This fact is undeniable: Rahul Gandhi spent years on the Uttar Pradesh elections, and achieved nothing. Yes, the Congress won six more seats than it did in 2007, and a few additional percentage points in voteshare — still barely more than a tenth of the votes cast. It was an abysmal fourth, almost 20 seats behind a lacklustre BJP, itself a poor third. Calling this anything but a humiliating disaster is ridiculous.
This week it was clear the Congress intends to learn absolutely nothing from that abject failure. Shortly after the elections, Mr Gandhi did emerge from 10 Janpath to take responsibility; but he has been silent since. And nobody else seems to think that the main architect of the Congress’ effort should be held accountable at all. Immediately after the results, the Congress’ state head, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, resigned — a resignation accompanied by a panicked insistence that it wasn’t Mr Gandhi’s fault, it was hers, all hers.
Now, we have the results of stock-taking by a committee led by A K Antony. On Wednesday, Congress President Sonia Gandhi made a combative speech that focused on Mr Antony’s accusation of “indiscipline”. Sure, some out-of-favour local Congress leaders covertly supported the party’s rivals. That happens in every election; that was not the party’s major failure in this one. The failure was one of organisation and emphasis.
Reasons for these two failures have indeed been assigned — as far away from Mr Gandhi as possible. The organisation picked the wrong people to contest! It was weak! Excuse me? Who but Mr Gandhi handpicked, say, Beni Prasad Verma to hand out tickets? Who but Mr Gandhi spent three years in UP, purportedly surrounded by laptops stuffed with organisational detail?
And, as for emphasis, who chose to make this election a quixotic pursuit of Dalit and Muslim voters? The Congress’ appeal is as a party that can, if it chooses, allow poorer and more disadvantaged voters to transcend the circumstances of their birth. Congress was competing with two regional parties closely associated with Dalit and Muslim political empowerment; it chose to tackle them on these very strengths. Was this not Mr Gandhi’s own decision?
Mr Gandhi’s only success was the Congress’ partial recovery in UP in the 2009 general elections. He failed in the Bihar Assembly elections; he failed in the UP Assembly elections, both in 2012 and in 2007, for which he addressed 60 rallies and travelled 1,500 km; he has failed even in his much-trumpeted attempt to introduce new blood to the Youth Congress, where election after election that he has organised winds up empowering relatives of existing leaders. He has gotten it thoroughly wrong. But nobody in the Congress, even its president, seems capable of telling him that.
Save, apparently, for party workers in Amethi. A series of recent reports in Mail Today tell us of his first visit there after the elections — in which, in both Amethi and in Rae Bareily, the Congress did poorly. He was told that he had surrounded himself with back-stabbers, who served as local guides for him to his own constituency. When he pointed out that he had brought the National Institute of Fashion Technology to Amethi – no, seriously, he apparently pointed this out – he was told that perhaps power for more than six hours a day, water, healthcare and a few reasonable jobs, should have been his priority. Clearly, Mr Gandhi has shown himself unable to pick the right people, and unable to pick the right issues. In a party serious about returning to power, he would have been sacked.
Equally clearly, neither his party’s president nor the rest of his party’s leadership is capable of sacking him. The Congress is thus doomed to failure. Unless, miraculously, the clouds part, and a ray of pure sunshine descends upon Mr Gandhi, and he strikes his forehead and says: “Damn! I’ve been totally wrong.”
For a moment, suppose I’m a ray of sunshine, appearances notwithstanding. Here is what he needs to fix: his obsessive focus on strengthening the organisation. First, because he’s failed — it’s clearly weak. Second, because it won’t work the way he expects — it will just throw up the same names. The Congress leadership’s central misunderstanding: parties aren’t giant NGOs; they’re not the location for social service. They’re machines for creating and aggregating policy principles.
Yet Mr Gandhi studiously avoids policy principles. How many did he discuss in his UP campaign? Well, he once spoke of the benefits of foreign direct investment in retail. Brilliant. He’s for it, then. Why is he not working to get it passed? Why is he not visiting Mamata Banerjee? Why, instead, is he descending on the poor and downtrodden — expecting, like royalty, that his very presence will help them feel better? It won’t. They need changes — changes that can be accomplished by the party in power, one he happens to be part of.
And unless he makes the conversation, at every level, about policy, he won’t even succeed in making his beloved internal elections anything but a farcical parody. Unless members of the Youth Congress compete on the basis of policy, of dreams, and of aspirations, the party’s workers will vote on the basis of who is “stronger” — for the local MLA’s son or brother.
If the Congress doesn’t sack Mr Gandhi, he must sack himself. And move into his limping government — at a post entry-level enough to suit his delicate sensibilities about unearned responsibility. Once there, he must try to support and strengthen the beleaguered Dr Singh. His party has failed the prime minister shockingly, Mr Gandhi most of all. Unless Mr Gandhi becomes less like a social worker and more like the policy wonk he probably could be, his party will continue to fail the country, and itself.