Delhi: At his mother's home at 10 Janpath in Delhi, Rahul Gandhi, bearded and in a white kurta pyjama, delivered a simple and honest analysis of his party's disastrous performance and his own role in Uttar Pradesh. "I led the campaign, so it is my responsibility," he said, adding that the result "is a good lesson for me." Despite Mr Gandhi serving as the face of the Congress campaign, the party improved its total by just seven seats - it now has 28 seats in the 403-member assembly, putting it in fourth place. It had hoped for about triple that number. Mr Gandhi congratulated the Samajwadi Party and its young leader, Akhilesh Yadav, for its clear victory. "The mood (in UP) was for the Samajwadi Party," he conceded. His sister, Priyanka, who had campaigned for him, hugged him after his remarks.
Mr Gandhi said, "I will continue my work as I promised the people of UP" and said the Congress will focus on improving its organizational structure in the state. "Our fundamentals were weak," he said.
His admission of failure over-rode embarrassingly sycophantic comments from his party all morning, praising Mr Gandhi for turning the Congress into a party to be taken seriously once again in the Gandhis' home state. Digvijaya Singh, who is in charge of UP for the Congress, met Sonia Gandhi and offered to resign. He also added that Mr Gandhi was not projected as the chief minister for the state; therefore, he concluded, the defeat does not reflect on Mr Gandhi's stature as a leader. "The job of a star campaigner," party spokesperson Renuka Chowdhury said of Mr Gandhi, "is to draw masses and spell out the party ideology."
Particularly biting for the Gandhis is the flat rejection in Amethi and Rae Bareli, constituencies represented by Rahul and Sonia Gandhi in the Lok Sabha. Of the ten seats here, the Congress won just two despite vigorous campaigning by Priyanka, Sonia and Mr Gandhi.
Throughout the campaign, Mr Gandhi, who is 41, was compared and contrasted with 38-year-old Akhilesh Yadav. "There is only one youth leader," claimed Mr Yadav's supporters today as they placed a turban on his head to commemorate his victory.
Mr Gandhi's campaign may not have been effective, but it did not lack effort. In 48 days, he held 211 rallies. He was seen often walking from one village to another, talking to farmers about their concerns, spending nights at the homes of Dalits. Mayawati, who was voted out as chief minister today, attacked him for turning these visits into photo ops. Mr Gandhi said the criticism would not faze him. What did not work was his heavy-handed pitch to the state's Muslims, who make up 18% of the population. Mr Gandhi focused on a new minority quota that would reserve government jobs and seats in colleges for backward Muslim castes. He was accused of communalising politics, but remained undeterred. His agenda was adopted clumsily by leaders like Salman Khurshid, who defied election guidelines to invoke the quota at rallies in Muslim constituencies. The hard-sell did not work among Muslims, who opted for the Samajwadi Party; the BJP believes it also benefited from Mr Gandhi's minority politics.
As the BJP pointed out, Mr Gandhi now carries the burden of two lost elections that he was closely associated with. In 2010, he took a leading role in the Bihar elections, but failed to budge voters who stuck by the partnership between the BJP and Nitish Kumar. He said today that "Organisationally we are not where we should be in UP. So that is where our lot of work is going to be...I will continue that...I view my work as working for the people. I will do my work". His party has suggested that he will be their candidate for prime minister in the general elections in 2014. While it may not second guess its decision, Mr Gandhi, who has resisted attempts to push him to the head of his party, may put up a tougher fight than before.