For most of the post-Independence period, the Congress has remained a tightly controlled body that thrived on loyalty. The party’s constitution has existed merely on paper. But over the last decade, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi had been attempting to bring internal democracy to the party, even conducting primaries to choose election candidates in some places. Some party members were taken aback. Rahul’s experiments threatened to overturn the system by which leaders once had to obtain support only from the top, forcing them to seek grassroots support too.

In the Lok Sabha elections, it was Rahul who had a major voice in everything – from selecting candidates to managing the campaign.

With the party’s rout, it’s no surprise that the Congress vice president is at the receiving end of loud criticism. As a consequence, it isn’t clear whether Rahul will give up his ideas for party reform at the time they’re needed the most, or whether he will persist with them in the face of the electoral debacle.

Last week, Mumbai Congress leader Milind Deora’s claim that Rahul’s advisers were “non-political” and “inexperienced” attracted an instant counter attack from senior members of the party. Even more stern was the party’s response to the demand by All India Congress Committee member and former Kerala minister TH Mustafa on Wednesday that Rahul be ousted for leading the party to its worst-ever performance and that the reins of the Congress be handed over to his sister Priyanka Gandhi. Within 24 hours, Mustafa was suspended.

Just as the outbursts began, Congress president Sonia Gandhi intervened to silence the critics. Addressing the Congress Parliamentary Party meeting last Saturday, she said the Congress Working Committee had asked her to “undertake whatever steps necessary to revamp the party organisation at all levels". She urged, "Your inputs, your experience and your assessment of our strengths and weaknesses – rather than public acrimony – will be critical to that exercise.”

Some in Congress interpreted this as a sign that Sonia might be returning to centre stage after having vacated it for her son.

Others say that reform has been put on the backburner as the task of shielding Rahul from attacks from within the party has suddenly become as significant as that of reviving the Congress.

Party insiders say that in the face of this dissent, Priyanka has quietly chipped in to help her brother. For example, she was present at a meeting Rahul called last week to assess the Congress’ performance in the recent Lok Sabha elections.

After the party’s rout, demands have been growing for Priyanka to play a larger role in reviving the fortunes of the Congress. Recently, party leader KV Thomas said that along with every Congressman, he too wished that she should come to the “main arena” and work with Sonia and Rahul as a team. So far, Priyanka has restricted all her activities to Amethi and Raebareli.

It is, however, too early to say whether Rahul will back out from his project. Ever since he joined his mother in electoral politics in 2004, he has been emphatic about the need for internal democracy in the Congress and for restoring the party’s pro-poor image. It was clear that he was in it for the long haul. Party insiders say that though it may not be possible to do anything dramatic in the short run since his position is weak, he may not have abandoned his project.