1.8 lakh votes everywhere. In areas where the Congress was in a direct fight with the BJP, they lost even their deposits. The rug had been pulled out from under their feet. Clearly, there was much anger against the Congress and the dynasty that ruled India. As political scientist James Manor said, it had nothing to do with the economy, as the UPA’s policies were inclusive and served the interest of the poor and needy. The Congress, according to him, suffered due to its politics. They were perceived to be arrogant, expecting to be voted in despite their corruption, inflation and poor quality of governance.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2014