Prime Minister Inder Kumer Gujral with Congress President Sitaram Kesri, in 1997. (Photograph: Indian National Congress website)

2019 Versus 1996: Lessons For Rahul Gandhi From Sitaram Kesri’s Congress

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We begin with two questions (on Instagram, since Facebook is oh so old?) which are bound to get the trolls in overdrive:

1) What do you know about a quaint Congress politician called Sitaram Kesri?

2) How do you rate Rahul Gandhi’s performance since he became President of Indian National Congress in December 2017?

Rahul Gandhi’s Promising Start In President’s Innings

Before I come to the first question, let me say that even career Congress critics concede that Rahul has begun his innings with unexpected chutzpah. So I can reiterate, quite candidly (yes, bring on the trolls), that Rahul Gandhi 2.0 seems to have not put a step wrong since he became the undisputed Congress chief two months back:

  • Beginning with an astute Gujarat campaign, stringing together young Turks like Alpesh Thakor, Paresh Dhanani, Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mevani, that almost felled M/s Modi & Shah;
  • To the stunning electoral triumph in Rajasthan where credit was freely given to Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot;
  • To allowing a regional satrap like Siddaramaiah to head the Karnataka campaign even as Rahul showers willing and visible support;
  • To the ‘healing touch’ in Delhi Congress where a ‘repentant’ Ajay Maken has been ‘persuaded’ to swallow his pride and woo dissidents like Shiela Dikshit, AK Walia, Haroon Yousuf and Arvinder Singh Lovely back to the fold;
  • To harnessing whiz kids like Praveen Chakravarty to head a new-age AICC division on ‘big data and analytics’;
  • To pulling back once-disenchanted/sidelined veterans like P Chidambaram and Kapil Sibal to the fore on economic/legal rebuttal of the government’s policies;
  • To displaying a mature sense of continuity by respecting/empowering the old guard…

You have to admit that Rahul Gandhi is leading from the front, not distracted nor reluctant, with a promising amount of native intelligence. Of course, one swallow does not make a summer, and this is but a tiny beginning in an enormously arduous trek back to power, but well…

Okay now, enough said, do really bring on the trolls!

Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka Chief Minister  Siddaramaiah wave to people during a rally in Koppal, Karnataka on Feb. 10, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)
Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah wave to people during a rally in Koppal, Karnataka on Feb. 10, 2018. (Photograph: PTI)

Sitaram Kesri, Who?

On the second question, I am bound to get an irate blowback on Instagram, where the millennial memory stretches back, maximum, to 2000 AD: “please correct the typo; clearly you mean Sitaram Yechury, that handsome Communist leader, right, coz we’ve never heard of a bloke called Sitaram Kesri!”

There you are! So before I go any further, I have to digress into Sitaram Kesri’s biodata to make sense of my argument.

He was an astonishing politician from a bygone era. He joined the Independence Movement at the tender age of thirteen, going to jail several times between 1930-42. He was a six-term member of parliament, once in Lok Sabha, five times in Rajya Sabha. In 1980, he became the treasurer (aka as principal money man, with a photographic memory and grasp over a political party’s inscrutable accounts, from a single rupee donated by a humble party worker to crores given by corporate titans) of the Congress party, simultaneously serving in the cabinets of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao.

He finally ascended to the peak — becoming AICC President — in September 1996, when Rao went into political oblivion.

But over the next two years, Sitaram Kesri committed blunders which Rahul Gandhi must study a million times as we hurtle towards 2019.

This is where the lessons of history must intersect for Congress President Sitaram Kesri (circa 1996-98) and Rahul Gandhi (circa 2017-to, well, the innings has only just begun).

1995, When The Congress Party Got Politically Annihilated

1995, the last year of Narasimha Rao’s Congress government, almost sounded the death knell of the party. Scams, resignations of seven ministers, a split with the ‘loyalist’ faction of Arjun Singh and ND Tiwari, corruption charges emblazoned in the infamous Jain Hawala Diaries (and earlier in the tenure, Babri Masjid destroyed in 1992, Chief Minister Beant Singh assassinated in Punjab, the pain inflicted by 1991’s economic liberalization) – small wonder that the Congress got wiped out in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, winning a paltry 140 seats in the 11th Lok Sabha Polls of 1996, its lowest tally ever.

Prime Minister Narasimha Rao with Finance Minister Manmohan Singh and Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil, in 1992. (Photograph: PIB)
Prime Minister Narasimha Rao with Finance Minister Manmohan Singh and Lok Sabha Speaker Shivraj Patil, in 1992. (Photograph: PIB)

But even bigger history was being made elsewhere, as the Bharatiya Janata Party got 161 seats, becoming the single largest party in parliament, pushing the Congress to an ignominious second place. 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, because I will return to this argument.

In 1996, nobody was willing to buy into the RSS/Hindutva vision of India.
An old photograph of AB Vajpayee (second from right) with his BJP colleagues ML Khurana, LK Advani  Khurana, and Vijayaraje Scindia. (Photograph: PIB)
An old photograph of AB Vajpayee (second from right) with his BJP colleagues ML Khurana, LK Advani Khurana, and Vijayaraje Scindia. (Photograph: PIB)

What Rahul Gandhi Can Learn From Kesri’s Blunders

Since politics abhors a vacuum, 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, but with an ostensibly stable support of 332/542 MPs, 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 Kumar 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. 
Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral with Congress President Sitaram Kesri, in 1997. (Photograph: Indian National Congress website)
Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral with Congress President Sitaram Kesri, in 1997. (Photograph: Indian National Congress website)

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.

Sitaram Kesri was consigned — literally lifted off his gaddi (throne) and dumped outside the AICC office — to anonymity. Sonia Gandhi emerged just in time to save a decimated Congress party from disintegrating.

What Is The Intersection Between Rahul’s And Kesri’s Congress?

Now to the core of my argument.

Imagine, what if Sitaram Kesri had refused to prop up a gaggle of regional parties in 1996?

While it’s impossible to fathom the ‘what ifs’ of history, you can safely bet that some sort of ‘BJP + Regional’ combination would have come to power, but collapsed just as inevitably within 2-3 years. In such a situation, the Congress would have occupied a sharply defined opposition space through those turbulent years. It would not have been trapped in ‘no man’s land’, where it got exponential discredit for being the twin evil – the incumbent and destabiliser. Again, it’s difficult to say with any certainty what would have happened in the ensuing polls, but perhaps Congress and BJP would have been principal opponents, with a shrunken challenge by the dispirited regional parties.

And here’s the lesson for Rahul’s Congress. 2019 could throw up a very similar political arithmetic as 1996. For purposes of illustration, let’s go with the following math, give or take a few seats:

  • BJP/NDA with 200 seats
  • UPA/Congress with 150 seats
  • Regional Parties with 192 seats
Congress will be tempted to repeat 1996. But it must remember the lessons of history.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi with Sonia Gandhi and other leaders arrives to preside the party’s ‘Steering Committee’ meeting in New Delhi on Feb. 17, 2018. (Photograph: Arun Sharma/PTI) 
Congress President Rahul Gandhi with Sonia Gandhi and other leaders arrives to preside the party’s ‘Steering Committee’ meeting in New Delhi on Feb. 17, 2018. (Photograph: Arun Sharma/PTI) 

To repeat: just two years later, people were compelled to buy into the RSS/Hindutva vision of India; the stubborn recalcitrance of 1996 against RSS/BJP/Hindutva had evaporated.

Congress Should Either Rule Or Oppose; Not Get Trapped In ‘No Man’s Land’

Here, then, is the decision matrix for Rahul’s Congress in 2019:

  • If BJP/NDA, with 200+ seats, emerges as the largest political formation, that would indicate that people’s disenchantment with Hindutva politics is gathering speed, but has yet to peak. 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.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.