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Hope and change for Congress in 2017; 2018 to be Rahul Gandhi's acid test

The year ended on a high note for the political outfit as Congress president Sonia Gandhi passed the mantle of the grand old party to her son, Rahul Gandhi.

Published: 07th January 2018 06:52 PM  |   Last Updated: 07th January 2018 07:09 PM   |  A+A-

Congress President Rahul Gandhi with his mother and former president, Sonia Gandhi at the Congress Working Committee meeting in New Delhi. (PTI)

By PTI

NEW DELHI: It was a year of change and hope for the Congress, as the 132-year-old party saw a generational shift in leadership in 2017, and the election results in Gujarat gave its weary workers a much-needed boost.

The year ended on a high note for the political outfit as Congress president Sonia Gandhi passed the mantle of the grand old party to her son, Rahul Gandhi.

It also infused hope in the rank and file of the electorally weakened Congress after the party put up a spirited fight in Gujarat, preventing a landslide by the BJP in Prime Minister Narendra ModiÂ’s home turf.

The year 2017 began well for the Congress as it wrested power from the Akali Dal-BJP alliance in Punjab, the only state the party has won on its own since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

But on the downside, it lost power in Bihar, where the party had registered a victory as part of the RJD-JDU alliance. The coalition government fell apart in 2017.

Overall, the CongressÂ’s poor electoral show continued as it failed to defend its governments in Manipur, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh.

The party finished a poor fourth in Uttar Pradesh and squandered its mandates in Goa and Manipur, where the BJP ended up forming the governments after Congress strategists were caught napping.

This was also a year of continuing defections from the party, which lost stalwarts such as SM Krishna in Karnataka, Jayanti Natarajan in Tamil Nadu and Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh.

Karnataka and Chhattisgarh go to the polls this year along with Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

The party, which once ruled over large swathes of India, now stands reduced to Karnataka, Punjab, Puducherry and Meghalaya.

With elections this year in Karnataka and Meghalaya, the challenge for Rahul Gandhi would be party consolidation and organisational cohesion.

Addressing his first Congress Working Committee meeting after taking charge as party president on December 16, 2017, he admitted that organisational weakness was the principal reason why the party could not convert favourable ground conditions in Gujarat into an electoral victory.

He also sent a message that rank indiscipline would not be tolerated -- significant in view of two-party veterans' remarks before the Gujarat polls. It is believed by some in the party that comments made by Mani Shankar Aiyar and Kapil Sibal, both former ministers, helped the BJP in Gujarat.

That said, the Congress's Gujarat show was its hallmark in 2017 as the party posted its best-ever performance in 22 years in the state, winning 77 seats as against the BJP's 99.

"The BJP may have won Gujarat but the Congress was not defeated. In fact, the moral victory was ours," a Congress leader said.

Former minister and veteran Congressman Kishore Chandra Deo summed up 2017 for the party, holding it up as a year of transformation.

“Things started to turn around then," he said.

Deo said a youthful Rahul Gandhi had proved himself a leader in Gujarat, where he single-handedly led the party to good results even when most thought the Congress would face an electoral rout.

“In the coming months there will be dramatic and perceptible changes and the Congress will be at the fulcrum of the new set-up that is developing before us," he said.

But a section also felt the Congress would continue to need inputs from Sonia Gandhi, who held the reins of the party for 19 years.

"She will continue to guide us," a leader said.

If Sonia Gandhi took a backseat in party matters, a significant change in 2017 was the personal transformation of her son, who improved his Twitter following remarkably, honed his onslaught against the BJP with a spate of sharp one-liners and drew eyeballs with his defence of “dynastic politics” at a University of Berkeley address.

The party is also under transformation within, with the old guard making way for the young, who have been handed over the charge of states by the new president.

Rahul Gandhi has also set up different departments to woo various sections, including traders, the fishing community, professionals and tribals.

“The year 2018 will be a year of reckoning for the Congress and it will be back on the centre stage," said a party member.

Only time will tell how far Rahul Gandhi will be able to sustain the momentum he has picked up.

But 2018 will be his acid test as the party faces elections in eight states– Tripura, Meghalaya and Nagaland in March; Karnataka in mid-year; and Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh and Mizoram by the end of the year.

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