Having failed to secure a clear mandate in the Karnataka Assembly polls, the Congress, on Tuesday, quickly decided to reach out to the Janata Dal (Secular) in an obvious bid to prevent the Bharatiya Janata Party from forming a government in the southern state. However, the move seemed to be aimed equally at throwing a protective ring around party president Rahul Gandhi.

At the end of counting day on Tuesday, the Bharatiya Janata Party won the most seats, but fell nine seats short of the majority mark of 113 in the 224-member Assembly. The Congress only managed 78 seats, dropping 44 seats from its previous tally. The Janata Dal (Secular), along with its ally the Bahujan Samaj Party, picked up 38 seats

The Congress chief and outgoing Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah had led the charge in the high-voltage campaign. While Rahul Gandhi toured the state extensively in the run-up to the election, Siddaramaiah was equally vocal and visible. Both leaders asserted confidently that the Congress would emerge victorious. Rahul Gandhi went as far as to declare that a victory for the party in Karnataka would be followed by similar victories in the year-end Assembly polls in the BJP-held states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

But on Tuesday, when the election results showed that their confidence was clearly misplaced, Rahul Gandhi was nowhere on the scene. As the Congress chief remained incommunicado through the day, senior party leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ashok Gehlot were tasked by former party president Sonia Gandhi to get in touch with Janata Dal (Secular) chief HD Deve Gowda and his son Kumaraswamy with an offer of unconditional support.

As a result, the ongoing public discourse was dominated by the efforts being made by the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress-Janata Dal (Secular) combine to form the government in the state, whereas the focus would have been on seeking accountability from Rahul Gandhi, whose electoral track record has been far from inspiring.

“The Congress decision is, at best, a pre-emptive strike to protect Rahul Gandhi,” remarked a Congress insider. There is a view in the party that the move to support the Janata Dal (Secular) is unlikely to bear fruit as an aggressive BJP and Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala, a former BJP hand from Gujarat, will go to all lengths to prevent them from forming the next government in Karnataka.

Tough times ahead

While Rahul Gandhi might have escaped immediate scrutiny, there is no doubt that the Nehru-Gandhi scion faces tough times ahead as the Congress braces for the coming round of Assembly polls and next year’s Lok Sabha election. Once the dust settles and attention shifts to the forthcoming electoral battles, all the old doubts about his leadership capabilities will resurface. As it is, a large section in the party is not wholly convinced that he can pose a serious challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The share of sceptics will only grow after the Karnataka verdict. “What value does Rahul Gandhi bring to the table,” remarked a senior Congress office bearer.

Questions will also be asked about how Rahul Gandhi has not paid adequate attention to strengthen party structures that have weakened over time.

Party insiders have also been unhappy with the Congress president’s overdependence on apolitical youngsters in planning and strategising election campaigns. They point out that unlike the BJP, the Congress does not have an experienced team to micromanage elections.

More importantly, the Karnataka verdict will mark the return of senior party leaders, making it so much more difficult for Rahul Gandhi to pack his team with younger faces.

Old guard gets a breather

That the Congress old guard cannot be wished away was evident when party veterans Azad and Gehlot were rushed to Bengaluru a day before the election results were declared and entrusted with the responsibility of seeking out the Janata Dal (Secular). The young team deployed by Rahul Gandhi in Karnataka lacked the seniority and experience to handle this task. It is significant that Sonia Gandhi felt the need to step in to engineer the outreach to the Janata Dal (Secular). Clearly, Rahul Gandhi was not up to the task.

Once the Karnataka election was out of the way, the Congress president was expected to attend to the constitution of his team. Though he has made several piecemeal appointments, the party’s highest decision-making body – the Congress Working Committee – is yet to be set up. If the Congress had won Karnataka, the young Gandhi’s stock in the party would have shot up, and he would then have had the requisite confidence to take tough decisions and bring in younger faces. But as things stand today, he will have to contend with a far-more emboldened old guard now, forcing him to continue to compromise with the seniors.

As it is, Rahul Gandhi was left with little choice but to hand over charge of the Madhya Pradesh Congress to 71-year-old Kamal Nath last month, after senior leader Digivijaya Singh made it clear that he preferred Nath to the younger Jyotiraditya Scindia. Rahul Gandhi could hardly afford to antagonise both Nath and Singh who could have sabotaged the upcoming Assembly election if they did not have their way.

Similarly, Congress veteran Niranjan Patnaik was appointed president of the Odisha state unit last month in the absence of an effective younger leader.

It is also expected that former Haryana Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda will mount further pressure on the party leadership for his appointment as the state party chief in place of the present president Ashok Tanwar, a Rahul Gandhi appointee.

As a current favourite of the Congress president, former Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has been given an important charge in the party, but it is well known that the senior leader has his eyes on the chief minister’s chair in his home state, especially since there is a strong possibility that the Congress could dethrone the Vasundhara Raje government, which is facing anti-incumbency, in the upcoming polls.

But above all, the Congress leadership will have to be more accommodative towards its potential allies if it is serious about putting together a coalition of like-minded parties. The Congress cannot afford to dictate terms to regional parties on the pretext of being a senior partner. It has to realise the harsh reality that its footprint has shrunk drastically and its old big brother attitude will not cut ice with regional forces who will now drive a hard bargain in seat-sharing negotiations. The Karnataka result should serve as a wake-up call for the Congress as it has demonstrated that it is imperative for Opposition parties to come together to take on the BJP.