Rahul Gandhi has now resigned as Party President of Indian National Congress. His era as the president of the Congress party can be analysed in many ways. A series analysing the Congress under him is being launched by The True Picture called Congress – The Rahul Years.
As part of the series, this essay is an analysis of the electoral performance of the Congress party under Gandhi’s leadership.
Rahul Gandhi was launched with much fanfare in 2004. He won his first ever election from the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency, then, a family bastion. However, he was seen as a reluctant politician making sporadic but much-talked about interventions now and then. He was also made a General Secretary of the party in 2007.
The Congress saw a mini-revival in Uttar Pradesh in 2009 with an impressive show of winning 21 seats. The credit for this was laid at Gandhi’s door, both by the party and the media. The expectations he generated in certain sections of the media and polity were massive.
Sudip Mazumdar, writing in Newsweek, says “A revolution is underway in India. The man leading the charge is neither a fiery ideologue nor a gun-toting guerrilla. Instead, he is the scion of one of the world’s most famous political families. But Rahul Gandhi, 38, has set out to disrupt the very system that created his power….But his tactics are game-changing: insisting on grassroots activism, building deep connections to rural India and trying to democratize the hierarchical Congress party itself.”
However, he still remained far from being a 24 by 7 politician and was an indifferent parliamentarian.
Rahul Gandhi’s true era at the helm of the Congress party began when he became the Vice President of the Congress party in 2013. Since the heady days of 2009 when the expectations of him were sky high to the current realities of 2019, Rahul Gandhi’s journey has been a humbling experience for anyone who thought his success was a given.
A fair assessment of Gandhi’s successes and failures as the de facto leader of the Congress party as its Vice President and as the number one leader of the Congress as its President is needed.
There is no doubt that the resignation of Rahul Gandhi is a change for the Congress party that is not used to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty relinquishing positions of power. However, Gandhi knows well that, after a second loss under his leadership, the Congress is staring at a crisis. The electorate doesn’t think highly of Gandhi and the party would lose even the remaining workers it has without a credible leader at the helm. Gandhi probably realises this.
The Rise and Fall of Congress Vis-à-vis Other Parties
We shall look at Congress’s performance at both national and in various states under Rahul Gandhi. At the national level, Congress’s fate worsened considerably under Rahul Gandhi. The transition of the Congress from 2009 to 2014 and further to 2019 is stark. Kerala, Punjab and Tamil Nadu are the only bright spots. At state level, despite a largely diminished presence in other states, Congress was able to relatively save face by winning Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh in 2018, while forming a coalition government in Karnataka that is hitting rough weather, but is still alive.
The Congress party had won a massive 206 seats in 2009. This is the condition in which Rahul received the party when he was made the Vice President of the party in 2009. However, the Congress was reduced to a record low of 44 seats in 2014, in a crushing defeat.
Further, in 2019, the Congress’s voteshare actually fell between 2014 and 2019 but the Congress was able to add a handful of seats to its 2014 tally. Compared with the heydays of 200 plus, the Congress was reduced just around 50 seats, again, a telling statistic when it comes to the leadership of Rahul Gandhi.
As mentioned earlier, Rahul Gandhi was made the Vice President of Congress party in 2013 and his mother Sonia Gandhi was the President of the party then. Thus, the family had an unchecked writ going across the party. In fact, Rahul Gandhi was projected as the face of the Congress in 2014, if not the prime ministerial candidate. He led the Congress campaign against the BJP’s Narendra Modi and faced a spectacular loss.
In 2014, discounting the fact that the government largely ran on the Gandhi family’s wishes, it can still be argued that the tide was totally against Rahul Gandhi, and he paid for the Manmohan Singh government’s massive corruption scams and policy paralysis. There are many who even argued that 2014 was a black swan event that would not be repeated. However, in 2019, Rahul Gandhi as the President of Congress was the proverbial challenger and had nothing to lose. He had the whole complete playing field open for him, campaigning as the virtual leader of the opposition. The Congress’s insipid performance in 2019 is completely thanks to Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. As Vice President in 2014 or as President in 2019, he clearly could not convince voters.
Rahul Gandhi in the States- the Last-bencher Shone, but Momentarily
In his leadership, the Congress lost many states from its grasp. Maharashtra, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh were lost. Later, in 2017, the Congress faced a disaster. Rahul Gandhi led Congress fought elections in seven states – Punjab, Goa, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Among these, the Congress went in as the incumbent in three states. However, at the end of the year, the Congress was left with just one state, Punjab, in its grasp.
In Gujarat, Congress could not unseat the BJP despite the latter facing anti-incumbency of 22 years in the state! It is notable, however, that the Congress managed to bring BJP to less than 100 seats in Gujarat. This is when some analysts and Congress party members began having some hope in Rahul Gandhi.
2018 was a far better year for Gandhi. He managed to gain three big states – Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – as Congress wrested power from BJP in the assembly elections that were held just a few months prior to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Now, many voices in the media and the Congress started coming out in support of Rahul Gandhi more strongly. Congress is once again emerging as a serious contender to BJP in a national level, they all said.
However, leadership means consistent success. It is not sufficient to exhibit success once. The challenge is to replicate success to demonstrate it was not accidental blip or a favourable turn of fate but a conscious act of creation. For example, if a brilliant student in the class at one point couldn’t answer a particular question and the hopeless last-bencher manages to answer that, it becomes quite a moment and the last-bencher wins praise. But to sustain that momentum, two things need to happen. Either the last-bencher puts in all the hard work by burning midnight oil or the brilliant student in the class loses all confidence and gives up. Neither happened in the case of Rahul Gandhi, the last-bencher.
In Chhattisgarh, BJP faced more than a decade of anti-incumbency and the Congress was there to reap the benefits. Madhya Pradesh saw a very close battle in which Congress won by a whisker despite the long BJP rule. In Rajasthan, history seems to suggest that it is a BJP-Congress rotation in assembly elections. There too, BJP did not lose as badly as it was predicted. Just look at the Lok Sabha results in all three states. BJP has swept these states.
In Gujarat, the BJP swept every single seat. This clearly showed that the Congress’s supposed belligerence in the assembly elections was momentary. Many opinion had argued that even though BJP formed the government in the state, Gandhi was able to give a tough challenge to Modi-Shah duo in their home state. But it is now proved that this was one among a few shortlived ‘glory of a last-bencher’ moments.
Did the Poor Remain a Congress Votebank?
It has been argued since long that the poor were a votebank of the Congress party. A section of the poor had clearly got on to the Modi bandwagon in 2014, clearly enthused by his aspirational messaging.
Post-2014, claiming the legacy of ‘garibi hatao’, Rahul Gandhi tried to position the party pro-poor by painting the Modi government as pro-rich, as he kept on repeating the “this government works for only 15-20 businessmen” rhetoric.
But it is evident from the Lok Sabha results by now that the poor voted BJP conclusively. In the five years since 2014, Modi assiduously worked to take tangible benefits to the poor, from LPG cylinders to bank accounts, from toilets to small entrepreneurship loans. Where Rahul Gandhi chose to see the poor only as a votebank that needed to be patronised, the Modi government turned them into beneficiaries and aspirational families.
This ‘’labharthi” effect kicked in and made the 2019 elections a completely one-sided affair. Every analyst worth his or her salt has since been spoken of the impact of Modi’s schemes. Such was the impact of these schemes that the poor did not vote for Rahul Gandhi’s supposed gamechanger NYAY, which promised Rs 72,000 per year for poor families!
A Livemint analysis showed that all income groups voted for Modi with greater enthusiasm than earlier. However, quite notable is the growth in the BJP’s support among the poorest people, which grew from 16.97% in 2009 to 39.19% in 2019. BJP’s support among the lower class, right above the poorest, grew from 23.34% in 2009 to 45.24% in 2019. Both have almost doubled and it can be argued that this has come at the Congress’s expense. Modi’s beneficiary-creation approach and Rahul Gandhi’s unimaginative leadership can be read through these numbers.
Was Rahul Gandhi Able to Retain Rural and Dalit Votes?
After he became the party president, Rahul Gandhi had led the battle against Modi-led BJP in various state polls and in the 2019 general elections. His social and economic pitch were broadly on the following issues:
- Gandhi’s argument was that there is agrarian/rural distress that BJP has failed to address. Congress wants to address it through farm loan waivers and NYAY, he said.
- He constantly pitched the BJP as a force against Dalits and socially backward classes and put himself in the role of their saviour.
- There is an unemployment crisis brewing and I can solve it, pitched Gandhi
On the jobs front, even if some felt that there was a problem they didn’t trust Rahul to be able to deliver anything meaningful. However, let’s look at the other two issues.
Many had argued that the farm loan waiver promise that Rahul Gandhi made was a major contributing factor in winning assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh. However, soon enough, news of irregularities and delay in the farm loan waiver implementation kept streaming in from various Congress-ruled states and Rahul Gandhi’s credibility on this issue, if any, fell apart. As this analysis in Livemint shows, Congress did not win support across both the rural and semi-urban seats. In both, Congress fell to almost 1/5th of their 2009 numbers by 2019!
Source: Live Mint
As far as Rahul Gandhi’s quest to portray Narendra Modi as anti-Dalit and anti-backward is concerned, here too, data shows that it has completely fallen apart.
Among the 84 seats reserved for Scheduled Castes, BJP has won 46 seats in 2019. BJP won 31 among the seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes while the Congress won only 4. In both kinds of seats, BJP increased its tally from 2014 while the Congress’s fell.
Rahul Gandhi’s Interventions - From Manipur to Karnataka
Besides winning elections, a party president needs to know how important it is to stitch alliances and make quick interventions in state units. Congress, despite becoming the single largest party in Goa and Manipur in 2017, dragged its feet and lost the opportunity to form governments. Rahul Gandhi’s lack of clarity and interest in working with state units was heavily panned.
However, Rahul Gandhi improved on this front and sealed a deal with JD(S) in Karnataka and managed to form a government. Though it was a clear subversion of the people’s mandate which was essentially against the Congress, at least the swiftness on the part of leadership was visible.
However, it turned out to be pyrrhic victory. He couldn’t work on further strengthening that alliance in his capacity as a President of Congress party. The vast contradictions and daily infighting between the Congress and JD(S) hampered governance. The fact that the Congress and JD(S) were left with only one seat each among the 28 Lok Sabha seats in Karnataka reflects this. There were clear signs that the alliance was not working on the ground as the workers were protesting the seat-sharing. What was hailed as a tactical success for Gandhi became a strategic blunder.
In the run-up to the elections, alliance building is an important barometer of strategic acumen and acceptability among other parties. The way the BJP leadership went about stitching one alliance after another while the Congress could not even look eye to eye with potential alliance partners was in stark contrast.
Despite massive shows of grand unity in Karnataka after the Congress pulled off a coup in forming the state government with JD(S), most of those parties deserted the Congress, plausibly questioning Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. The very public fallout with AAP in Delhi, the snubbing of Congress by Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav keeping the Congress out, fighting alongside NCP in Maharashtra but separately in Gujarat, showed that Rahul Gandhi could not win their confidence. Apart from Kerala and Tamil Nadu, eventually, the lack of strong alliances badly hurt the Congress.
Postscript: One of the important qualities of a successful leader is the ability to gauge potential and manage people. Himanta Biswa Sarma, formerly in the Congress and now in the BJP, is a vital cog in the BJP’s expansion in the Northeast. He has gone on record saying that the reason for him leaving the party was Rahul Gandhi’s unwillingness and lack of interest in engaging with state leaders like him. It is said that Rahul Gandhi was more interested in feeding his pet even as Sarma was speaking about problems within the Assam unit and the future of the Northeast. Later, Congress lost Assam and a large part of the Northeast to the BJP.