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India's Congress closes ranks behind Gandhis after poll rout

Monday, 19 May 2014 - 2:20pm IST | Agency: Reuters

India's Congress party was preparing to rally around the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty on Monday to snuff out possible dissent after it suffered its most humiliating defeat in an election.

Both party chief Sonia Gandhi and her son and heir apparent, Rahul, have accepted responsibility for the loss. Ahead of a top-level meeting, party sources said there was no question of either resigning their posts.

The dynasty has been the mainstay of the Congress party since Jawaharlal Nehru led India to independence in 1947 and stayed on as prime minister until he died in 1964. Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, and her son, Rajiv Gandhi, both served as prime ministers and were assassinated, seven years apart.

Sonia Gandhi is Rajiv's widow and Rahul their son.

The few Congress party members who have previously raised the banner of revolt against the family have been hounded out. Some others who left the party have quietly returned.

On Monday, the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party's highest decision-making body, was meeting to consider the election rout amid some media reports that Sonia and Rahul, who led the campaign, may offer to resign.

"Nobody knows what they will do, there is speculation in the media (about offering to quit). But even if, hypothetically, they submit their resignations, each and every member of the CWC will reject their resignations outright - including me," party general secretary Shakeel Ahmad told Reuters.

Congress, which has been in power for the past decade, won only 44 seats in the 545-member lower house of parliament - less than the one-tenth required to be recognised as the main opposition group. Both Sonia and her son won their seats in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh; Rahul with a vastly reduced majority.

The Congress rout, worse than opinion polls predicted, has deepened doubts about the leadership of Rahul, who is seen to have run a lacklustre campaign that failed to connect with voters, especially the young, where opposition leader and prime minister-to-be Narendra Modi succeeded.

Rahul has seemed remote and cut off from the party rank and file, choosing to operate through a clique of mostly unelected advisers who are under attack now following the election defeat.

A video doing the rounds showed him on the campaign trail in western Maharashtra state unable to name the party candidates in the area. During the election, Modi challenged Rahul to name 10 villages in his home constituency of Amethi.

Congress leaders sought to shift the blame to Gandhi's advisers. "It was a complete failure of our communication strategy, our media strategy," said Ashwani Kumar, a former federal minister.

While the party bosses were closing ranks behind Rahul, some Congressmen lower down revived the call for a greater role for his sister Priyanka, seen as a more natural politician.

A poster appeared in the northern town of Allahabad, with pictures of Sonia and Priyanka, calling for the younger sibling to fully embrace Congress politics.

Priyanka, a year younger than her brother, campaigned in the family's home districts mounting an aggressive challenge to Modi's high-decibel show that took the country by storm.

But the mother-of-two, who bears a resemblance to grandmother Indira Gandhi, has confined herself to only the family bastions in each election. The party says it is entirely up to her to define her political role.

That is the sort of approach that independent observers say has been the party's undoing.

"The family is the Congress's life source, its oxygen. But just by being present at the top, the family prevents the emergence of any young and dynamic leadership," The Hindu, a broadsheet daily, commented in an editorial.

"One fleeting indication in the aftermath of the election was that the Congress may turn to Priyanka Gandhi for rescue. But will that change anything, when the verdict is emphatically against the family itself?"

(Additional reporting by Nigam Prusty; Editing by Douglas Busvine and Raju Gopalakrishnan)


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