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Congress and the Making of the Indian Nation

 Years in Opposition

The main concern of the party now was the growing political instability at the Centre. In May 1996, the BJP-led government lasted only 13 days in office. The Congress, being the single largest party after the 1996 elections with 140 seats, provided outside support to the two United Front governments led by H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral respectively in order to avert fresh elections and counter BJP-led communal politics.
With the ministry led by I.K. Gujral as prime minister, the Congress fell out over the report of the Jain Commission about Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. The report indicted DMK in the assassination and the Congress asked for its removal from the ministry. However, the government refused to comply and on 28 November 1998, the ministry resigned after the Congress withdrew support to it. 
This experiment failed on account of the fact that the United Front governments could not fulfil their own Common Minimum Programme and continued attempts to undermine the Congress politically. Under the presidentship of Sitaram Kesri (1996-1998), the party continued to criticize the policies of the United Front governments as and when they differed from Congress policies. In June 1997, the Congress Working Committee criticized the United Front government for the continuing economic downslide. During these years, Congress influence waned considerably in the Hindi belt.

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 In 1996 elections, in UP, a Congress-BSP alliance did not work and a short-lived BJP-BSP combine came to power. Caste-based politics represented by BSP had attracted Dalits away from the Congress who, along with Muslims, had traditionally constituted its social base in this area. Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar and Mulayam Singh Yadav in UP represented an alliance of lower castes and Muslims which undercut the base of the Congress. On the other hand, the BJP with its strident Hindu communal politics had weaned away the upper castes.

Towards the end of 1997, Jagannath Mishra, a Congress leader from Bihar, floated a new party called the Bihar Jan Congress and S. Bangarappa Reddy from Karnataka established the Karnataka Vikas Party. A senior Congressman, K.C. Pant, distanced himself from the Congress in January 1998 and declared his intention of supporting the BJP in the upcoming elections in the interest of stable governance. Now drastic action was necessary to revive the fortunes of the Congress.
Sonia Gandhi takes Charge 
Eventually, Sonia Gandhi was persuaded to take over the party leadership in 1998. Earlier in 1991 after Rajiv Gandhi’s death, she had refused the offer. In May 1995, she had again refused to lead the breakaway Congress group led by Narayan Dutt Tiwari and Arjun Singh.

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 She campaigned for the party in 1998 polls, and the Congress was able to win 141 seats in this election, though it did not do well in the Hindi belt.

On 6 April 1998, Sonia Gandhi was ratified as the Congress President at the AICC session in New Delhi. In her opening remarks at this AICC session, she listed her priorities for the party: return of the grassroots workers; involvement of youth and intelligentsia in the party; immediate revival of the party in UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal; setting-up of a task force to implement her decisions; a monitoring committee to report to her directly; restructuring of AICC, PCCs and DCCs; no lethargy between elections; revamping frontal organizations; transparency and accountability in functioning; a committee to provide intellectual inputs to MPs and MLAs and public donation to form bulk of Congress resources. 
She sought to take the reform momentum forward by setting the target of 8 per cent economic growth for the country. In her opening address to this AICC session, she said, “This is a vast agenda and it will constructively absorb the energy of our active workers….Sycophancy should have no place in the party. We must say what we mean and mean what we say.” Within the party organization, she replaced the post of Joint Secretary with the post of Secretary, a post to which she appointed 10 party men.

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 The Election Manifesto of 1998 defined the Congress perspective towards coalition governments clearly. The Congress refuted the claims of the United Front government that the days of single-party rule were over and that a conglomeration of regional parties at the Centre could adequately reflect the federal character of the polity. 

The Congress argued that a combination of regional parties could never evolve a common national approach or programme and could not rise above local ethnic/linguistic considerations. The Congress’s concept of stability was the stability of ideas, of policies and of programmes leading to human development and social harmony. To take stock of the party position, the Congress held a conclave at Pachmarhi in September 1998. 
This meeting was meant for a reassessment of the party and the development of a new programme outlined by Sonia Gandhi. Various questions were discussed: growth of communal and casteist politics, empowerment of Dalits and other backward groups, and improving the party position in UP and Bihar. In a redefinition of the party’s economic programme, the need for ensuring an efficient public distribution system, land reforms and the establishment of panchayati raj institutions were emphasized. The party president argued that, “Our economic policy has to be multi-dimensional, no one dogma, no one formula for us,” and affirmed, “Abolition of poverty in the next 10 to 15 years is our main goal.”

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 However, the conclave was significant for the political stand it took. In her concluding remarks, the Congress president said, “The fact that we are going through a coalitional phase at national level politics reflects in many ways the decline of the Congress. This is a passing phase and we will come back again with full force and on our own steam. But in the interim coalitions may well be needed.” She thus asserted that in the long run the Congress would be able to govern on its own, but at same time anticipated what was to happen in 2004, and said that coalitions could be needed in the interim or in the short run.

In another step forward, the Congress party reserved 33 per cent of seats in all party committees for women and a minimum of 20 per cent for SCs, STs, OBCs and minorities. This was done at a special one-day session of the AICC held in New Delhi on 18 December 1998. At this meet, the Congress president again reiterated that the party was not entirely against forging alliances with like-minded parties. 
Within nine months of taking over as party president, she seemed to have galvanized the party. The Congress won in assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Delhi. As many as 15 state governments were headed by the Congress at one point. On 17 April 1999, the BJP government lost the no-confidence motion on the floor of the house after AIADMK withdrew its support to the government.

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 She encouraged a rapprochement with AIADMK leader Jayalalitha through Subramanian Swamy: they were able to bring down the Vajpayee government and the country was headed for another Lok Sabha election in 1999. The Congress won 114 seats in this election. The Congress, being the second largest party, staked its claim to form the government. 

At the CWC meeting on 25 April 1999 in New Delhi, the Congress president explained that the party wanted to discharge its constitutional responsibility by providing an alternative government. Most of the non-BJP parties supported the Congress while other parties like BSP, SP, RSP and Forward Bloc did not. This meant that the Congress could not back up its claim to the formation of government with the requisite numbers. The BJP-led National Democratic Alliance assumed power at the Centre.
In the meantime, the BJP government had carried out another round of nuclear tests at Pokhran in May 1998. At the CWC meeting held on 14 May 1998, the President, Sonia Gandhi, made the following remarks about the Pokhran tests: 
I would like to place on record in this formal meeting of the Congress Working Committee the pride we feel in the achievement of our nuclear scientists and engineers for putting India’s nuclear capability in the front rank….The nuclear question is a national matter; not a partisan one. On this, every Indian stands united.

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 However, she also reiterated the party’s commitment to a nuclear weapon-free and non-violent world, especially India’s commitment to peace in the region for fostering economic growth and poverty alleviation. The Congress accused the government of inventing a security threat to justify its nuclear test and rejected the justification of its being an exercise in self-defence. 

Clarifications were elicited from the government about the so-called deterioration in security environment. The Congress argued that nothing had happened recently to justify the nuclear exercise. Sonia Gandhi’s projection as PM in the 1999 election campaign led to fierce opposition from within the party on account of her ‘foreign origin’. 
On 15 May 1999, Sharad Pawar, P.A. Sangma and Tariq Anwar in a letter to the party president demanded that the Constitution be so amended as to ensure that only “natural born” citizens become the president, vice-president and the prime minister of the republic. In response to this letter, Sonia Gandhi resigned from the post of party president.
The CWC disapproved of the claims made by these three leaders and reiterated its faith in her leadership. After this experience, she sought to reverse the legacy of personal bitterness and political animosity towards her. The UPA could not have come to power without her effort in forging alliances and building relationships with those very parties which had been at the core of anti-Congressism.

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 During the Kargil war of May 1999, the Congress party condemned the incursion by the Pakistan army. The party organized relief work for the refugees in Kargil sector of Jammu and Kashmir. It also condemned the government for its gross negligence in allowing such a dangerous situation to develop in the country. Addressing the CWC on 20-21 July 1999, the Congress president pointed out that the infiltration sponsored by the Pakistan military had been carried out for many months and reports had been reaching the government. 

Soon after this, a major terrorist attack occurred in US on 11 September 2001. The CWC met in Delhi on 19 September and issued a statement condemning the attacks. CWC expressed its support and sympathy for the victims and pointing to India’s fight with terrorism stated, “India has experienced a very persistent terrorist movement against its sovereignty and its people….
The scars of terrorism sponsored, aided and abetted from across the border are still writ large in several cities of India,…The Congress Working Committee expects that in combating the global terrorism, the world community will fully take into account India’s concerns and predicament in the face of sustained cross border terrorism.”

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 BJP’s use of State Power to further Communal Agenda 

Vajpayee’s government set about using education for political ends. School curricula and textbooks were altered, with history textbooks coming in for special attention. New history books were introduced in which historical facts were distorted and many prejudiced statements made. For instance, in the Class X social sciences textbook called Contemporary India written by Hari Om, Gandhiji’s assassination was not even mentioned.
It was only after nationwide protests against this deliberate omission that a small paragraph was included in the reprint of the book about the event. However, Godse’s (Gandhiji’s assassin) identity and his linkages with the RSS were not mentioned. In another instance of similar prejudice, a Class IX social science textbook for students of Gujarat stated that every minority community in India was ‘foreign’, implying that only Hindus were the ‘true’ inhabitants of the country. 
The Minister for Human Resource Development, Murli Manohar Joshi, a firm supporter of the RSS/VHP ideology of Hindu Rashtra, was the force behind this move. In order to pre-empt opposition from autonomous organizations like ICHR, UGC and ICSSR, the government set about appointing pliant and pro-RSS individuals to key posts there so that this programme could be seen through.

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 Reacting to this gross abuse of power and communalization of education, Sonia Gandhi wrote to the Prime Minister on 21 October 1998, condemning the government’s move to amend the basic structure of the Constitution dealing with minorities and educational rights. In her letter, she wondered why the curricula were sought to be “Indianised, nationalised, spiritualized? What does this mean? Is it implied that curricula hitherto have been un-Indian or anti-Indian?

That curricula have been colonial or foreign, not related to the past and present realities of India? That curricula have been soulless and devoid of ethical values?” The Congress chief accused the Vajpayee government of trying to impose a concept of nationhood which was both “biased and untrue”.
Ever since BJP came to power again in 1999 as the leader of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the VHP, Bajrang Dal and the RSS began abusing state power to achieve their goal of Hindu Rashtra. The demand for building the Ram temple in Ayodhya escalated in 2002 so much so that the government had to intervene and rein in the VHP. This had a direct impact on the communal situation in Gujarat which witnessed a communal carnage against Muslims for almost three months in 2002. The events of Gujarat brought shame to the whole country.

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 The rioting began at Godhra, a small town in Gujarat, where 58 people were burnt to death in a fire that engulfed a compartment of the Sabarmati Express. The victims were all Hindus, kar sewaks who were returning from Ayodhya. This provoked widespread riots in many cities of Gujarat. The riots left around 2,000 dead and 2,00,000 homeless. Religious places were targeted and killings, looting, burning of public property became common. Violence spread to villages leading to a large-scale exodus. 

A report by the National Human Rights Commission concluded that the Modi government in Gujarat had failed to protect the rights of the people through its inaction against non-state elements. Soon, many allies of the NDA like Lok Janshakti Party, Telugu Desam Party and Trinamool Congress withdrew their support from the government and demanded the removal of the Gujarat chief minister. Apart from this, Sonia Gandhi also demanded a commission of enquiry headed by a sitting judge of the Supreme Court to be set up, action against the guilty and rehabilitation programme for the victims. This was followed by her speech in Porbandar in which she alleged that Gandhiji’s Gujarat was being converted into Godse’s Gujarat.
While the BJP returned to power in Gujarat in 2002, it lost the parliamentary elections to the Congress-led alliance in 2004. It was generally believed that Gujarat had been the cause of the downfall of the NDA government.

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