India's battered Congress party closes ranks after election setback

India's battered Congress party closes ranks after election setback
Rahul Gandhi, President of Congress party, his mother and leader of the party Sonia Gandhi and India's former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh attend a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting in New Delhi, India, May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Altaf Hussain Copyright ALTAF HUSSAIN(Reuters)
Copyright ALTAF HUSSAIN(Reuters)
By Reuters
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By Zeba Siddiqui and Devjyot Ghoshal

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - The head of India's main opposition Congress party, Rahul Gandhi, offered to quit on Saturday after a crushing election defeat but senior party officials rejected his offer and called instead for a major internal shake-up.

Gandhi, 48 and the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, had been under intense pressure since results released on May 23 showed Congress won only 52 of the 542 seats up for grabs in the country's general election.

While that marked a marginal improvement on the party's showing in the 2014 general election, it did not stop Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) from winning a landslide mandate with 303 seats.

A second successive drubbing from Modi prompted calls for Gandhi to quit.

The result has been particularly embarrassing for Gandhi, who lost his own parliamentary seat in his home borough of Amethi in northern India, which his family has held almost continuously for the last four decades.

He did, however, win the other seat he contested in southern Kerala state.

At a meeting of top Congress leaders at the party's headquarters in New Delhi on Saturday, Gandhi offered to step down as party chief, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) said in a statement.

But the committee "unanimously and with one voice rejected the same and requested the Congress President for his leadership and guidance in these challenging times," it said.

"The CWC recommends a thorough introspection and requested the Congress President for a complete overhaul and a detailed restructuring at every level of the party," the committee said.

In the run-up to the election, Gandhi sought to challenge Modi directly but critics said Congress's campaign was weakened by a lack of focus and botched communications, as well as being out-spent by the BJP.

Building political capital from escalating tensions with arch-rival Pakistan ahead of the polls, the BJP concentrated on Modi's national security record, effectively countering the opposition's criticism of the government's work on creating jobs and alleviating farmers' woes.

Gandhi's inability to replace the party's old guard, responsible for its worst-ever electoral result in 2014, with younger leaders also proved an error, Congress officials said.

The party's performance in this year's election has drawn stinging criticism from political commentators such as prominent historian Ramachandra Guha, who called for Gandhi to go.

"Both self-respect, as well as political pragmatism, demand that the Congress elect a new leader," Guha said on Twitter.

(Editing by Helen Popper)

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