NEW DELHI (REUTERS) – Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul on Monday offered to step down as leaders of India’s Congress party after it suffered its worst ever election defeat, but in a bid to snuff out dissent against the country’s leading political dynasty, party bosses declined.
Congress, which has ruled India for most of its 67 years of independence including the last decade, is reeling from a humiliating reverse to bitter rival Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
But rather than single out the Gandhis, who led a lacklustre campaign in the face of Mr Modi’s barnstorming performance, Congress leaders facing at least five years in opposition rallied around the family.
“Sonia and Rahul offered to resign but the CWC rejected it unanimously,” said Mr Amrinder Singh, a senior party leader from the northern state of Punjab, referring to the elite Congress Working Committee which met at party headquarters in New Delhi.
Congress leaders adopted a resolution authorising Mrs Sonia Gandhi to take steps to revamp the party.
Television channels showed grim-faced party leaders led by Mrs Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of assassinated prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. Next to her was her son Rahul, who has been singled out as failing to check Mr Modi’s meteoric rise to power.
He admitted at the meeting he failed to meet expectations, party spokesman Janardan Dwivedi told reporters at a briefing.
The scale of defeat was devastating. Congress won 44 seats in the 545-member lower house of parliament – less than the one-tenth required to be recognised as the main opposition group. The BJP’s tally was 282.
Mrs Gandhi and her son won their seats in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, although he did so with a vastly reduced majority.
A source in the Congress said that Mrs Gandhi offered her resignation as soon as the meeting began. “But the CWC said that we need you very much. We need a strong opposition to take on the BJP, we need a strong party to keep a check on the government,” said the source, who attended the meeting but declined to be named.
The reaction suggests that Congress is not about to break its historic bond with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which has towered over Indian politics for the best part of a century.
Over the years, party members who have raised the spectre of revolt against the Gandhis have been hounded out.
SISTER TO THE RESCUE?
Outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh also spoke up at the meeting, saying resignations of the two leaders was not a solution to the crisis facing the Congress, arguably its most serious in decades.
The Congress rout has deepened doubts about the leadership qualities of Mr Rahul, who failed to connect with voters, particularly the young.
During the election, Mr Modi challenged Mr Rahul to name 10 villages in his home constituency of Amethi. He also repeatedly played on his humble roots as the son of a tea-seller, contrasting those with the Gandhis’ privileged upbringing.
Mr Rahul also appeared cut off from the party rank-and-file, choosing to operate through a clique of mostly unelected advisers who are now under pressure following election defeat.
Ahead of the CWC meeting, Congress leaders sought to shift the blame on to Mr Rahul’s advisers. “It was a complete failure of our communication strategy, our media strategy,” said Mr Ashwani Kumar, a former federal minister.
While party bosses were closing ranks behind Mr Rahul, some Congress members lower down the chain of command revived calls for a greater role for his sister Priyanka, seen as a more natural politician.
Ms Priyanka, a year younger than her brother, campaigned in the family’s home districts, mounting an aggressive challenge to Mr 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 family bastions in each election. The party says it is up to her to decide on what political role, if any, she wants.
That hands-off approach is what many independent observers believe 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?”