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Monday, Sep 16, 2019

Congress stares at longest stint in Opposition

Congress leaders are happy that they managed to persuade Sonia Gandhi, who has been the party’s president for the longest term of 19 years, to return as interim chief in August.

india Updated: Sep 11, 2019 09:05 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
The Congress’ longest stint so far in the opposition lasted six years, from 1998 to 2004.
The Congress’ longest stint so far in the opposition lasted six years, from 1998 to 2004.(HT File Photo)
         

Five years ago, the Congress set the record for running a coalition government at the Centre for two consecutive full terms under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Now, the party is staring at its longest stint in the Opposition benches in Parliament after ruling India for 60 out of 72 years.

The Congress’ longest stint so far in the opposition 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 already gone past five years without power since May 2014 and in May 2020 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, but had 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 they managed to persuade Sonia Gandhi, who has been the party’s president for the longest term of 19 years, to return as interim chief in August after Rahul Gandhi insisted on stepping down from the helm following the party’s rout in the April-May general election. But for some Congress leaders, an effective counter against Modi is yet to be devised. 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. Ramesh maintained that Modi’s governance model was not a “complete negative story.”

While the party distanced itself from Ramesh’s 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,” said a Congress leader on condition of anonymity.

Adhir Chowdhury, the party’s floor leader in the Lok Sabha, was worried to point out how the opposition parties are fast losing the “battle of perception” against the BJP. “The BJP is creating a narrative according to their own political interests in which opposition leaders and parties, who have fought for this country and its development, are branded anti-national and corrupt. The BJP is creating a perception as if only they are patriots and we the Congress are against the interests of the nation. We are unable to fight this battle of perception,” he said at an event in Kolkata.

Since 1947, the Congress was first ousted from power in 1977, the first election after the infamous Emergency. Morarji Desai became the Prime M inister but the government lasted just two years and 126 days. Chowdhury Charan Singh, who succeeded Desai, couldn’t even last six months, and Indira Gandhi strode back 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 Modi. There is no doubt at 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.

First Published: Sep 11, 2019 09:05 IST