India’s Congress party ‘missed opportunity’ to revamp itself

The rejection of the Gandhis’ resignations “does not bode well, in the short term, for any thorough reform within the party", says one analyst.

India's Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, left, listens to her son and lawmaker Rahul Gandhi, right, at her husband and former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi's memorial, on the occasion of his 23rd death anniversary, in New Delhi May 21, 2014. Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a female suicide bomber during election campaigning on May 21, 1991. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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NEW DELHI // The Indian National Congress party leadership missed a crucial opportunity to reinvent itself this week when they refused to accept the resignations of Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, analysts said.

Still reeling from a general election that saw its membership in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, plummet from 206 to 44 seats — the lowest total in the party’s history — the Congress needs to use this time to rethink its leadership or face a future wreathed in doubt and gloom.

Sonia Gandhi, the part president, and Rahul Gandhi, the party vice president, offered to resign on Monday after accepting responsibility for the party’s failure at the polls.

The rejection of the Gandhis' resignations "does not bode well, in the short term, for any thorough reform within the party, [or for] serious introspection on what went so badly wrong in this election or how they need to change in the future," Vivek Dehejia, an economist at Carleton University in Canada, told The National.

Having led the coalition that governed India for a decade, the Congress withered under the campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, which featured a barrage of rallies, shrewd advertising, and a coherent message.

Despite losing the most lopsided election in 30 years, party members seem ready to continue their blind fealty to the family that has dominated the Congress since India became independent in 1947.

"Giving up on the Gandhis at this juncture would be the most-stupid thing the Congress could do," Mani Shankar Aiyar, a senior Congress leader, told Reuters last week.

But it is exactly this type of thinking that could weakened the party for years to come, said the journalist Rasheed Kidwai.

In an updated version of his book on the Congress, titled 24 Akbar Road after the address of the Delhi party headquarters, Kidwai wrote that in December 2012, Ms Gandhi resolved to retire in 2016, when she is 70-years-old.

Senior members of the party, he wrote, were “stunned by the announcement”.

"The old guard of the Congress doesn't want her to leave, because if she does, they will be nowhere," Mr Kidwai told The National on Wednesday. "And while we outsiders may think that the Gandhis leaving would be the right thing, the Congressmen tend to see it differently. They think the Gandhis are the glue that holds the party together."

He said he was surprised by the spectacle surrounding the Gandhis’ offer to resign.

“If Sonia really wanted to resign, she could have,” he said. “If even one of the Gandhis had opted out, it would have earned them a lot of sympathy and respect. It’s a missed opportunity for them. Now it just reverts to the status quo.”

Some post-poll reports had indicated that Rahul Gandhi intends to shift the Congress further to the left. If these reports are credible, Mr Dehejia said, “this will only hasten the decline, or perhaps even demise, of the party”.

"Rather, if the Congress reorients its economics and reclaims the mantle of being the pioneers of economic reform," he added, "they would be in a position to more directly challenge Modi's claim to be the standard bearer for good economics and good governance."

Just as important as the reconsideration of the Congress’ leadership is a fresh scrutiny of its economic platform, Mr Dehejia said.

“The Congress’ campaign, which emphasised its redistributive welfare schemes, did not seem to resonate with voters, who responded much more to Modi’s messaging around economic upliftment via job creation rather than welfare,” he said.

Another possibility for rejuvenating the Congress lies with Priyanka Vadra, Ms Gandhi’s daughter. Although Ms Vadra campaigned briefly in this past election, she has never run for office, and she holds no post within the Congress.

Ms Vadra was widely seen as bringing to the campaign trail what her brother lacked – making charismatic speeches that invigorated rallies.

Her entry into politics would perpetuate the dynasty, but within a Congress that wishes to bind itself to the Gandhi family, she might provide some fresh oxygen.