NEW DELHI - He promised to defeat the opposition with “love”, but was jilted by India’s voters. Now Rahul Gandhi’s humiliating rejection raises the question: has his famous surname lost its allure?
While the general election marked the first time 43-year-old Rahul had fronted a national campaign for the left-leaning Congress, the latest disaster followed two other state election wipe-outs on his watch.
“It will be very difficult for the party to bounce back,” acknowledged a senior party on Friday as the scale of the rout became clear.
“The morale is really down among party workers. Some of them are in shock. We need a complete overhaul, starting from the top,” he added at a gloom-ridden party headquarters in Delhi.
Not surprisingly, the comments were made on condition of anonymity. There have been few signs of open revolt against the Gandhis, India’s most famous dynasty, which has provided three of the country’s prime ministers.
But in a sign of the frustrations towards Rahul after a lacklustre campaign, a small number of supporters broke cover on Friday to chant calls for the scion to be replaced by his younger sister Priyanka, who was the family’s star performer on the campaign trail. Such a spectacle only serves to reinforce the view of critics that Congress - which has ruled India for all but 13 years of its post-independence history - has become almost entirely reliant on a family that has lost its Midas touch.
Asked in an interview last week whether he thought Rahul should make way for Priyanka, opposition leader Narendra Modi replied: “It seems odd that a national party like the Congress should not be able to think beyond the Gandhi family for providing leadership.”
The dynasty’s rule dates back to the premiership of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was India’s first leader after British colonial rule and was Rahul’s great-grandfather.
His daughter Indira was the next in the bloodline to lead the world’s largest democracy. Her son Rajiv took up the reins after his mother’s assassination in 1984 before he himself was also blown up by a Tamil suicide bomber seven years later.
Rajiv’s Italian-born widow Sonia became the fourth member of the clan to lead Congress to an election victory in 2004. But her son Rahul’s political acumen and appetite for power has long been questioned.
“Rahul, unlike previous members of the Gandhi dynasty, is unable to win elections, enthuse masses,” political commentator and journalist Hartosh Singh Bal told AFP.
Only last year, Rahul said that power was akin to poison, and he spoke out against dynastic politics even after agreeing to front the Congress campaign.
“We have done pretty badly. As vice-president of the party I hold myself responsible,” Rahul said on Friday of the loss to Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as he fronted up alongside his mother at party HQ .
“We respect this decision. I take responsibility for this defeat,” added Sonia, who remains president of the party.
Supporters say Rahul faced an impossible task against the BJP, leading Congress into the headwinds of anti-incumbency after 10 years in power and widespread anger about corruption, inflation and low economic growth.
“We have strong, unflinching faith in our leadership,” senior party leader Satyavrata Chaturvedi told AFP on Friday as he tried to lift the mood among supporters.
“Our vice-president did a very good job, he campaigned relentlessly across the country.”
However, Rahul visibly struggled to connect with voters, delivering a message at odds with the public mood.
“The way that the Congress party sent the British away with love ... the Congress will now send the BJP away similarly with love,” he said at a rally in March in a typically quixotic utterance.
At other times, he baffled with promises to liberate India’s “beehive energies”, and he told one meeting that the country needed to empower low-caste people by giving them “Jupiter’s escape velocity”.
His main pitch to voters was that Congress had delivered new rights and welfare programmes, and that the BJP would divide Hindus and Muslims.
But if Rahul couldn’t get the message across, then who can? While Sonia remains the party’s most powerful figure, she is is now 67 and has suffered health problems that were one of the main reasons behind Rahul’s elevation.
Priyanka is widely seen as the alternative, and her willingness to hit back at Modi’s taunts as well as her general warmth endeared her to many in the party.
But her businessman husband’s public image and her own declared intention to dedicate herself to her children could rule her out.
Siddharth Varadarajan, from the Delhi-based Center for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, said the party had to “figure out its long term plans” and stop forever relying on the family. “The Congress needs to look beyond the dynasty,” he said.