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Congress leader Rahul Gandhi loses his home seat in humiliating election defeat

Saptarshi Ray
Gandhi concedes the election at a press conference in New Delhi - AFP

The Indian National Congress Party went from understated optimism to shellshocked defeat within the space of a few hours on Thursday as Narendra Modi and his party celebrated another landslide victory.

For the Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi, the performance by his party was nothing short of a humiliation, with several members of his own party demanding he step down and lay the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to rest for good.

Mr Gandhi suffered the sting of losing the iconic seat of his family homestead in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, which he had held since 2004  and was controlled by his father before him.

He won in his second constituency – candidates can run from two in India – but the symbolism of the defeat was one from which he may never recover.

Modi vowed to build an 'inclusive' India after a first term marred by accusations of fomenting religious hatred Credit: AFP

At a brief press conference as the results were still coming in, Mr Gandhi congratulated Mr Modi and said “the people are king and they have directed that the BJP and Modi have won this election”.

He added: “I don't want to get into what went wrong today, this is not the time for that. I fully respect the Indian people's decision.”

During the briefing he also conceded defeat in the Amethi election and congratulated his opponent Smriti Irani, of the BJP, who was more than 28,000 votes ahead at the time.

Congress party officials did not return calls by The Telegraph but there were widespread reports in Indian media that the party had wildly miscalculated the margin of any potential loss with its internal polling, and now all that was left was to call for its talisman's head.

“If they want to change anything, change the leadership,” a Congress official in Rajasthan told Reuters, referring to Mr Gandhi and the party's high command. “You need to give young people a chance.”

However Mr Gandhi, 48, will probably not face an immediate leadership challenge as India's establishment party does some soul searching after an inglorious defeat.

Some reports claimed Mr Gandhi had offered to resign.

“According to sources, Sonia Gandhi and senior Congress leaders advised him to bring up the matter before the party forum,” reported India Today TV. “The CWC (Congress Working Committee) will meet in a week in which the proposal will be discussed,” it added.

Ironically the youthful pretender had grown into his role as leader in the past 18 months after previously being seen as a reluctant heir to his political lineage which stretched back to India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

He campaigned vigorously and was not shy on calling out Mr Modi on the economy, national security, Hindu nationalism and women's rights. After a while the media started to take notice.

However behind the scenes his inability to foster good relations with a host of regional party leaders that could have generated a tenable anti-Modi alliance may have damaged his chances.

"The BJP fought these elections on the basis of social and religious divisive policies and the agenda was set by them on this basis," said Atul Kumar Anjaan, national secretary of the Communist Party of India, a potential ally.

 "But more significant is the fact that the unity of the opposition has been damaged by the Congress. The policies and decisions of Rahul Gandhi has weakened opposition unity, led to divisions and opened the doors for Modi's victory.”

Congress has ruled India for most of its history since independence from Britain in 1947, and boasts three prime ministers from the Nehru-Gandhi clan. But its weak performance in the last two elections seems to suggest it needs a drastic change of direction to take on someone with Mr Modi's political savvy.