Congress still in disarray despite latest loss

INDIA - When the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) loosened his party's decade-long grip on two key states in elections on Sunday, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi sent a short statement congratulating the BJP and promising that the party will do better next time.

His mother, Congress party president Sonia Gandhi, once the country's most powerful politician, would only say she hoped the next government "would fulfil its promises".

Five months after it was handed a humiliating defeat in the country's general election, the Congress, which won just 10 per cent of the seats in the Lower House of Parliament, showed little sign of revival.

Infighting has broken out at both the state and federal levels and the senior leadership is in disarray. Mrs Gandhi, 67, is battling poor health while her 44-year-old son is unable to mount any opposition to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The mother-son duo are also battling a court case related to the use of party funds to illegally acquire assets of the National Herald, a newspaper that was set up in 1938 by India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and shut down in 2008.

And the party, which has dominated Indian politics since independence, is now in danger of losing clout in many states as well.

In the northern state of Haryana, where the Congress had been in power for 10 years, the party won just 15 out of 90 seats, trailing in third place behind the BJP and the Indian National Lok Dal, a regional party whose leader is in jail on corruption charges.

In western Maharashtra state, under Congress rule for over a decade, the party ended up with only 42 seats after losing about half the seats it had held previously.

Analysts believe Congress' fortunes are only going to get worse. Mr Modi has already declared he would rid the country of the 150-year-old Congress.

"The party has a problem. Cadres are at a total loss, the regional leadership which used to be strong is not making much leeway. All the big states are lost and it is not responding to change," said Jindal School of Government and Public Policy professor Shiv Visvanathan.

"In the last 10 years, India has changed.

The Congress thinks it is a historic entity but the new generation is not bothered. He (Rahul) has no information on what is going on on the ground."

Last year, Mr Gandhi moved to take over the reins of the party from his mother.

Those within the party, which has been led by Mr Gandhi's father, grandmother and great grandfather - all former prime ministers - were hoping that the generational shift would counter the problems of an unpopular government.

Instead, it found a leader who is a poor orator and unable to enthuse cadres, shortcomings that were further highlighted by the emergence of Mr Modi, who could fire up voters and cadres with his eloquent speeches.

Though Mr Gandhi promised to restructure the party after the general election in May, he has all but disappeared from public view and is not readily accessible to party leaders.

Criticisms are growing about Mr Gandhi's leadership, but these are still made behind the scenes.

One leader who spoke off the record noted that the Gandhi scion has "no fire in his belly" for politics. The only sign of life so far was when the leadership backed by the Gandhis moved swiftly to remove Mr Shashi Tharoor as spokesman after he drew flak for "praising" Mr Modi.

This was after Mr Tharoor said he was "honoured" to be chosen by Mr Modi to be part of the Clean India campaign. But within days of removing Mr Tharoor, who is among a small clutch of leaders who won in their constituency in the general elections, the party also called him a "good leader".

"The Congress has a lot of political issues to sort out now that the BJP is taking its place as the major national political party," said Mr Rasheed Kidwai, author of Sonia: A Biography.

"There is a saying that when there is a storm, it is foolish to stand up. The idea is to lie down.

And that is what mother and son are doing because there is a Modi wave going on."

This article was first published on October 21, 2014.
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