May, Rajiv Gandhi & the Congress Saga: A Tragic Tale of Endless Possibilities

The debate is still on if the Congress would have fallen to 44 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 were he still alive.

7 min read

(This is part three of a four-part 'May' series that revisits significant historical events or policies and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part one here, part two here, and part four here.)

Mandal and Mandir politics were already creating unprecedented upheavals in India. The hitherto unassuming and mild-mannered LK Advani had emerged as the roaring mascot of Hindutva. Mulayam and Lalu Yadav were on their way to creating formidable caste-based citadels in their states. Amidst all this, Prince Charming Rajiv Gandhi was busy on the campaign trail travelling across India, trying to reclaim the Delhi throne he had lost in the 1989 Lok Sabha elections.

By 21 May 1991, more than half the phases of voting for the Lok Sabha elections were over. Speculation was rife: Can Rajiv Gandhi lead the Congress back to power the way Indira Gandhi had done? Has he learnt the right lessons from the Bofors and other mistakes?

For the Nehru-Gandhi family loyalists, all such hopes and dreams were blown to smithereens on 21 May when a suicide bomber of Sri Lanka-based terror outfit LTTE blew herself, Rajiv Gandhi, and many others apart during a late-night election rally at a place called Sriperumbudur in Tamil Nadu.

Even critics of the First Family were moved by the poise, grace, and dignity with which Sonia, Rahul, and Priyanka Gandhi handled the last rites and other excruciating formalities. This was a double whammy for them since Indira Gandhi had been assassinated at her residence less than seven years prior to this tragedy.

Could Rajeev Gandhi Have Steered the Congress to Success?

But politics and the quest for power are always cruel. Even before the mourning was over, political analysts were debating the contours of the next government and the future of the Congress party. Though PV Narasimha Rao became the Prime Minister of a minority Congress government, it was the widow Sonia Gandhi who was the “leader” for hordes of Congress leaders and millions of supporters.

In hindsight, while the two may not have got along well, Sonia maintained her distance and dignity; while Rao did a reasonably good job of husbanding the country through a really turbulent and troubled five years. When Congress lost again in 1996, die-hard family loyalists and even political commentators sympathetic to the Nehru-Gandhi family kept suggesting that Congress would have done much better was the charismatic Rajiv Gandhi alive and at the helm.

Could Rajiv Gandhi have made a difference? Had he not been so brutally assassinated, he would have been 70 years old in 2014. That’s not old age in Indian politics. Morarji Desai had become prime minister at the ripe young age of 81; Atal Bihari Vajpayee was 74 when he led the NDA to victory in the 1998 Lok Sabha elections and Narendra Modi will be seeking a third consecutive mandate next year when he will be 74 years old. The issue isn’t age. It is whether Rajiv Gandhi could have managed to display political mastery over contentious issues like Mandal, Mandir, and regional aspirations.

Could he have persuaded both the Muslim and Hindu communities together that he and the Congress were beneficial for both; could he have done the same with resurgent other backward castes and the hitherto dominant upper castes? It would be stupid to say anything with confidence either way. But the authors do think that social and political forces beyond the control of Rajiv Gandhi were operating in such a manner that a decline of the Congress was inevitable.

What Scripted the Decline of the Congress Party

It wasn’t Rajiv Gandhi that started the decline of the Congress; the process had begun in the 1967 elections. The first major state the Congress lost "permanently” was Tamil Nadu in 1967. Whatever seats it gets there now are crumbs from one of the two Dravidian parties. The other state to dump the Congress permanently was West Bengal in 1977.

Rajiv Gandhi became the General Secretary of the Congress in 1982, two years after his younger brother and "heir apparent” to Indira Gandhi died in a tragic plane crash. Soon after that, the Congress lost in Karnataka and was trounced by an NT Rama Rao-led fledgling Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in Andhra Pradesh. So even as he was preparing for a leadership role in the Congress, the party was weakening across the country.

The assassination of Indira Gandhi ensured that Rajiv Gandhi took the Congress tally in the 1984 Lok Sabha elections to an unprecedented 400 plus. The Congress had never won so many seats even under Jawaharlal Nehru. For Congress supporters, another golden age for the party and the First Family had begun. Venerable and astute analysts like Prannoy Roy, among others, coined the term TINA (There Is No Alternative) while assessing the electoral prospects of opposition parties.

The 1984 mandate was a false promise; and a pause in the process of the steady decline of Congress. The Congress under Rajiv Gandhi was thrashed by the voters in the 1989 Lok Sabha polls. Soon after that in 1990, the Congress lost both Gujarat and Odisha. Gujarat was gone permanently and barring a brief and scandal-ridden comeback in the mid-1990s, Odisha too has gone permanently.

State-Wise Loss and a Leadership Crisis

Both Odisha and Gujarat are not very big electorally. But the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi lost Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in 1990 that together send 139 seats to the Lok Sabha (Uttarakhand and Jharkhand were carved out in 2000). In both the states, the loss has been permanent.

In effect, even when Rajiv Gandhi was alive and was the Congress Supremo, the party had or was in the process of becoming a marginal player in the states that together send about 250 seats. The authors are not convinced if the Doon School advisors of Rajiv Gandhi could have scripted a Congress strategy to defeat Lalu Yadav, Mulayam Yadav, Jyoti Basu, Biju Patnaik, and J Jayalalitha, not to speak of the duo of Advani and Vajpayee. The accompanying chart on the Congress vote share in the Lok Sabha elections speaks volumes about what has happened after him.


There is data to suggest that the Congress would have fared poorly in the multi-phase 1991 Lok Sabha elections had Rajiv Gandhi not been assassinated. Data also reveals that while there was a mini sympathy wave after the assassination in the more than 300 seats that went for polling subsequently, it was not enough to take the Congress past the majority mark of 272. The reason was simple: in the Hindi heartland and in Western and Central India, Mandir and Mandal had become the dominant issues and the Congress seemed to have no answers or agenda.

Dr Prannoy Roy did a detailed analysis for the magazine India Today during the 1991 Lok Sabha elections. His number crunching based on exit poll surveys till 20 May 1991 indicated that the Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi would win just about 190 seats. His analysis of exit poll data post-assassination indicated that there was a 12.5% swing of women voters towards the Congress after 21 May 1991. That did help the Congress in a big way in the South and to an extent in the East and Northeast. Yet, the Congress could eventually manage a tally of 232 seats despite the mini sympathy wave. Compare that with the massive 1984 after Indira Gandhi was assassinated and you get a sense of the secular decline of the Congress.

The debate is still on if the Congress would have fallen to 44 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 were he still alive.

Congress Vote Share in Lok Sabha Elections

Source: Election Commission of India


What the chart reveals is that Sonia Gandhi was perhaps, the most astute Nehru-Gandhi family leader after Indira Gandhi. She never allowed the Congress vote share in Lok Sabha elections to fall below 25%; in fact, raising it to almost 29% in 2009. It is under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi that the Congress vote share has crashed to less than 20%. The last "bastion” of the party, Andhra Pradesh too seems to have slipped permanently out of its hands after it botched up the creation of Telangana as a separate state in 2014.


The Congress Beyond Nehru-Gandhi

The authors obviously, are far less knowledgeable than scholars, experts, and pundits on this issue. But they have identified two common-sensical reasons for the fall of the once mighty Congress. The first is that it started a policy of trying to stand simultaneously on two stools under Rajiv Gandhi. His decisions on Shah Bano and opening the locks of the disputed Ram Mandir structure are proof enough. It lost both the Muslim and the Hindu vote in the Hindi heartland. Rahul Gandhi seems to have learnt no lessons. The second relates to the birth of a New India. In a previous column in this series, the authors pointed out how fans of Narendra Modi are wrong in claiming that New India arrived in 2014. It actually arrived in 1982 when Colour TV first entered Indian homes followed by Maruti, Hero Honda, and myriad other products and brands that fuelled a consumer revolution.

The older generation of Indians was in awe of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. The new generation of aspirational Indians was, and even more increasingly are not. They won’t vote for the Congress just because Jawaharlal Nehru was a great freedom fighter or because Indira and Rajiv Gandhi sacrificed their lives for the nation. Having failed to nurture mass leaders and relying solely on the Nehru-Gandhi brand, the Congress has made a fatal mistake.

In conclusion, the authors would take the readers back to 1914. Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the crown prince of the majestic and powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire was assassinated, triggering the the First World War. The event was tragic, but Ferdinand was going to inherit an Empire that was already decaying. Perhaps, that’s the story of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress, and May 1991.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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