Rahul Gandhi speaking at a press conference, where he conceded the election to Prime Minister Modi

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Could Rahul Gandhi’s defeat be the end of his family’s political dynasty?

On Thursday when Indian PM Narendra Modi won a landslide victory in the Indian elections, Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and leader of India’s Congress party, emerged at the other end, battered and mauled.

He had been hit with a double whammy – his Congress party won just over 50 seats against the 300 plus that Mr Modi’s BJP got; and if that was not bad enough, he also lost his own seat in the family bastion of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh.

He will still sit in the parliament though because this time he contested from a second seat – Wayanad in Kerala – which he won. But Amethi was a prestige battle – it was the seat from where both his parents – Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi – had contested and won in the past and he himself had held it for the past 15 years.

He is also part of the ultimate political dynasty. His great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was the first and longest-serving prime minister of India. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was the first female prime minister of the country, and his father was India’s youngest prime minister.

Not many were expecting an outright win for the Congress, but they were definitely expected to do better. That’s why Thursday’s results have come as a surprise to many inside and outside the party.

On Thursday evening, Mr Gandhi addressed a press conference in Delhi where he conceded the election to Mr Modi saying the people had given their mandate and chosen the BJP and took full responsibility for the Congress party’s defeat.

And even though counting was not over in Amethi with more than 300,000 votes yet to be counted, he conceded the constituency to BJP’s Smriti Irani who was leading at the time with just over 30,000 votes.

“I want to congratulate her. She has won, it’s a democracy and I respect the decision of people,” he said.

Refusing to give further details about the Congress performance or what would come next, Mr Gandhi said it would all be discussed in the meeting of the Congress Working Committee, the party’s top decision-making body.

He also told the Congress workers, the ones who lost and the ones who won, not to lose hope. “There is no need to be afraid. We will continue to work hard and we will eventually win.”

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EPA

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The BJP’s Smriti Irani, left, won Mr Gandhi’s seat in Amethi

Uttar Pradesh is the state considered the ground zero of Indian politics. It’s generally believed that whoever wins India’s most populous state, rules the country.

Eight of 14 Indian prime ministers – including Mr Gandhi’s great grandfather, grandmother and father – were from the state, which elects the largest number of MPs – 80 out of a 545-member lower house. PM Narendra Modi, who’s originally from Gujarat, also chose Uttar Pradesh to make his debut as an MP in 2014 when he contested from the ancient city of Varanasi.

At the Congress office here, the future victory that Mr Gandhi promised seemed like a distant dream to the handful of despondent party workers, glued to a TV screen, watching the bloodbath unfold as several party veterans lost their seats.

“Our credibility is very low. People have no faith in our promises. They are not trusting what we are saying,” one party official who didn’t want to be named told me.

“Mr Modi failed to fulfil the commitments he made, but people still believe him.”

I ask him why?

“Even we can’t understand why!” he says.

The dismal performance of the Congress is bound to raise questions over Mr Gandhi’s leadership and many analysts are already calling for a change, demanding that he step down from the top party post. But all such calls, like in the past, have come from outside the party and are likely to be rejected by the party leadership.

As rumours swirled around in Delhi that Mr Gandhi had offered to quit, Congress politician Mani Shankar Aiyar told BBC Hindi that “Congress will not question its leadership and [will] not accept Mr Gandhi’s resignation were he to offer it”.

He added that the leadership was not the reason for the party’s resounding defeat. “It’s the other reasons we need to work on,” he said.

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Congress is publicly refusing to question Mr Gandhi’s leadership

A local party spokesman in Lucknow, Brijendra Kumar Singh, explained that, in their view, the problem was not with Gandhi power, but with party infighting and poor campaign choices.

“There are weaknesses in the party structure, there’s infighting within the ranks, we were late getting off the ground with our campaign, and our attempts – though unsuccessful – to join the alliance of regional parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar were a bad idea.”

The biggest roadblock in their way, everyone agrees, was “Brand Modi”.

“Even though the prime minister failed to fulfil the promises he made in the last election, he’s still able to convince people about the policies of his government,” Mr Singh says.

This is not the first time Mr Gandhi has received such a battering at Mr Modi’s hands – he was all but written off after the party’s worst ever performance in the 2014 elections when they won only 44 seats.

Subsequently, the party also lost several state elections and Mr Gandhi was criticised for being “remote and inaccessible” and was ridiculed on social media as a bumbling, clueless leader prone to gaffes.

He was also criticised by many for his dynastic links to the Nehru-Gandhi family and PM Modi, who comes from a humble background, has repeatedly said that he had risen to the top not on merit, but because of family connections.

But in the past two years, Mr Gandhi’s career graph had begun to improve: he’d emerged from the shadows, his social media campaigns became smarter and he began arguing convincingly about the government’s controversial currency ban, a lack of employment opportunities, growing intolerance in the country and the slowdown in the economy.

He was increasingly seen as setting the agenda with a combative campaign and in December when he led the Congress to victory in important state elections in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, many said he had brought the party back into the reckoning.

And then in February, when his charismatic sister Priyanka Gandhi joined him to help his hand in Uttar Pradesh, it seemed like the Gandhis were on to something.

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Reuters

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Priyanka Gandhi, Mr Gandhi’s charismatic sister, is also a leader in the Congress Party

“If you look at our manifesto, it’s the best. The policies we had announced, the promises we made were top notch. But what we had hoped for from the voters, the support we had hoped for, that didn’t happen,” says state party official Virendra Madan.

Mr Madan says the party leadership in Delhi – as well as the state level – will hold meetings in the next few days to figure out what went wrong. “It’s time for soul searching. To assess where we went wrong.”

But, he says, that no matter how decisive the election result, there’s no question that the party would not stand by its leadership.

“It’s not just Mr Gandhi who’s lost. Lots of other leaders also did not win. And elections come and go, you win some and you lose some. Remember in 1984, BJP was down to just two seats? Didn’t they make a comeback? We will also come back,” he says.



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