1996 vs 2019: Lessons for Rahul’s vs Sitaram Kesri’s Congress

If Congress has to weather the price of incumbency, it MUST be in the driver’s seat.

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Even Congress critics concede that Rahul Gandhi seems to have not put a step wrong since he became the undisputed Congress chief two months back. From the astute campaign in Gujarat to the stunning electoral triumph in Rajasthan to the unquestioning support to regional satraps like Siddaramaiah and Amarinder Singh, to the healing touch in Delhi politics, to respecting the old guard, he seems to have begun well.

But as we come closer to 2019, Rahul Gandhi has to learn a lesson from his predecessor, Sitaram Kesri’s blunders in 1996. The last years of Narasimha Rao’s Congress government had almost sounded the death knell of the party. Scams, resignations of seven ministers, a split with the “loyalist” faction, Jain Hawala Diaries – small wonder that the Congress got wiped out in UP and Bihar, winning a paltry 140 seats in the 11th Lok Sabha Polls of 1996, its lowest tally ever.

But even bigger history was being made elsewhere, as the BJP got 161 seats, becoming the single largest party in parliament. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was sworn in as the prime minister of India, the first non-Congress politician to win that office – only to resign a mere 13 days later because hardly anybody was willing to buy into the RSS/Hindutva vision of India.

Let me repeat for emphasis: nobody was willing to buy into the RSS/Hindutva vision of India.  

The United Front (UF), a cabal of several regional parties with 192 seats in Lok Sabha, was hastily cobbled together. Sitaram Kesri’s Congress, with 140 seats, gave outside support, and a government led by Deve Gowda, until then a factional politician from Karnataka, was formed.

But Sitaram Kesri was unhappy and impatient. Legend has it that he fancied himself as the prime minister of India, denied his place in history by an unholy regional coalition.

So he toppled Gowda’s government in less than a year, only to be thwarted again as Inder Gujral replaced Gowda at the head of the second UF government. A seething Sitaram Kesri pulled the plug, one more time, within 8 months, plunging the country into another parliamentary election in less than 2 years.

An angry electorate punished Sitaram Kesri’s Congress, handing Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA a handsome majority in 1998.

This time, people were compelled to buy into the RSS/Hindutva vision of India. To repeat, the stubborn recalcitrance of 1996 against RSS/BJP/Hindutva had evaporated, thanks to Sitaram Kesri, in 1998.

Now, 2019 could throw up a very similar political arithmetic as 1996. But Congress must remember the lessons of history.

  • If BJP/NDA, with 200+ seats, emerges as the largest political formation, the Congress should bide its time, become an even more vigorous opposition, and plan on a 200+ return in 2024
  • Only if the Congress/UPA gets more seats than BJP/NDA (a la 2004 and 2009) should they even think of forming a government
  • But in any case, in no event should the Congress give outside support. If it has to weather the price of incumbency, it must be in the driver’s seat
  • And Rahul Gandhi, instead of an appointee, should be the prime minister
Otherwise, those who forget history are condemned to repeat it.   

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