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Congress Party Under Rajiv

When Rajiv Gandhi took control after his mother's assassination in November 1984, he attempted to breathe new life into the Congress (I) organization. However, the massive electoral victory that the Congress (I) scored under Rajiv's leadership just two months after his mother's assassination gave him neither the skill nor the authority to succeed in this endeavor. Rajiv did, however, attempt to remove the more unsavory elements within the party organization. He denied nominations to one-third of the incumbent members of Parliament during the 1984 Lok Sabha campaign, and he refused to nominate two of every five incumbents in the state legislative assembly elections held in March 1985.

Another of Rajiv's early successes was the passage of the Anti-Defection Bill in January 1985 in an effort to end the bribery that lured legislators to cross partisan lines. Speaking at the Indian National Congress centenary celebrations in Bombay (officially called Mumbai as of 1995), Rajiv launched a vitriolic attack on the "culture of corruption" that had become so pervasive in the Congress (I). However, the old guard showed little enthusiasm for reform. As time passed, Rajiv's position was weakened by the losses that the party suffered in a series of state assembly elections and by his government's involvement in corruption scandals. Ultimately, Rajiv was unable to overcome the resistance within the party to internal elections and reforms. Ironically, as Rajiv's position within the party weakened, he turned for advice to many of the wheelers and dealers of his mother's regime whom he had previously banished.

The frustration of Rajiv Gandhi's promising early initiatives meant that the Congress (I) had no issues on which to campaign as the end of his five-year term approached. On May 15, 1989, just months before its term was to expire, the Congress (I) introduced amendments that proposed to decentralize government authority to panchayat and municipal government institutions. Opposition parties, many of whom were on record as favoring decentralization of government power, vehemently resisted the Congress (I) initiative. They charged that the initiative did not truly decentralize power but instead enabled the central government to circumvent state governments (many of which were controlled by the opposition) by transferring authority from state to local government and strengthening the links between central and local governments. After the Congress (I) failed to win the two-thirds vote required to pass the legislation in the Rajya Sabha on October 13, 1989, it called for new parliamentary elections and made "jana shakti" (power to the people) its main campaign slogan.

The Congress (I) retained formidable campaign advantages over the opposition. The October 17, 1989, announcement of elections took the opposition parties by surprise and gave them little time to form electoral alliances. The Congress (I) also blatantly used the government-controlled television and radio to promote Rajiv Gandhi. In addition, the Congress (I) campaign once again enjoyed vastly superior financing. It distributed some 100,000 posters and 15,000 banners to each of its 510 candidates. It provided every candidate with six or seven vehicles, and it commissioned advertising agencies to make a total of ten video films to promote its campaign. The results of the 1989 elections were more of a rebuff to the Congress (I) than a mandate for the opposition. Although the Congress (I) remained the largest party in Parliament with 197 seats, it was unable to form a government. Instead, the Ja-nata Dal, which had 143 seats, united with its National Front allies to form a minority government precariously dependent on the support of the BJP (eighty-five seats) and the communist parties (forty-five seats). Although the Congress (I) lost more than 50 percent of its seats in Parliament, its share of the vote dropped only from 48.1 percent to 39.5 percent of the vote. The Congress (I) share of the vote was still more than double that of the next largest party, the Janata Dal, which received support from 17.8 percent of the electorate. More grave for the long-term future of the Congress (I) was the erosion of vital elements of the traditional coalition of support for the Congress (I) in North India. Alienated by the Congress (I)'s cultivation of Hindu activists, Muslims defected to the Janata Dal in large numbers. The Congress (I) simultaneously lost a substantial share of Scheduled Caste voters to the BSP in Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh and to the Indian People's Front in Bihar.

To offset these losses, the Congress (I) attempted to play a "Hindu card." On August 14, 1989, the Supreme Court ruled that no parties or groups could disturb the status quo of the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. The mosque was controversial because Hindu nationalists claim it was on the site of the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram and that, as such, the use by Muslims was sacrilegious (see Vishnu, ch. 3). Despite the court ruling, in September the Congress (I) entered into an agreement with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP--World Hindu Council), a conservative religious organization with close ties to Hindu nationalists, to allow the VHP to proceed with a ceremony to lay the foundation for the Ramjanmabhumi (birthplace of Ram) Temple. (The VHP had been working toward this goal since 1984.) In return, the Congress (I) secured the VHP's agreement to perform the ceremony on property adjacent to the Babri Masjid that was not in dispute. By reaching this agreement, the Congress (I) attempted to appeal to Hindu activists while retaining Muslim support. Rajiv Gandhi's decision to kick off his campaign less than six kilometers from the Babri Masjid and his appeal to voters that they vote for the Congress (I) if they wished to bring about "Ram Rajya" (the rule of Ram) were other elements of the Congress (I)'s strategy to attract the Hindu vote.

The 1991 elections returned the Congress (I) to power but did not reverse important trends in the party's decline. The Congress (I) won 227 seats, up from 197 in 1989, but its share of the vote dropped from 39.5 percent in 1989 to 37.6 percent. Greater division within the opposition rather than growing popularity of the Congress (I) was the key element in the party's securing an increased number of seats. Also troubling was the further decline of the Congress (I) in heavily populated Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which together account for more than 25 percent of all seats in Parliament. In Uttar Pradesh, the number of seats that the Congress (I) was able to win went down from fifteen to two, and its share of the vote dropped from 32 percent to 20 percent. In Bihar the seats won by the Congress (I) fell from four to one, and the Congress (I) share of the vote was reduced from 28 percent to 22 percent. The Congress (I) problems in these states, which until 1989 had been bastions of its strength, were reinforced by the party's poor showing in the November 1993 state elections. These elections were characterized by the further disintegration of the traditional Congress coalition, with Brahmans and other upper castes defecting to the BJP and Scheduled Castes and Muslims defecting to the Janata Dal, the Samajwadi Party (Socialist Party), and the BSP.

Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil suicide bomber affiliated with the Sri Lankan Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) during a political campaign in May 1991. Strong evidence indicates that the Congress (I) would have fared significantly worse had it not been for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in the middle of the elections. A wave of sympathy similar to that which helped elect Rajiv after the assassination of his mother increased the Congress (I) support. In the round of voting that took place before Rajiv's death, the Congress (I) won only 26 percent of the seats and 33 percent of the vote. In the votes that occurred after Rajiv's death, the Congress (I) won 58 percent of the seats and 40 percent of the popular vote. It may also be that Rajiv's demise ended the "anti-Congressism" that had pervaded the political system as a result of his family's dynastic domination of Indian politics through its control over the Congress.

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Page last modified: 16-12-2013 18:44:31 ZULU