NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Many political parties faring as poorly as the Indian National Congress in a bellwether state election would ditch key leaders, if they did not go of their own accord.
Not so Rahul Gandhi, scion of India’s most famous political dynasty, who remains in charge after his attempts to connect with voters in the country’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh ended in failure.
Congress support in a state that is home to one in six Indians fell to 6 percent and it won seven of 403 seats in the state assembly, marking a new low for a party that ruled the world’s largest democracy for two-thirds of its 70 year history.
Filling the void is Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won the biggest majority in the state for any party since 1977. It sets him on a path to re-election in a 2019 national ballot.
Gandhi, 46, is not yet president of Congress, but with his mother, Sonia, abroad for medical treatment, he is already its de facto leader. He spearheaded the party’s 2014 general election campaign that also led to humiliating defeat.
In the wake of the Uttar Pradesh results at the weekend, senior party members have not challenged Gandhi, even as they concede the need for action.
“There is no reason for despondency,” Abhishek Manu Singhvi, a senior Congress lawmaker, told Reuters. “There is a need for surgical, structural changes and I have no doubt they will happen.”
Not everyone is so sanguine.
“There is no leader today with a pan-India acceptability who can take on Modi & the BJP in 2019,” tweeted Omar Abdullah, former chief minister of the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir whose party is allied to Congress.
“At this rate we might as well forget 2019 & start planning/hoping for 2024,” he said, referring to the dates of India’s next general elections.
Gandhi’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh never gained traction: people who came to see him at outdoor meetings stole the benches put out by party workers for them to sit on.
His hiring of Prashant Kishor, the backroom strategist who helped chart Modi’s rise to national power, did not pay off. And mother Sonia took a nasty fall after fainting on a road show in Varanasi, Modi’s constituency in eastern Uttar Pradesh.
Rahul, facing the press on the steps of parliament on Tuesday, deflected questions on his future but did say: “We need to make structural and organizational changes - that’s a fact.”
That, say commentators, is a stock response and evades the fundamental issue: that Congress faces a leadership crisis.
“Rahul Gandhi is now an unmitigated liability for the party,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, wrote in the Indian Express.
“What diminishes the party even more is that there are no challengers to Rahul – the very lack of open revolt diminishes the party’s character to the point where it is now the object of outright contempt.”
Plenty of ink has been spilled over the years on political obituaries of the Congress, which enjoyed national dominance under Indira Gandhi and in the aftermath of her 1984 assassination - the last time Congress held an absolute majority in Uttar Pradesh.
Sonia Gandhi’s election victory in 2004 marked a temporary reprieve. Despite winning only 26.5 percent of the national vote, she managed to forge a ruling alliance that held for a decade.
Now, in Modi, Congress faces an adversary who is in his element on the campaign trail and is uncompromising in his quest to create a “Congress-free India”.
“Modi is a driven, 24/7 politician and with Rahul it’s just no contest. That is demoralizing for the party,” said commentator Ashok Malik, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi.
In fact, Congress won a notable victory in the state of Punjab during the latest round of local elections of which Uttar Pradesh was the most important. Even so, it actually lost votes in all five states that went to the polls.
Demonstrating the BJP’s greater hunger for power, the Hindu nationalist party has laid claim to two small states where no party won a clear majority, quickly forming coalition alliances despite being outpolled by the left-leaning Congress.
“There should be red, flashing alarm bells going off within Congress,” said Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and author of a new book, “When Crime Pays”, on Indian electoral politics.
“The Congress has bounced back from devastation before, but they have not yet demonstrated any ability to introspect on their shortcomings.”
One option for Congress, analysts said, would be for Rahul, or possibly his low-profile sister Priyanka, to retain control of the central leadership while nurturing a new generation of state leaders who could rebuild the party’s electoral viability.
Failing that, a series of regional or local alliances could blunt the BJP’s advance. Yet analysts doubt such a rag-tag coalition could pose a serious challenge to Modi’s bid for a second term.
And, as Uttar Pradesh showed, teaming up with Rahul Gandhi - the strategy chosen by defeated Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav - can prove toxic at the ballot box.
Gandhi’s political troubles are not only national; they lie closer to home. In Uttar Pradesh, Congress lost all four assembly seats that lie within his parliamentary constituency of Amethi.
Additional reporting by Aditya Kalra and Fayaz Bukhari; Editing by Mike Collett-White