Yet another counting day and yet another demoralising defeat for the Congress. Since 2014, of the 40 Assembly elections held, the party, on its own, could win and form governments in only four states and a Union Territory.
After today’s defeats in Kerala, Assam, Puducherry and the wipeout in West Bengal, Congress leaders across states are admitting, in hushed tones, that the bigger worry is that the party is losing its legitimacy — moral and political — to lead the Opposition at the national level as it is fast ceding space to regional forces in the fight against the BJP.
The defeat, many party leaders said, is set to deepen internal turmoil and give another window for the detractors of senior leader Rahul Gandhi, who had virtually led the party’s campaign in Kerala, from where he is an MP. His sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had campaigned in Kerala and Assam.
While many leaders, including the 23 who had written to Sonia Gandhi last year demanding sweeping changes in the party, are silent as of now, sources said anger is simmering. “It is perhaps not the right time because people are fighting for their lives during the pandemic…but one thing I can tell you is that the Congress cannot revive under the present set-up,” said a senior leader.
“This election has shown that the BJP or the NDA is not invincible. They can be defeated. The Congress has to gear itself for that task, not in the present shape but in a totally different shape,” said former Union Minister M Veerappa Moily.
Interestingly, even leaders outside the G-23 are increasingly dismayed. Former Union Minister Ashwani Kumar’s made his anguish clear Sunday. “The chastening election results are an SOS for the Congress ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections,” he said. “The need for demonstrable and purposive action to address the organisational and communication gaps was never more evident. For Congress to retain its resilience and relevance in national politics it must secure internal cohesiveness and establish an emotional connect with the people.”
Analysing the results, one leader said: “In Bengal, we have not reached double digits…in Kerala, there is infighting. We don’t have a president, we have a president who is a president but not a president; in Tamil Nadu, we managed to win some seats courtesy DMK.”
“In the heartland, we are not able to challenge the BJP. In other states, people are trusting regional parties to fight the battle against the BJP. That leaves us with little space,” another senior leader said.
Not that the Congress leaders believe Mamata Banerjee is all set to take the national centrestage. “She has limitations but that is not the point. The point is these leaders are challenging the BJP successfully. Mark my words, there will be talk in the coming days about formation of a federal front or a united opposition front…Do we have the moral stature now to claim leadership? There are strong regional leaders like Banerjee and Pinarayi Vijayan,” said a party leader.
Referring to the farmers’ protests or the campaign against the CAA/NRC, many leaders admitted that the Congress had even ceded space to non-political actors in the fight against the BJP. “We have been confined to Twitter and press conference rooms…,” a leader said. There is anger against some of the leaders who are considered close to Rahul, including AICC general secretary in charge of organisation K C Venugopal.
Interestingly, senior leader Anand Sharma, who had questioned the Congress’s association with Indian Secular Front (ISF), a party formed in January by Abbas Siddiqui of the Furfura Sharif shrine in Bengal’s Hooghly district, congratulated Banerjee for leading a “courageous and heroic struggle against all odds — the might of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the BJP’s money and muscle power and a blatantly partisan Election Commission which indirectly abetted rigging in Nandigram.”
“Her victory is a triumph of India’s constitutional democracy and reassuring for the people. The BJP’s defeat in Bengal is a cause for national celebration. It provides a ray of hope for the progressive, democratic and secular forces of India and keeps intact the federal spirit of India’s constitution,” Sharma told The Indian Express.
And there are questions over Rahul’s leadership again. “He is not the Congress president but he led the fight in Kerala and Assam. So who should take responsibility…” one leader said.
A senior West Bengal leader said the party in the state was made to feel like “orphans.“
“No one came to help us. Rahulji came just for a day. We were on our own fighting the two mighty forces. Rahulji had time to speak to US universities…but who do we complain to,” a senior Bengal leader said.
And Rahul congratulated Banerjee for defeating the BJP much to the chagrin of the Bengal Congress leadership which fought the TMC. “I’m happy to congratulate Mamata ji and the people of West Bengal for soundly defeating the BJP,” he tweeted.
In an official statement, the party’s communication department in charge Randeep Surjewala said:“We have lost the election in Assam, Kerala, Puducherry and West Bengal but we have neither lost our morale nor our resolve or determination to continuously become people’s voice in these times of unprecedented calamity. The Congress Party will definitely study the results and all the reasons diligently and we are committed to correct our mistakes and do appropriate course correction.