A day after exit polls predicted a rout for the Congress party in the Lok Sabha elections, its leaders closed ranks behind vice-president Rahul Gandhi and deflected the blame onto the Manmohan Singh government for not communicating its successes to the people.
Rahul, though never officially anointed prime ministerial candidate, was the face of the party in the campaign, and Congressmen are keen to see that a failure at the hustings does not dim the allure of a family that has given India three prime ministers.
So senior Congress leaders Kamal Nath, Salman Khurshid and Jairam Ramesh were quick to dissociate Rahul's leadership from a poor show in the elections.
"Rahul Gandhi was never part of the government. Election results are a reflection on the people's perception about the government's functioning.... the government was not able to convey to the people about its programmes and all the good work it was doing," said Nath.
Rubbishing the exit polls, which suggest the Congress is heading for its worst-ever tally, Khurshid said: "Be that as it may, he is our leader. We repose faith in him. He will lead us from the front, he will tell us if something has to be told and something has to be advised."
He added that the 43-year-old Rahul, seen as a reluctant entrant into a politics, would continue to be "our leader in good and bad times", while Ramesh said that it was upto the party to translate whatever positive impact the Gandhi family had on the campaign into an electoral advantage.
Party general secretary Shakeel Ahmed had launched the defence of Rahul on Monday, shortly before the results came out. "He is not in the government. He is the number two in the party. Sonia Gandhi is the president and naturally there is local leadership. So it is all collective."
The protective cordon around Rahul drew derision from the BJP, which appears to be on the cusp of power after a decade in opposition.
"The mantra in Congress is to blame others in case of something bad while giving all credit to Congress president and vice-president. Therefore, the PM will be blamed and others too. There will be talk about collective responsibility," said spokesperson Prakash Javadekar.
Though a majority of exit polls predicted that the Congress would not cross the double digit mark, the party's internal assessment is that it will get around 130 seats. Its worst ever performance so far has been in 1999 when it got 114 seats.
This is not the first time that Congressmen have had to come out and defend Rahul after a poor electoral show. In the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh (2012) and Bihar (2010) where he had campaigned relentlessly, the party got drubbed.
In UP, he addressed 211 meetings in 45 days and the party ended up wining 28 seats, six more than it had bagged in 2007 elections. In Bihar, the Congress won just four seats in 2010 elections.
On whether the party will utilize Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's full potential as an effective campaigner, Ramesh said she played two roles - public and backroom. "In her public role, she concentrated on two seats of Amethi and Rae Bareli. And in her backroom room role, she acted as a soundboard for ideas and her ideas helped the party significantly."his unit.