New Delhi: As the Congress’ political imprint in the country shrunk to its lowest with a dismal showing in five states, the opposition party appeared to be staring at a loss of national relevance, especially with the growth of regional challengers like Aam Aadmi Party.
A dominant force in the country’s politics for decades, the grand old party’s free fall continued as it lost Punjab to AAP and finished with just two seats out of 403 in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. The party also lost in Uttarakhand and Manipur.
After the drastic decline in its tally in general elections, it is now left in power only in Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh and is a very small player in the coalition governments in Maharashtra and Jharkhand.
‘Change or it will be the endgame’ – was the common refrain from many party veterans on Thursday.
The party’s poor performance is bound to pose a serious challenge to Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, as he and his sister and AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra were the only star campaigners seen in this round of assembly polls.
The duo was ostensibly also responsible for the dramatic decisions in Punjab including the humiliating ouster of then chief minister Amarinder Singh days before elections and the projection of Dalit leader Charanjit Singh Channi as the CM face that appears to have alienated Punjab’s politically dominant Jat Sikhs in favour of the AAP.
Some of the G-23 leaders, who have vocally sought an organisational overhaul over the last two years, have already raised questions on Rahul Gandhi’s leadership, and again pitched for “reforms”.
Party leader Shashi Tharoor, who was part of the G-23 group, said it is clear that change is unavoidable.
“’All of us who believe in INCIndia are hurting from the results of the recent assembly elections. It is time to reaffirm the idea of India that the Congress has stood for and the positive agenda it offers the nation.
“And to reform our organisational leadership in a manner that will reignite those ideas and inspire the people. One thing is clear – Change is unavoidable if we need to succeed,” he tweeted.
A G-23 meeting will be convened soon, sources said.
The strategy of Priyanka Gandhi Vadra will also be questioned including the fielding of some controversial candidates in the UP, as the Congress posted the worst show ever despite a high-pitch campaign that she led.
Apart from the internal challenges, the defeat of the Congress today is also set to shake its position as the principal opposition party with Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP now wresting two states from the Congress and is already staking a claim as the main challenger to the BJP.
AAP is the only regional player to be in power in two states now – Delhi and Punjab.
After a distressing day, some insiders said that it is time to write the party’s epitaph as it is on its “last leg” and the present leadership is unable to enthuse the cadres at the grassroots.
“The election results signal the endgame for the Congress as the natural party of governance. An alternative political narrative is emerging with the AAP and the TMC as its principal engines, with a ragtag Congress desperately pretending to be relevant, unless it undergoes a transformative change,” former Congress leader Ashwani Kumar, who quit the party ahead of the Punjab Assembly polls, said.
Another former party leader said it is finally time to “write it off” as it does not hold any future for its leaders.
The electoral fortunes of the Congress had taken a downturn in the last round of elections in five states, when it failed to make a mark in the assembly polls in Assam, Kerala, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, and managed a minor consolation as a partner in the Dravida Munnetra Kazagham-led alliance in Tamil Nadu.
In West Bengal, the Congress was down to zero seats.
Faced with more embarrassing losses, former Congress chief Rahul Gandhi said he humbly accepted the people’s verdict and will learn from it, something he has said in the past too.
“We will learn from this and keep working for the interests of the people of India,” he said.
Party’s chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said the election results are contrary to the party’s expectations, but the party accepts the people’s mandate.
“We will introspect on the causes of defeat, work on the organisation and will try to do better in future. We are definitely disappointed but not demoralised. We have only lost the election, not courage. We are not going anywhere – we will keep fighting until we win. We will reinvent and return and will come back with a new strategy,” Surjewala said.
In Punjab, the Congress leader said even though the party presented a humble, clean and grounded leadership, it failed to overcome the anti-incumbency of 4.5 years of Amarinder Singh government and people voted for change.
“The election results of five states are against party’s expectations. We were expecting good results in Uttarakhand, Goa and Punjab, but we accept that we failed to get people’s blessings,” he said.
After repeated poor performances at the hustings, poll analysts feel the Congress may face an existential crisis in the changed political landscape with the BJP emerging stronger with every election and an aspirational India opening to new options. PTI