News Analysis

How Congress lost the 2019 plot

NEW DELHI:Though the Congress top brass reacted with shock to BJP’s resounding win on Thursday, some party veterans were unsurprised.

How Congress lost the 2019 plot

Rahul Gandhi took over as Cong chief in 2017. This was the first LS poll fought under his leadership. PTI

ROBINSINGH@TRIBUNE.COM

Aditi Tandon

Tribune News Service

New Delhi, May 24

Though the Congress top brass reacted with shock to BJP’s resounding win on Thursday, some party veterans were unsurprised.

“I am not surprised,” said Janardan Dwivedi, former Congress general secretary in charge of organisation.

Dwivedi, who worked with four Congress presidents — Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi — before stepping aside in 2018, didn’t elaborate but his message was loud and clear.

For months now, Congress veterans have been privately ruing about how Rahul’s Rafale campaign against PM Narendra Modi was simply not sticking. “We wasted too much time trying to make Rafale an issue. That didn’t happen,” said a Congress insider, referring to how Gandhi made Rafale a personal issue.

Sources say Rahul saw Rafale as an equivalent to Bofors and thought he could use it to attack the BJP which backed late VP Singh’s anti-Rajiv Gandhi campaign those days. “We could not get our narrative right. We have to understand that elections are about emotions in the given moment. The one who captures the emotions wins,” a party veteran says, adding that the 2019 loss would be squarely attributed to Rahul and his sister and AICC general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who were national star campaigners.

Though until late 2018 it appeared that the Congress, riding on its Hindi heartland wins in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, would challenge Modi in the LS election, the post-Pulwama attack events turned everything around.

Congress strategy of questioning the impact of IAF strikes in Balakot backfired, insiders say. Bad optics of Punjab minister Navjot Sidhu hugging Pakistan Army chief damaged party’s prospects like Rahul aide Sam Pitroda’s “did we really attack” comment on airstrikes.

Leaders speak of how Punjab CM Amarinder Singh successfully tackled PM’s Balakot narrative and deflected it, with Congress posting good gains in LS polls in the state.

Rahul’s pet anti-poverty promise of Nyay did not resonate in the ground because by the time it was announced the first installment of Rs 2,000 under PM Kisan Nidhi Yojana had already reached the bank accounts of most farmers.

The ultimate damage, though, most Congress veterans believe, was done by Gandhi’s “chowkidar chor hai” slogan for Modi, who the voters saw as “incorruptible”.

Whatever messaging the Congress had did not percolate down to the grassroots in the absence of booth-level strength. Haryana leaders point to how the party which drew a blank in the state went into polls without block or district-level committees.

Modi’s presidential style campaign worked as he sought votes in his own name, while Rahul and Priyanka were seen as dynasts who failed to capture the popular imagination. A former UPA minister said the way forward was a collective leadership. “Indira Gandhi drew her power from the fact that she was the sole vote-catcher for Congress. That’s no longer the case with the high command. Regional leaders will emerge stronger and the leadership will have to respect them,” a Congress source said.

In hindsight, Congress insiders also feel the party should have been clear about what it wanted to achieve — defeat Modi or expand Congress footprint. “We did not have alliances in UP or Delhi hoping to expand our own base. Neither did we stop Modi nor did we expand our footprint. Ours was an investment with no returns,” a senior Congress man said.

What went wrong

  • Rafale scam: Congress veterans said Rahul's Rafale campaign against the PM was simply not sticking. Sources say Rahul saw Rafale as an equivalent to Bofors but campaign time consumed by Rafale with zero returns could have gone into articulating people’s issues
  • Pulwama attack: “The post-Pulwama attack events turned everything around and we did not handle the situation well,” a leader admits. Strategy to question the impact of IAF strikes in Balakot backfired
  • Nyay: Rahul's anti-poverty promise of Nyay did not resonate in the ground because by the time it was announced the first installment of Rs 2,000 under PM Kisan Nidhi Yojana had already reached the bank accounts of most farmers
  • Chowkidar chor hai: Congress veterans believe ultimate damage was done by Rahul’s ‘chowkidar chor hai’ slogan for Modi, who the voters saw as ‘incorruptible’

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