The failure of the Congress to even replicate its performance during the last assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh provides ample evidence that the country's largest party is fast ceasing to hold relevance in its most populous state. The plight of the party perhaps could have been worse had the Gandhi siblings, Rahul and Priyanka not stepped in and saved it from being reduced to a single digit entity in the state which has thrown up four Congress prime ministers--Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi.
One consolation for the party is that it was able to win seven out of ten seats in the Rae Bareilly and Amethi Parliamentary constituencies represented by Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi respectively. The other consolation of course is that the BJP, also a National party performed very poorly too and arch rival Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party was thrown out of power by a decisive vote going in favour of another secular party-Mayawati's BSP.
The principal reason cited by many was that the Congress despite a spirited campaign by the Gandhis was unable to project itself as the natural alternative to the Samajwadi Party. In order to oust Mulayam and company, the people opted for the only party which could do so and in the process, the Congress and the BJP fell by the wayside. Dr Devendra Kakar, a political scientist from Delhi University said, "the central theme of the poll was Mulayam, his money and muscle power and the growing lawlessness in the state. People wanted to reject that and have voted. It certainly does not imply that they have rejected the national parties but have gone for the alternative in the name of peace and stability".
Dr AS Kukla, Vice Chancellor of BR Ambedkar University at Agra seemed to partially agree with the observation and said that the outcome shows that people were looking for stability and peace and were worried because of poor law and order in the state. "The state can now move towards development with a single party rule".
Echoing his party's position, Salman Khurshid, president of UPCC said that "we are disappointed but not shattered. We geared ourselves for the polls and I hope the same spirit will continue. We are grateful for the courageous participation in the campaign by Rahul Gandhi. He has said that it was a long term attempt to regain lost ground. We have succeeded in ousting terrible government and will work towards providing an alternative to the one which has been elected''.
However, the supreme irony for the Congress is that it was its original tried and tested formula of the consolidation of the dalit, muslim and upper caste vote bank which pulled it off for a more experienced and chastened Mayawati. The only difference was that the pyramid turned upside down and instead of a Brahmin (or upper caste), it was dalit (Mayawati) who led the formidable combination. Dr Kukla said that "Mayawati provided the right social engineering at the right time and brought all communities together. Her campaign was inclusive".
For the Congress which never thrived on caste politics, the introduction of OBC politics by senior leaders like Arjun Singh or the over emphasis of some senior leaders at pleasing minorities did not appear to work at all in terms of electoral success. The party entered the polls without its original identity and efforts of Rahul Gandhi to resuscitate it were not enough. "In fact, Rahul Gandhi was pushed into the UP Chakravyuh like Abhimanyu in Mahabharat but to his credit he was able to get out as also bring Congress into the talking space in the highly charged election scenario of UP", Dr Kakar said.
While the percentage of votes polled by the party this time is not known as yet, it has obviously got a lesser number of seats than it did in 2002 when its nominees got nine percent. What could be a cause of worry for the party is that in the 2004 Parliamentary polls, its percentage was about 13 percent and it had won in 55 odd assembly segments leading to outright victory in nine Lok Sabha seats. Senior leader Kapil Sibal tried to play this down by stating that "you cannot compare the party's performance in a Parliamentary poll with an assembly poll".
Most leaders were not willing to speak on record but their common reason for the party's defeat was the inability of any of the Congress MPs other than Sonia Gandhi and Rahul to win the majority of seats in their constituencies. "It clearly shows that there is no connect. Why should any of them be in the Union Cabinet if they cannot win their seats", a leader remarked.
Secondly, the decision to give tickets to "outsiders" or "new entrants" apparently did not go too well with the electorate. A leader said, "in some cases people joined the party later but got the tickets before. You cannot blame the people if they have not voted for such candidates".
Thirdly, in UP, the organisational structure of the party had collapsed over the years and some of the top leaders of the state had close liaison with Samajwadi Party or others. "This time the results have shown that such leaders have been defeated along with Mulayam Singh's candidates. It was folly to field them since they were the faces of the party for so many years and this time the wind was blowing againast Mulayam and his extended group".
However, the Congress has a tough task at hand keeping in view the 2009 Parliamentary polls. It needs to brush up its act if it hopes to improve. Rahul Gandhi has said that he had gone to UP for a long term association. The coming months will show how he keeps his promise.