Managing to lose

Print edition : October 23, 1999

The Congress(I) slumps to its worst-ever electoral performance, despite regional gains and an increase in its overall vote share. An analysis of the factors behind the debacle.

REPORTS that poured into the All India Congress(I) Committee (AICC) office from various States as campaigning for the 13th Lok Sabha elections came to an end suggested a major downswing in the National Democratic Alliance's prospects. Congress(I) leaders , convinced of the party emerging as the single largest party in Parliament, even put forward to President K.R. Narayanan the demand that the single largest party, and not an alliance, be invited to form the government. Discussions within the Congress(I) focussed on whether Sonia Gandhi would be the Prime Minister or whether she would nominate Manmohan Singh for the job. There was unanimity on the view that it was Sonia Gandhi's leadership that had revived the party at the national level.

However, it was clear by October 8 that the party had slumped to its worst-ever electoral performance: it had won just 112 seats, a decline of 29 seats from its 1998 tally, which in itself was the poorest showing ever by the party. In fact the Congress(I ) and its alliance partners - the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), the Indian Union Muslim League (IUML) and the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD) - could together muster only 134 seats.

Yet, the Congress(I) was placed in a unique position, of having increased its vote share to 33.8 per cent, almost six percentage points more than in the previous elections, while the vote share of the BJP dropped. Congress(I) spokesperson Kapil Sibal poi nted out that it was clear from the votes polled that the Congress(I)'s organisational network had improved during the last 17 months under Sonia Gandhi's leadership although the party could not convert this factor into Lok Sabha seats.

Owing to this gain and the perception that there is no alternative to a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family, the party may not witness the kind of upheaval that characterised the post-election situation in 1998. (In 1998, party president Sitaram Kesri was unceremoniously replaced with Sonia Gandhi, who went on to become the leader of the Congress(I) Parliamentary Party (CPP) without being an MP). However, Congress(I) Working Committee (CWC) member Rajesh Pilot has decided to contest for CPP leadership in order to assert the "democracy principle".

THE Congress(I) had hoped to improve its strength in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It was estimated that the total gain from these States would be 45 seats. The party leadership thought these gains woul d offset the loss of between 30 and 35 seats in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and the northeastern States, which accounted for 64 of the 141 seats the Congress(I) won in 1998, and leave the party with a net gain of 10 to 15 seats. However, during the last phase of the campaign the leadership revised this estimate, saying that the losses in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and the northeastern States would not be as substantial as anticipated and hence the party could actually improve its position. This perception got fi rmly established as party leaders from Andhra Pradesh claimed that there was an unprecedented shift of Muslim votes towards the Congress(I). They said that the party would improve upon its 1998 tally of 22 seats out of the 42 in the State. In Rajasthan t he party had won 18 out of 25 seats in 1998; State party leaders reported to the central leadership that it would retain at least 15 seats in spite of the anti-incumbency factor.

Sonia Gandhi at an election rally in Amethi.-AKILESH KUMAR

It was estimated that a minimum of 100 seats would come from Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, while the losses in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and the northeastern region would amount to less than 35 seats. Overall, a gain of 65 seats was projected.

In the event, the total gain from the areas mentioned was just 51 seats and the loss suffered in Maharashtra and Rajasthan alone added up to 30. Andhra Pradesh returned only five party candidates as opposed to the expected figure of 25. In Madhya Pradesh , the net gain was of just one seat although the expected number was 20. Rajasthan witnessed a decline of nine seats, from 18 in 1998. In Gujarat the party's tally dropped to six, one less than that in the previous Lok Sabha. In Bihar, its strength decli ned to three seats from five. Only Karnataka did not belie the leadership's expectations: the party won 18 seats and emerged victorious in the Assembly elections. Yet, the net loss was 29 seats.

ALTHOUGH the Congress(I) is yet to undertake a comprehensive post-election analysis, five factors are attributed to its debacle. First, lack of an imaginative approach on the part of Sonia Gandhi's coterie, which called the shots in the selection of cand idates and in evolving the campaign strategy. What is regarded as the worst misadventure of the coterie was the decision to put up Sonia Gandhi for the Bellary seat and the way she filed her nomination. According to a senior leader, the negative effect o f this on the rank and file was never fully overcome despite the confidence exuded by the leadership in the latter stages of the campaign. The Bellary episode strengthened the public perception that associated Sonia Gandhi's names with secrecy and inacce ssibility; it also highlighted her dependence on the coterie.

The second factor is the contradictory statements that Congress(I) leaders made on the question of coalition government versus single-party rule. Sonia Gandhi, it is felt, did not adopt a clear line on this. She talked about single-party rule most of th e time but occasionally lapsed into accepting the possibility of a coalition government. This deprived the party of an effective campaign strategy. The failure to project a prime ministerial candidate is also identified by certain Congress(I) leaders as a reason for the defeat. Many senior leaders now feel that in order to give the campaign a cutting edge, the party should have boldly projected either Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh as its prime ministerial candidate.

Thirdly, the assessment is that the party failed to counter effectively the NDA's campaign on the Kargil war, particularly ahead of the first two phases of polling.

The fourth factor is the lack of concrete moves to repair the damage caused to the organisation by the revolt led by Sharad Pawar and to neutralise the effect of the faction fights in various State units. The results from Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa indicate the failure of the organisational set-up in these States.

A dejected Congress(I) worker listens to the radio for election news.-AJITH KUMAR/AP

The failure to implement the special organisational plans in Maharashtra, the northeastern States and certain parts of Rajasthan, and the fielding of candidates with doubtful credentials - such as alleged mafia don M.K. Subba in Assam - are highlighted i n this context. Attempts to perpetuate dynastic politics in the form of allotment of seats to party leaders' relatives - among them were former Kerala Chief Minister K. Karunakaran's son, Punjab Congress(I) president Amarinder Singh's wife, Uttar Pradesh Congress(I) president Salman Khurshid's wife, Orissa Chief Minister Giridhar Gamang's wife and former Union Minister K. Natwar Singh's son - have been cited as representing an unhealthy trend.

Lastly, the alliances with the AIADMK and the RJD and the lack of coordination with the allies are seen as having had negative effect. In order to emphasise this point, critics mention the unrest in the Bihar unit of the party during seat adjustment talk s between Sonia Gandhi and RJD chief Laloo Prasad Yadav as well as the snub that AIADMK leader Jayalalitha handed to Sonia Gandhi by skipping her first election rally in Tamil Nadu.

THE question now is whether the outcome of the elections will give rise to a threat to Sonia Gandhi's leadership. According to a senior leader, the elections were characterised by the continuation of a plethora of mistakes Sonia Gandhi committed since No vember 1998, after the Congress(I) scored a major victory in the Assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Yet it is unlikely that her position will be challenged. However, the attack against the coterie, which consists of CWC member Arj un Singh, Sonia Gandhi's secretary Vincent George, and party general secretaries Pranab Kumar Mukherjee and Oscar Fernandes, would gain strength. Mukherjee and Fernandes have already resigned their party posts.

Whatever Sonia Gandhi's immediate fate as Congress(I) president, there has been change in the way she is described: hailed not long ago as the person who transformed the Congress(I) from a moribund and direction-less establishment into a vibrant organisa tion capable of leading the country, her position today is that of a leader who led the Congress(I) to one of its worst defeats. That is bound to diminish her stature in the party.

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