After 2019 loss, Congress stares at its longest stint in Opposition
The Congress’s longest time so far in the Opposition has lasted six years, from 1998 to 2004, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government won the popular mandate in two successive Lok Sabha elections.Updated: Sep 16, 2019 05:24 IST
Five years ago, the Congress completed its record of running a coalition government at the Centre for two consecutive full terms under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Now, the party, after two back-to-back Lok Sabha poll defeats, is staring at its longest stint in Opposition after ruling India for 60 out of 72 years.
The Congress’s longest time so far in the Opposition has lasted six years, from 1998 to 2004, when the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government won the popular mandate in two successive Lok Sabha elections. After Narendra Modi returned to power for the second time with a resounding mandate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led NDA in May, the Congress has gone past five years without power and in May 2021 will enter its sixth year as the principal Opposition party.
The Congress was also not in government during HD Deve Gowda and IK Gujral’s administrations (1996-1998), but provided the crucial support to the two prime ministers, making it effectively the most important party in the then power circles.
Congress leaders are happy that Sonia Gandhi, who has been the party’s president for the longest term of 19 years, has returned as interim chief in August after Rahul Gandhi insisted on stepping down from the helm after the party’s rout in the April-May general election. Last month, the 134-year-old party faced embarrassment when senior leaders such as Shashi Tharoor and Jairam Ramesh publicly stated that demonising Modi would not help revive the Congress.
While the party distanced itself from these comments, many leaders privately admit that Modi is by far the toughest political opponent the Congress has faced since the Emergency. “His communication skill is at a different level. In this era of social media, good communication matters a lot,” said a Congress leader on condition of anonymity.
Party’s Lok Sabha floor leader Adhir Chowdhury has recently stated how opposition parties are facing a “battle of perception” against the BJP. “The BJP is creating a perception as if only they are patriots and we the Congress are against the interests of the nation,” he said recently.
After ruling India for 30 consecutive years, the Congress had lost power for the first time in 1977, in the election after the Emergency. Morarji Desai became the PM, but the government lasted just two years and 126 days. Chowdhury Charan Singh, who succeeded Desai, could not even last six months, and Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980.
Then again, in 1989, VP Singh, a former defence minister, was successful in ousting Rajiv Gandhi. But his government too, couldn’t last its full term. The internal contradictions and power struggles within the coalition saw the government collapse in less than a year. Prime Minister Chandrashekhar replaced VP Singh with the outside support of the Congress, but his government lasted only 223 days.
“The Congress needs to ask itself if the voters see them as an alternative to the Modi. There is no doubt some growing disappointment with the NDA government. But is the Congress in a position to offer an effective counter-narrative? I think while the leadership issue is a major political part in the Congress structure, it’s time that the party also reinvents itself structurally,” said economist Prasenjit Bose.