A lot is now being written about the charisma, enigma and legacy of Sonia Gandhi & Rajiv Gandhi. As Sunanda Vashisht has rightly pointed out – “I don’t understand emotional tributes to Sonia Ji. Where is she going? She has only passed on baton to her son. Control is still in the family.” Because of these tributes, we have also been reminded of what a lovely couple Sonia and Rajiv have been, and how Sonia Gandhi stepped up to continue to the legacy of Indira and Rajiv. And how she won many victories for Congress, and how if Rajiv Gandhi was alive, he would have made a fine Prime Minister in 1991. And that’s when it stuck to me – to take you all down memory lane and remind you about some electoral numbers.
The 1989 election
The Congress party led by Rajiv Gandhi won 198 seats. Down from a whopping 404 seats won in 1984 (in the backdrop of Indira Gandhi’s assassination). Two governments changed by 1991, and mid-term elections were called. Today, we are being told that if not for his assassination, Rajiv was well on his way to become PM in 1991.
The 1991 election
The 1991 election was schedule in three phases. The first phase was over on May 20th. On the night of May 21st, Rajiv Gandhi (and 20 others) were killed in a ghastly assassination in Tamil Nadu. The next two phases were postponed to June 12th and 15th. Quite understandably, there was the sympathy factor for the Congress party in the next two phases. It is very important to study the results of 1991 elections pre and post the assassination. For some reason, it is very difficult to find detailed analysis being available widespread, except for these two sources. The first source is just a line in Wikipedia – “The congress party did poorly in the pre-assassination constituencies and swept the post-assassination constituencies.”
The second, and most interesting find, is from “psephologist” Prannoy Roy in an interview to India Today then – “Nation-wide there was a swing away from the Congress (I) of 5.7 per cent in the first round of voting in May, which changed to a swing in favor of the Congress (I) of 1.6 per cent in the second round of voting in June. “ The interview does give good insights into the performance of many parties in different states, and is also noteworthy about how “psephologists” continue to be surprised at BJP’s performance from time eternal!
The Congress party won 232 seats in the 1991 elections. Up from 198 they had won in 1989. It is therefore quite clear that had the assassination not taken place, the number of seats that Congress would have won under Rajiv Gandhi would be much less than 232 for sure, and in all probability much less than 198! Rajiv Gandhi’s “charisma” wouldn’t have given Congress any edge than what it had in 1989!
Since 1989, the people of the country seem to care more about performance than charisma. This bogey of charisma has only been continuing in the English Language media.
The 1996 election
The Congress party, under the leadership of P. V. Narasimha Rao, won 140 seats. Down from 232 seats. Various reasons are attributed to this defeat, including scandals involving the Prime Minister’s office itself. Narasimha Rao eventually resigned as the President of Congress, because he didn’t want to appear in court as an accused in Bribery scandal while holding the post of Congress President. Or maybe they were searching for excuses to remove him as President! Either way, he had to go.
Curiously, Rajiv Gandhi stayed on after the disastrous loss of 1989 (Down from ~404 seats to 198 seats). Curiously, the Prime Minister’s office when Rajiv Gandhi was PM was also embroiled in corruption related controversies. Yet, nothing seems to matter when it comes to losses under the families reign!
The 1998 election
Sitaram Kesri was the President of Congress. Sonia Gandhi campaigned for the party too. The Congress won 141 seats. Almost same as the 1996 election. A couple of months after the results were announced, Sitaram Kesri was unceremoniously removed from the post of Congress President because of poor performance of the party, and the baton was handed over to Sonia Gandhi. The pre-poll alliance of NDA won 254 seats, 18 seats short of majority. And the government lasted only 13 months.
The 1999 election
Under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership, the party won 114 seats. The lowest ever till that point of time. Quite predictably, no one called for her resignation nor was there pressure on her to resign. Just like there was no pressure on Rajiv to step aside. The family just cannot be touched at any cost. The pre-poll alliance of NDA won a real majority of 299 seats (including TDP).
The 2004 election
The Congress party won 145 seats. Basically, back to what it was holding in the 1996 and 1998 elections. However, the BJP lost more than 50 seats it held previously. The Congress entered into alliances with some regional parties in many states and benefitted hugely from their (the regional parties) ground presence – similar to how BJP did benefit in the 1998 and 1999 elections.
A curious statistic here is that in terms of vote percentages won, the pre-poll NDA got ~2% more votes than the pre-poll UPA! So much for Sonia Gandhi’s “victory”!
BJP’s allies also lost badly in some states in 2004 – therefore in my opinion, the 2004 election was BJP’s loss than Congress’s victory. Either way, the Congress party was only marginally able to increase its tally – with the pre-poll alliance winning 218 seats, well short of a majority! Well short of what even the NDA won in 1998! The Left parties and other regional parties like SP and BSP have fared exceptionally well in this election, but mysteriously this election was touted as a revival of Congress party by Sonia Gandhi!
The 2009 election
The Congress party won 206 seats in this election, up from its 145 in 2004. However, the pre-poll alliance of UPA won 262 seats, only 10 seats short of a majority. This was the only time where Sonia Gandhi led Congress had revived its fortune in such a large percentage. This high percentage growth, in terms of seats, was not seen even during the 1991 election when a sympathy wave existed. A bland campaign by the BJP, several populist programs by the UPA (loan waiver, NREGA), anger against the Left parties etc. helped in this increase. And in my opinion, this is the only real victory of Sonia Gandhi in her long career as Congress President.
The 2014 election
The Congress party won 44 seats. Their lowest ever. And this is not because of some sympathy wave that existed like in 1984. This was genuine anger – against the Congress (led by Sonia Gandhi). Their second lowest ever was 114 – again under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership only. This time, the campaign was jointly led by the mother and son. No clamor after the defeat, for her resignation. No unceremonious calls for her exit. Only mere requests for her son to take over. Only mere requests to keep control with the family despite the disaster, but only change the name plate at the President’s office (if such a thing existed in the Congress headquarters). No calls for resignation when she appeared as an accused in court (Remember the clamor when PV Narasimha Rao had to resign for a similar accusation?).
The BJP on its own won a clear majority (282 seats). The pre-poll NDA won 336 seats. This was the second time that the NDA won a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. Yet, we endlessly keep hearing about how they got only 38% votes. I don’t recollect so many discussions when Sonia’s Congress didn’t even win enough number of seats to form a government, much less enough voting percentages!
Let me summarize all these numbers to you in one table:
The Congress party or its pre poll alliances has never won a majority in the Lok Sabha since 1984. In the 33 years since then, the Congress party was led by the family for nearly 24 years. Neither has it ever won a huge percentage of votes – the reason I bring this up again is because of the endless discussions we had to endure about NDA winning “only” 38% of votes in 2014. The most obvious question that pops out is why is this yardstick not applied to the family? If Modi is “divisive” because of 38%, then so is Sonia Gandhi! If Modi doesn’t have the approval of majority of the country, so did Sonia!
In recent memory, the Congress party has lost nearly all states since 2014. The yardstick applied to Congress leaders from outside the party, hasn’t been applied to Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi. Instead, even after all these years, even after all these results, we are still being fed with the bogey of “charisma” and “enigma” of the ‘first family’ of Congress.