On September 27, 1989, the then Union home minister Buta Singh flew into Lucknow when the sun had not yet risen. He immediately drove to the official bungalow of chief minister ND Tiwari.
Soon, a delegation of saffron clad saints associated with Rama Janmabhoomi Nyas led by Ashok Singhal was ushered in. The press waited outside, not knowing what was transpiring inside. After over two hours, a visibly angry chief minister walked out of the bungalow, followed by a beaming Ashok Singhal. None spoke to the media. But soon the suspense was over.
Buta Singh announced the Centre’s conditional permission to the Nyas to lay shilanayas at the contentious Ram Janmabhoomi/Babri Mosque complex.
On November 10, 1989, the VHP-BJP laid the foundation stone of the temple amid pomp and show at a plot, away from the disputed site, while the Congress leadership preferred silence instead of propagating the accord that Singhal and others had signed with the government. The agreement had bound the saints to a high court order that had directed the parties to maintain status quo, not change the nature of the property and ensure communal harmony.
It was poll time. The then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi decided to launch his party’s campaign from Faizabad and spoke about ‘Ram Rajya’. From there started the long chapter of Congress decline in North India, from which it has not yet recovered. While the VHP movement to liberate the Rama Janmabhoomi picked up momentum, the Congress started losing support of Muslims in the northern belt as they held the party leadership squarely responsible for unlocking the shrine gates in 1984 and shilanyas in 1989.
The final nail in the coffin was when the mosque was demolished under the Congress government led by Narasimha Rao. The Muslim vote was lost. Congress’ social coalition, and with it, political power was lost.
The continued decline
Why has the Congress been unable to regain power in UP?
The first reason is the rise of regional parties — the BSP and the SP — that pursued caste and communal politics. While the SP pandered to Muslim whims, the BSP wooed Dalits and marginalised castes. The Congress leadership, in its bid to maintain caste and communal balance, could not speak their aggressive language.
Second, after the death of Rajiv Gandhi, the party literally became rudderless. Sonia Gandhi remained elusive and indecisive on joining politics, while PV Narasimha Rao and Sita Ram Kesari ran the show. The people of the state could not connect to them and there was no state leadership that could fill in the vacuum.
By the time Sonia entered the scene in 1997, politics had become competitive, the Congress cadres had moved to greener pastures and the elections had turned four-cornered.
Formulas were evolved to reconstruct the traditional vote bank of Muslims, Dalits and Brahmins. Muslims voted for the winning horse against the BJP (Congress was a sinking ship), Dalits for Mayawati and Kanshi Ram while Brahmins preferred to remain on the right side of the power.
In the process, a generation born in early 1990s did not see a Congress rule in the state. It also failed to find poll partners, barring 1995 when it had tied up with the BSP. Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi also preferred an independent poll trek as he did not find either the SP or the BSP trustworthy.
Search for an ally
After 26 years, the Congress is open to alliance with either of the regional forces in UP.
Once again, while Mayawati is against pre-poll tie-ups, the Yadav family is divided over seat sharing with the Congress. Mulayam has grown in anti-Congress boots, but his son Akhilesh is more pragmatic.
It is generally believed that the SP and the Congress together will be a formidable force that Muslims will immediately adopt. Agra-based KS Rama says, ‘The base vote of Congress is scattered. They need to rebuild the party brick by brick. Coalition with SP will be useful.’ That may well be the Congress’ only route back to power.