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Congress@125: Past tense, future perfect

December 31, 2009 13:42 IST

For the Congress, at 125 years, there is double good news. One, the dynasty is back and in control of things. Two, the BJP is in terrible disarray. But it also faces crucial challenges, writes Saisuresh Sivaswamy.

I had grown up in a time when the polity was largely unipolar, the Congress party was like the great Indian banyan tree. It was impossible to think of governance minus the Congress party, although at a smaller level states like mine, Tamil Nadu, did show it was possible. But for all practical purposes the Congress was the natural party of governance.

Was it hubris? Or stupidity? Or was it erosion, the natural process that reduces mighty mountains to rubble? What made the Congress party lose this pre-eminence as it headed into its 100th year of existence, will always remain moot. The 1977-79 Janata Party misexperience, when the Congress was for the first time voted out of federal power, should have converted even the sceptics to the Congress cause, but strangely the party's vote share never once crossed 50 percent.

Not even under the stalwart Jawaharlal Nehru's leadership in the first election. In other words, it has come to power each time on a minority vote -- and if you place the average voter turnout to be around 55 percent of the electorate, our governments have all come to power on a minority vote!

Just consider the figures:

In the 1951 elections, when its stalwarts were in the forefront, the Congress came to power with 44.99 percent of the vote. This was also the free nation's first experiment with democracy, adult franchise, plus there was the towering Jawaharlal Nehru… Still the party didn't cross 50 percent of the vote.

In 1957, as the Nehru mystique was beginning to fade, it was still the Congress in power but a reduced vote share, of 47.78 percent.

It came down to 44.72 percent in 1962, showing its decline especially in the wake of the China debacle.

In 1967, in the post-Nehru, post-Shastri election when the young democracy's future seemed at stake, Indira Gandhi came to power with 40.78 percent of the vote, so far its worst.

It improved marginally in the 1971 elections, thanks to Indira's Bangladesh triumph, to 43.68 percent.

In the 1977 rout at the hands of the Janata Party, it dipped to 34.52 percent, the umbrella Bharatiya Lok Dal getting 41.32 percent of the vote, the first and only time a political party has got more vote share than the Congress.

In its 1980 return the Congress saw its vote share increase to 42.69 percent.

In 1984, when the Rajiv Gandhi tsunami blew away everything before it, the party's vote share was still less than a majority, at 49.10 percent. Not only did he win more seats than his grandfather but also a bigger vote share, factors that no doubt shaped his subsequent hubris.

In 1989, when Gandhi lost his stupendous majority, his party's vote share declined to 39.53 percent. This was the year when the Bharatiya Janata Party won 11.36 percent vote share, and had 85 MPs in the Lok Sabha. V P Singh's Janata Dal, with 17.79 percent vote share, had 143 MPs, still less than the Congress's 197.

In the post-Rajiv Gandhi assassination election of 1991, the Congress saw a marginal increase in vote share to 36.26 percent and 232 MPs, the BJP with 20.11 percent vote share having 120 MPs. With a little help from friends P V Narasimha Rao became the first non-Gandhi PM to complete five years in office.

In 1996, led by Rao, the Congress bagged 28.80 percent of the vote share for 140 MPs, the BJP with a lower vote share of 20.29 percent getting more seats, 161. State parties like the Telugu Desam Party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam etc with 22.43 percent of the vote share won 129 seats, and a chance at federal power.

Two years later the BJP won 25.59 percent of the vote share and 182 seats, the Congress with Sitaram Kesri at the helm bagging 25.82 pc of votes and winning just 141 seats, and state parties like All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam with 18.79 percent of votes winning 101 seats.

In 1999, the AB Vajpayee election, or the Sonia Gandhi debut election, the BJP bagged just 23.75 percent of the votes but won 182 seats. The Congress had a higher vote share, 28.30 percent, but won a meagre 114 seats. State parties like the TDP together won 26.93 percent of the vote and 158 seats, enabling the BJP to come to power.

In 2004, the Congress won 26.53 percent of the vote share but 145 seats, and the BJP with 22.61 percent votes got just 138 seats. State parties won an impressive 159 seats, the Communists too chipping in handsomely, and the United Progressive Alliance was born.

In 2009, the Congress got 29.67 percent of the vote won 206 seats, the BJP with 19.29 percent vote share got 116 seats.

The future becomes clear when you consider the past, and from the Congress's past what are the conclusions to be made for its future?

If you look at its vote share from 1999, and contrast it with the BJP's, it is clear the party is on a roll while its rival is in decline. Why did I choose the BJP for a contrast and not anyone else?

Because, if you look at the figures, the BJP has done what no other party has. For 20 years, from 1989 till 2009, it has given a stiff fight to the Congress, even managing to govern the nation for six years and burying the myth that the Congress alone was capable of governance, a myth that strengthened in 1997 when the Janata experiment collapsed.

In these two decades the BJP's fate was intertwined with the Congress's. It grew when the Congress receded. Vajpayee was always with the BJP, he was always a misfit in the saffron ranks, yet how did he become one of our most popular prime ministers, his ranking always higher than his party's?

His rise coincided with the Congress dynasty's fall, but was it mere coincidence?

Or did he, mukhota-like (to use Govindacharya's description), see the BJP's magnificent isolation in 1996 at the end of his 13-day government, quickly calculate that Hindutva can take him this far and no further, and seeing the Congress in disarray with the dynasty abandoning it, undergo a makeover on the fly and seize the middle ground?

Whatever, his rise coincided with the dynasty's fall, and now the dynasty's rise has coincided with his decline. Interesting. Even more interesting is how Sonia Gandhi, derided for everything about her, managed to halt the Vajpayee juggernaut in 2004. Everyone reckons her 'sacrifice' as her finest moment; for me, it was when the numbers poured in and proved that she had wrested the initiative back for her party. Against all odds.

Thus for the Congress, at 125 years, there is double good news. One, the dynasty is back and in control of things. Two, the BJP is in terrible disarray, and there is no Vajpayee-esque figure around to take it beyond the 20 percent vote share. Worse for the party, a Vajpayee is not created overnight, and there's no one in the current crop of upa-netas who seem to be cut from the same cloth.

But the BJP's bad news alone can't be good news for the Congress. Nor can it satisfy itself with 30 percent of the vote share, which would leave it forever dependent on others to run a government. It's good to be in power, but it's great to be in power on your own.

Where it had erred all along was in treating political power as the end rather than the means, the result and not the tool. The challenge for the dynasty now is how to take the Congress closer to the people, how to remain relevant to a generation that looks back on the national struggle as a slightly remote event, and to recast the party as a tool of social change rather than political power.

The way to do this is by putting people at the front, not politics. And this is a challenge that will be faced by Rahul Gandhi, not Sonia. If the intern can outdo his parents, then for the Congress it's time to party. And it won't be bad for the nation either.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy is Editorial Director, rediff.com

Saisuresh Sivaswamy