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2019-1969: The Curious Case of Congress Party’s Disintegration

While BJP has grown from strength to strength since its formation in 1980, Congress has become progressively weaker.

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Congress Party Rahul Gandhi must attach highest priority to reuniting the Congress Parivar.
i

In his ‘victory speech’ at the headquarters of his Bharatiya Janata Party on May 23, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used a phrase of just three simple Hindi words – Do Se Dobara − that accurately describes the trajectory of Indian politics in the past three and a half decades. The phrase means, literally, “From two to the second consecutive time”. The ‘Do’ in it refers to the number of seats the BJP had won in the eighth Lok Sabha elections in 1984. And ‘Dobara’, of course, describes the emphatic mandate the people gave to the party in the elections to the 17th Lok Sabha in 2019.

Psephologists and political pundits are still trying to decode the reasons for the renewed − indeed a bigger − mandate the BJP won last month. Not since 1971, it’s been noted, has an incumbent government with a clear majority in the lower house of Parliament returned to office with a larger majority.

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Many factors are being analysed – polarisation of the electorate on communal lines; Modi government’s response to the terrorist attack at Pulwama and the aggressive narrative of national security and Hindutva nationalism it built during the campaign; the impact of the government’s social welfare schemes; and, above all, the disunity among opposition parties. The latter also failed to address the question uppermost in people’s minds – Modi nahin to kaun? (If not Modi, WHO?). The weightage to be given to these respective factors is also being debated simultaneously.

Unity Quotient: Very high in Sangh Parivar

To these factors must be added another, which brings into sharp focus the fundamental difference between the BJP and most other parties in India. We can call it the Unity Quotient (UQ). The BJP scores very high on UQ, whereas it is rather low for the rest, including the only other national party, Indian National Congress. “In unity lies strength” is an old adage. It explains why the BJP has grown from strength to strength since its formation in 1980, and why the Congress has become progressively weaker during the same period.

The BJP has never suffered a split in the four decades of its existence. Only two small cracks appeared in the party on its fringes, but they quickly disappeared without causing any lasting damage to it.

Kalyan Singh, its one-time tallest leader in Uttar Pradesh, went out of his party twice, in 1999 and again in 2010. But on both occasions he dissolved his breakaway organisation and returned to the mother party. Similarly, B.S. Yeddyurappa was, and continues to be, the BJP’s tallest leader in Karnataka. He became a rebel in 2012 and formed his own party, Karnataka Janata Paksha. Just two years later, he returned to the BJP.

Disintegration of the Congress Parivar

In contrast, the Congress has splintered several times, and in ways that have impaired it severely.

Today, there are at least three big states – Maharashtra, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh – where its breakaway factions, which became independent parties (Nationalist Congress Party, Trinamool Congress, YSR Congress Party, respectively), have grown bigger than the parent Congress party.

Just to get a sense of where the Congress stands vis-à-vis these parties, let’s look at their tallies in the most recent Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha elections. NCP has 5 MPs and 41 MLAs in Maharashtra (Congress 1 and 42); TMC has 22 MPs and 211 MLAs in West Bengal (Congress 1 and 44) and YSRCP has 22 MPs and 151 MLAs (Congress 0 and 0).

But this does not complete the picture of the disintegration of the Congress Parivar. Many non-BJP parties in other states also have their roots in the Congress. These include the various splintered units of the Janata Parivar. The Janata Party and its later incarnation, Janata Dal, got fragmented to create the Samajwadi Party and Rashtriya Lok Dal in UP; Rashtriya Janata Dal in Bihar; Biju Janata Dal in Odisha; Janata Dal (Secular) in Karnataka; and Indian National Lok Dal in Haryana. Moreover, the leaders of two other important parties – N. Chandrababu Naidu of Telugu Desam and K. Chandrasekhar Rao of Telangana Rashtra Samithi – had also begun their political careers in the Congress party.

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Two Waves of Congress Splits – after 1969 and 1998

To understand how the Congress Parivar has got disintegrated over the years, and how this disintegration has badly damaged it, we have to go back to 1969, a defining year in Indian politics. (We need not go into the pre-Independence history of the Congress party here.) That was when the Congress split for the first time at the national level. Stalwarts like K. Kamaraj (Tamil Nadu), Morarji Desai (Gujarat), S. Nijalingappa (Karnataka), C.B. Gupta (UP), S.N. Sinha (Bihar) and N. Sanjeeva Reddy (Andhra Pradesh) remained in one faction of the party (Congress – O). It opposed Indira Gandhi, who became the leader of Congress (R).

Even though Indira Gandhi returned with a thumping majority in the 1971 parliamentary elections, the 1969 split created factors that would cause splits in, and enfeeblement of, the party in later years.

Most importantly, Congress after 1969 came under the domination of one family – Nehru-Gandhi family – which has continued till today.

Emergency And The Emergence of Janata Party

For one thing, the 1969 split catalysed events that compelled Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to take the drastic step of declaring the Emergency in 1975. The suppression of democracy, and imprisonment of almost all opposition leaders, however was inherently unsustainable. Therefore, the movement for restoration of democracy forced Indira Gandhi to lift the Emergency and call for parliamentary elections in 1977, which her party lost badly.

The winner was the Janata Party, which had been formed, under the patronage of Jayaprakash Narayan (himself a widely respected former Congress leader), by the merger of the Congress (O), Bharatiya Jana Sangh (precursor to the BJP) and Bharatiya Lok Dal, which had been formed earlier with the coming together of the Swatantra Party, Utkal Congress, Bharatiya Kranti Dal and Socialist Party.

It is worth noting that, barring the Jana Sangh, almost all the top leaders of the Bharatiya Lok Dal were formerly with the Congress.

These included N.G. Ranga (Swatantra Party, Andhra Pradesh), Biju Patnaik (Utkal Congress, Odisha) and Charan Singh (Bharatiya Kranti Dal, UP).

The Socialist Party had split into many factions, but many of its respected leaders had also begun their political journeys in the Congress party. Apart from JP, one can name Dr Rammanohar Lohia (who has now become the mascot of the Samajwadi Party in UP) and Acharya Narendra Dev.

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Congress’s Return And False Sense of Unity & Eminence

The Janata Party’s quick collapse and the Congress’s return to power in 1980 and 1984 (due the sympathy wave generated after Indira Gandhi’s assassination) created a false impression of the Grand Old Party having once again become India’s pre-eminent party in a unipolar polity. It was false, because rebellions and splits continued apace. V.P. Singh, a close aide of Rajiv Gandhi, broke away to form the Janata Dal in 1988. As a result, the Congress lost power not only at the Centre but also in the crucial state of UP. (It has not been able to regain power in UP since 1989.)

In 1998, Mamata Banerjee broke away to establish the Trinamool Congress; since then the Congress has continued to remain on the margins in West Bengal. In 1999, Sharad Pawar, its tallest leader in Maharashtra, broke away to form the Nationalist Congress Party. This split in the Congress has greatly helped the rival Hindutva alliance of the BJP and the Shiv Sena.

A self-inflicted wound was the formation of the YSR Congress Party in Andhra Pradesh. When Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy, who headed a Congress government in the state, died in 2009, the Congress high command failed to accommodate the demands of his son Jaganmohan Reddy, who then formed a separate party of his own. The outcome of this split has been crippling for the Congress in a state that had remained its fortress for a long time.

The Way Forward

So what is the way forward for the Congress? Its revival necessitates many tasks – ideological and programmatic clarity; building highly motivated party workers at all levels; strengthening of the organisation at the grassroots; developing and retaining strong and popular leaders with a large mass base, both in states and nationally; and projection of a new and alternative vision of development and nationalism that catches the imagination of the youth. But there is also another paramount task.

As this article has sought to emphasise, the party headed by Rahul Gandhi must attach highest priority to reuniting the Congress Parivar. How can it succeed in this endeavour? That is the subject of the second part of this article.

(The author was an aide to former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He has recently founded ‘Forum for a New South Asia’, which advocates India-Pakistan-China cooperation. He welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com. He tweets@SudheenKulkarni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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