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India election

India’s Congress party woes escalate after election debacle

Leadership crisis at top comes amid infighting and defections at regional level

It is unclear if Rahul Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress, has both the will and the desire to continue as party leader. He offered his resignation following the recent national elections, but the move was rejected by senior party leaders.   © Reuters

NEW DELHI -- India's oldest political party is increasingly grappling with internal discord and defections after it was crushed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in recent national elections.

As the opposition Indian National Congress confronts one of its biggest crises since the country gained independence from Britain in 1947, Rahul Gandhi, the party's president, offered his resignation following the humiliating defeat, a move that was quickly rejected by senior party leaders.

Gandhi -- the great-grandson, grandson and son of former prime ministers of India -- also lost his long-held constituency of Amethi, a town in northern Uttar Pradesh state, although he still found a place in parliament, winning a second seat he contested in southern Kerala state. (Indian law allows a candidate to compete in elections from two constituencies, and the candidate is required to vacate one seat in the event of winning both.)

In the latest jolt to hit the party, 12 of its 18 members in southern Telangana state's legislature jumped to the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samiti party on Thursday. Congress' leader in the state, Uttam Kumar Reddy, described the desertions as the "murder of democracy" and accused the defectors of receiving payments from the ruling party, without offering evidence.

The setback comes as Congress is struggling to keep its local party apparatus together in several states in the aftermath of the nationwide elections, in which it won just 52 seats of the 545-member Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, compared with 303 seats secured by the Hindu-nationalist BJP.

Though Congress improved on its 2014 general election tally of 44, its worst showing ever, the party last month again failed to gain the required 10% seats in the Lok Sabha to stake a claim for the post of Leader of the Opposition. Of India's 29 states, the party did not manage to win even a single seat in 17.

In northwestern Rajasthan, a state ruled by Congress, fissures within the party deepened after it came up empty-handed in the state's 25 parliamentary seats, prompting demands that veteran party leader and state chief minister, Ashok Gehlot, be replaced by his deputy, who is viewed as having greater appeal among young voters.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives to attend his swearing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in New Delhi on May 30. His ruling Bharatiya Janata Party crushed the Congress party in recent elections.   © Reuters

Amid the bitter blame-game, the state's agriculture minister offered late last month to quit over the party's poor election showing, but his resignation was reportedly rejected by Gehlot. Congress has a wafer-thin majority in Rajasthan, and it is now scrambling to keep it intact to prevent the BJP from returning to power.

Strife has spread to other states, too. In western Maharashtra, a senior Congress leader quit the party on Tuesday amid speculation that he could soon join the ruling BJP. Public disagreements have also emerged among party leaders in southern Karnataka and northern Haryana states following the national election.

"It is usual for a party to witness rifts after it loses an election, because leaders start blaming each other for the debacle," said Shubha Singh, a New Delhi-based author and political analyst. "This will go on for some time, but you need a leadership that will pull them out of this mess and set them on some path."

But it remains to be seen if Gandhi has both the will and the desire to continue as party leader. As Congress' national president, Gandhi has expressed his intention to quit after taking responsibility for the election rout, although analysts say senior party leaders are loath to let him go.

"Gandhi could not prove his ability" as leader of the party despite taking on Modi over jobless growth, farmers' grievances over not getting a fair price for their produce and other issues, said independent political analyst Narayan Bareth, adding that Congress has failed to educate the country's citizens on its ideology of socialism, secularism and progressivism.

For much of the 72 years of its independence, India has been ruled by Congress, which led the country's freedom movement during the British colonial era, but now it is struggling to stay relevant. While party sources say Gandhi, scion of the politically powerful Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, is adamant on stepping aside, analysts believe he will not be relinquishing his post.

"That's a joke. Every political party tries to do such drama once in a while," said Jaskirat Singh, a trustee of the Association for Democratic Reforms. "Somebody who has held power will never let it go," he said, suggesting that Gandhi will remain at the helm.

"Unless there is a law [framed by parliament] which mandates that a political organization must hold elections to choose its leader, till then I don't see anything happening in any party [run by a family]," he said.

Shubha Singh added that if Gandhi was determined to quit as party leader, he should have insisted on a successor to swiftly replace him. She also acknowledged that the party has not groomed leaders outside of the family to take on the top position. "None of its second-rung leaders have shown leadership qualities."

"However, if the family decides on one person [who should replace Gandhi], the others will fall into line," she said. But Sonia Gandhi, his mother and a senior Congress leader, "is still hoping that her son will eventually relent and remain the party president."

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