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Congress Party After Rajiv

Only after his assassination did hope for reforming the Congress (I) reappear. The end of three generations of Nehru-Gandhi family leadership left Rajiv's coterie of political manipulators in search of a new kingpin. The bankruptcy of the Congress (I) leadership was highlighted by the fact that they initially turned to Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's Italian-born wife, to lead the party. Sonia's primary qualification was that she was Rajiv's widow. She had never held elected office and, during her early years in India, she had expressed great disdain for political life. However, although she did not assume a leadership role, she continued to be seen as a "kingmaker" in the Congress (I). Her advice was sought after, and she was called on to lead the party in the mid-1990s. An unusual public speech by Sonia Gandhi criticizing the government of P.V. Narasimha Rao in August 1995 further fueled speculation that she was a candidate for political leadership.

Sonia Gandhi's refusal in 1991 to become president of the Congress (I) led the mantle of party leadership to fall on Rao. Rao was a septuagenarian former professor who had retired from politics before the 1991 elections after undergoing heart-bypass surgery. Rao had a conciliatory demeanor and was acceptable to the party's contending factions. Paradoxically, the precariously positioned Rao was able to take more substantial steps in the direction of party reform than his predecessors. First, Rao had to demonstrate that he could mobilize popular support for himself and the party, a vital currency of power for any Congress (I) leader. He did so in the November 15, 1991, by-elections by winning his own seat in Andhra Pradesh unopposed and leading the party to victory in a total of eight of the fifteen parliamentary by-elections. By the end of 1991, Rao had succeeded in initiating the first intraparty elections in the Congress in almost twenty years. Although there was widespread manipulation by local party bosses, the elections enhanced the legitimacy of party leaders and held forth the prospect of a rejuvenated party organization. The process culminated in April 1992 at the All-India Congress (I) Committee at Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, where elections were held for the ten vacant seats in the Congress Working Committee.

In the wake of the Tirupati session, Rao became less interested in promoting party democracy and more concerned with consolidating his own position. The change was especially apparent in the 1993 All-India Congress (I) Committee session at Surajkund (in Haryana), where Rao's supporters lavishly praised the prime minister and coercively silenced his opponents. However, Rao's image was damaged in July 1993 after Harshad Mehta, a stockbroker under indictment for allegedly playing a leading role in a US$2 billion stock scam in 1992, accused Rao of personally accepting a bribe that he had delivered on November 4, 1991. The extent of the press coverage of the charges and their apparent credibility among the public was evidence of the pervasive public cynicism toward politicians. Rao's stock in the party and Congress (I)'s position within Parliament were greatly weakened.

On July 28, 1993, his government barely survived a no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha. Rao's position was temporarily strengthened at the end of 1993 when he was able to cobble together a parliamentary majority. However, support for Rao and the Congress (I) declined again in 1994. The party was rocked by a scandal relating to the procurement of sugar stocks that cost the government an estimated Rs6.5 billion (US$210 million) and by losses in legislative assembly elections in Andhra Pradesh--Rao's home state, where he personally took control over the campaign--and Karnataka. The Congress (I) again lost in three of four major states in elections held in the spring of 1995. The political fallout in New Delhi was an increase in dissident activity within the Congress (I) led by former cabinet members Narain Dutt Tiwari and Arjun Singh and other Rao rivals who sought to split the Congress and form a new party.

The final months of the Rao-led government in the spring of 1996 were marred by several major corruption scandals, which contributed to the worst electoral performance by the Congress Party in its history.

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Page last modified: 16-12-2013 18:44:30 ZULU