NEW DELHI: India’s main opposition on Saturday urged its leader to make “drastic changes” following the party’s heavy and humiliating defeat in the recent general election.
It is the second consecutive time that Rahul Gandhi’s Indian National Congress has been thumped by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the polls. Official data from the Election Commission showed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP increased its majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament, from 282 seats to 303. Congress, on the other hand, nudged up its presence by a mere eight seats.
The loss also means that Congress has failed for the second time in a row to secure the minimum number of seats needed to be leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha.
Gandhi offered to resign in the wake of the routing. But his offer was rejected by the party’s working committee, which urged him to make “drastic changes” to revitalize the 134-year-old organization.
“We need Rahul Gandhi to guide us in these challenging times," Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala told reporters after the committee meeting. “The party will do a serious introspection about its defeat and it has authorized Rahul Gandhi to make drastic and constructive changes at all levels of the party’s organization. Congress is always committed to combat divisive and communal forces and stand up to the challenges of the time.”
The party has dominated India’s political landscape since the early 20th century and played a major part in the fight for independence, ruling for decades after 1947. The Gandhi family has also dominated the party. Congress has fared well in previous elections, winning outright or forming a coalition, until the rise of the right-wing and nationalist BJP juggernaut.
Prof. Mahesh Rangarajan, from Ashoka University, said the party was in serious crisis whether it was in terms of numbers, alliances or ideas. “They need to go for serious introspection,” he told Arab News. “The way the BJP redefined itself in the 1980s, can Congress do that? There is a serious crisis and they need to admit it and try new responses to this crisis.
“The BJP had two seats between 1984 to 1989 and was able to redefine the political debate. Congress is unable to redefine the contours of the political debate and enthuse adequate energy in the party. The irony is that Rahul Gandhi is the youngest leader among all the national parties, but it appears that the leadership has not been able to connect with any major section of voters, particularly the young who are large in number.”
Congress was able to add 10 million votes to its tally from the 2014 election. But this number fell far short of the votes hoovered up by the BJP, which got a bump of 50 million from the previous poll.
Prof. Zoya Hasan, from Jawaharlal University, said the party’s “spectacular” defeat had more consequences than the one five years ago.
“The party’s decline is not irreversible,” she told Arab News. “But in the long road ahead, it has to figure out what it actually stands for, and what it will take to stand up to Modi’s BJP.”
Modi’s stunning victory was hailed by India’s A-list, including cricketer Virat Kohli and actor Salman Khan.
On May 23, when the votes were counted, Rahul tweeted that he “accepted the verdict of the people of India” and congratulated the prime minister. He lost his own parliamentary seat, in a constituency long-held by his famous family.
Young activist and Congress member Angellica Aribam was undeterred by the dismal performance of the party and its leader.
“I cannot and do not foresee a Congress without Rahul Gandhi. What needs to change, though, is the organizational machinery,” she tweeted on Saturday.
She said the party needed to “recapture” the imagination of young India.
“In the history of India, whenever Congress was written off, it has re-emerged with new vigor,” she told Arab News. “These are testing times for us but we also know that we will rise again. The BJP champions pseudo-nationalism but Congress believes in the constitution, which doesn’t discriminate against anyone on the basis of caste, religion or gender. We will continue to remain an inclusive party. What we need to redefine is our organizational machinery not our core beliefs.”