The party won just 52 seats out of 543 up for grabs in the country’s parliament. In 14 Indian states, it failed to win a single seat. Even the party president, Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, lost in a constituency that had been held by his family for decades.
Now the party must assess what went wrong and decide whether to change its leadership or strategy in a political scene dominated by Modi and an aggressive brand of Hindu nationalism.
Some Modi critics even said the failure of the Congress in this election meant it had outlived its usefulness. “The Congress must die,” Yogendra Yadav, an activist and election expert, said in a television interview when exit polls predicted big losses for the party.
“Today it represents the single biggest obstacle to creation of an alternative,” he said.
Historian and columnist Ramachandra Guha called for Gandhi’s resignation after the party’s poor showing. “Both self-respect, as well as political pragmatism, demand that the Congress elect a new leader,” he said on Twitter. “But perhaps the Congress has neither.”
The party’s highest decision-making body is set to meet Saturday. Gandhi, 48, may offer to resign, according to local media reports. But the party is likely to refuse such an offer. Gandhi remains popular within the party once led by his great-grandfather, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Speaking to the media after the results were announced Thursday, Gandhi took responsibility for the debacle. “I respect the decision of the people,” he said, saying it was not the moment to analyze the defeat.
Despite losing his seat in the Congress bastion of Amethi, Gandhi will continue as a member of parliament because he won a different seat in a southern state. In India, candidates are allowed to contest elections from two seats, one of which they have to relinquish if elected.
Within the party, there were no easy answers for the loss. “We need to go back to the people, in streets and villages,” said Pawan Khera, a party spokesman. “We need to read what the country wants.”
Sitting on the lawn of the near-empty party headquarters in Delhi on Thursday, Ashok Patel, a young party worker, had trouble grasping what went wrong.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party “did not win this election on their government’s work,” Patel said. “They successfully managed to project Rahul as an entitled dynast and Modi as selfless and hard-working.”
He blamed the BJP’s brand of religious polarization, which struck a chord with the electorate. The opposition often accused Modi and his party of stoking communal fault lines between Hindus and Muslims during the campaign.
Some observers said the Congress party’s communication strategy had failed to market its policies to voters, a charge that Khera, the spokesman, conceded. The party spent months readying a manifesto but left little time to spread the word about its flagship proposal — a plan to provide a minimum income to the poorest 20 percent of Indians.
The party was also criticized for its inability to stitch together a pan-India alliance of opposition parties with the potential to counter the BJP. In key states such as Uttar Pradesh, with the largest number of seats, the party missed an opportunity to be a part of the anti-BJP coalition, which split some of the opposition votes. Results from the state indicate, however, that the Modi wave would have been unstoppable even with such a formidable alliance.
Modi’s march to reelection not only scorched the Congress but also left powerful regional parties in disarray. The BJP pulled off a stunning upset in West Bengal, a state bordering Bangladesh that was long resistant to its brand of Hindu-nationalist politics. In this election, the BJP won 18 seats, a big jump from the two it previously held.
While the picture for the country’s opposition looks grim, it is not unusual for political parties in India to rebuild themselves after suffering debilitating losses. In the 2014 national election, the Bahujan Samaj Party, a political force supported by Dalits — formerly known as “untouchables” — did not win a single seat. This time, the party won 10 seats in an alliance.
The poor performance of the Congress party in the election was especially bitter after it was expected to make notable gains in this poll, even if the BJP was tipped to win. Late last year, the Congress had wrested control of three key north-Indian states from the BJP.
But winning at the national level against Modi will require fundamental change, experts say.
“What could defeat Modi is not a party, not an alliance, not a freebie promise, not anti-incumbency,” columnist Shivam Vij wrote in the Print. “It is only and only another human being who becomes a mass leader and captures the public imagination.”