There are urban legends. There are rural legends. And there are urban-rural legends. Urban-rural legends are pan-national massive myths that have gained the sanctity of belief over generations of spin-doctoring.
One such massive myth is the supposed hypnotic sway of the Gandhi Dynasty over millions of ‘unwashed masses’ cutting across caste, religion, race, language, income, creed, state and IQ.
The perpetuation of this falsehood is so rampant within the Congress party that even intelligent leaders who have a mind and spine of their own somehow seem to have bought into the hypothesis that the Gandhi surname is enough qualification to lord over the Indian National Congress simply because any Falana Gandhi can deliver more votes than all the congressmen put together.
Fortunately we have electoral records that haven’t yet gone missing like the prized Coalgate files. The records could be invaluable in evaluating the might of the Gandhis minus the hyperbole.
Let’s examine the vote-catching nature of the 4Gs (Indira, Rajiv, Sonia and Rahul) and see if we can bust the myth once for all.
MYTH # 1: INDIRA IS INDIA
Shrimati Indira Gandhi entered active politics via the Rajya Sabha in 1964. Being Jawaharlal Nehru’s daughter, she was straight away inducted into Shastri’s cabinet as the Minister of Information & Broadcasting. Shastri’s sudden death in Tashkent led to Gulzarilal playing the night-watchman’s role for less than 3 months. To deny Morarji Desai the Prime Ministership, the Congress Syndicate crowned Indira as the Empress of India in 1966. And she in turn returned the favour by dismantling the Syndicate. The result: the first ever split suffered by the Congress party in 1969.
That aside, let’s focus on Indira’s first ever national elections in 1967. She successfully reduced the Congress tally from 361 to 284. The vote share fell by 3.94%. So her first electoral performance was rather uncharismatic.
In 1968, a fast emerging Jan Sangh leader (Deendayal Upadhyaya) was mysteriously bumped off while travelling in a train. In 1969, the folks who opposed her were summarily ejected under an ideological pretext.
By 1971 with some deft populist moves, heavy socialist rhetoric and solid backing from the Soviet Union, the politically shrewd lady brought the Congress to a much better tally of 352 seats. The seat count was still a touch lesser than the 361 achieved in 1962 by her dad. Even the vote count was 1% short of what was achieved by Nehru.
Still to give her due credit, Indira managed to shore up a divided Congress by 3 percentage points. The strong arm tactics of ‘using government machinery’ to ensure victory in her own constituency (Rae Bareilly) earned her a well-deserved 6-year electoral ban from the Allahabad High Court in 1975.
Unable to stomach the insult, Indira proclaimed the now-infamous Emergency. Her unpopular policies and witch hunt of the opposition gave rise to an unprecedented coalescing of disparate parties into the brand new Janata Party which stormed into power in 1977.
In the height of her unpopularity, Indira Congress frittered away 9.16% of votes nationally, lost 198 Lok Sabha seats, and ended up creating the first ever national opposition party in India.
If you’ve kept apace with the story so far, you’d notice that Indira weakened the Congress in 1967 by 3.94%, then strengthened it in 1971 by 2.9% and again debilitated the Congress by 9.16%.
Fortune favoured her in 1980 when the Janata Party collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions. The Indian voter preferred a tainted but strong leader like Indira than vote for a perpetually-at-war gaggle of selfish leaders. The disgust with Janata Party gave her a bounce of 8.17% and she was back in the kursi with 353 parliamentarians. It’s this comeback that gave her the aura of an invincible woman. This in turn made her take several wrong decisions – one hugely controversial decision ended up precipitating her unfortunate assassination in 1984.
Summary of performance over her political career:
NET VOTE SCORE (1967 to 1980): -3.94+2.9-9.16+8.17 = -2.03%
NET SEAT SCORE (1967 to 1980): -78+69-198+199 = -8
CONCLUSION: In the four elections that Indira Gandhi spearheaded, she reduced the Congress equity by 2.03% and the seat count marginally. Yes, she dominated the political discourse and set the agenda for our country but had another Congress leader like Morarji Desai been offered the same number of chances, you never know what would have happened.
MYTH # 2: RAJIV THE VOTE MAGNET
By virtue of being the lucky sperm that bore the Gandhi tag, Rajiv was initiated into politics, in 1980, when his brother Sanjay passed away. The ‘family pocket borough’ of Amethi was handed over to him for his ‘sacrifice’. And he became an MP in 1981, at the young age of 37.
The sudden assassination of his mom created a bizarre situation in New Delhi. Instead of inviting the senior most Congress leader, Hon’ble President Gyani Zail Singh (yes, the same bloke who once said ‘if Indira hands me the broom, I’ll sweep the floor’) inexplicably requested Rajiv Gandhi to lead the government when he wasn’t even a cabinet minister.
The sympathy wave, the Hindu polarization, clubbed with the charm of a new face, resulted in a bumper harvest for Congress in 1984. Predictably, the victory was credited to the ‘21st century vision’ of Rajiv Gandhi.
The vote share was an unnatural and unprecedented 49.01% and the seat share was a bizarre 404. Even Jawaharlal Nehru never managed more than 47.78% and 371 Lok Sabha seats! So clearly, it was a sympathy vote. But the courtiers kept attributing it to the next gen thinking of Rajiv G.
We all know the ‘yeh banana hai woh banana hai’ empty rhetoric between 1984 and 1989. Bofors and many more questionable defence deals happened. VP Singh happened. Sundarji happened. Babri happened. Thanks to Young Rajiv’s stellar performance as Prime Minister, the Congress fell from a mighty 49.01% to 39.53% in 1989. The seat count collapsed to 197. For the second time in the history of Independent India, the Indian National Congress had lost a national election. No mean achievement!
What’s more, like his mom, Rajiv breathed new life into two new opposition parties: BJP and Janata Dal. He continued to bungle strategically and politically. And in 1991, he would have fared much worse had he been alive.
By a quirk of fate, his rather young life was extinguished and the resultant sympathy wave boosted the congress count significantly in the second phase of polling in 1991.
Still you’d be surprised to know that the vote % came down to an appalling 36.26. That’s a drop of 3.97%. Thanks to opposition disunity, despite losing votes, Congress bagged more seats. To be precise: 232 seats. And Narasimha Rao took over as Prime Minister.
Summary of performance over his political career:
NET VOTE SCORE (1980 to 1991): +6.32-9.48-3.97 = -7.13%
NET SEAT SCORE (1980 to 1991): +51-207+35 = -121
CONCLUSION: In the three elections that Rajiv Gandhi led, he reduced the Congress equity by 7.13% and the seat count by 121. Yes, he appeared sweet, sincere and charming, but beyond that, nothing else. He should be bestowed the honour of unleashing the animal spirits of Shah Bano, Mandir and Bofors upon hapless India.
MYTH # 3: SONIA REVIVED THE CONGRESS
Before we dissect Sonia Gandhi’s contribution to Congress, a little perspective will help. Between 1991 and 1998, the Gandhis were the background music of the Grand Old Party. They never took center stage. The period was dominated by the wily old fox PV Narasimha Rao. And very briefly, by a forgotten man named Sitaram Kesri.
The absence of Gandhis in the political sphere gives us the neutral data point of 1996. Measuring the vote count in this interregnum would give us a good idea of the Congress Vote Bank in the worst of times.
Even after driving out some very senior rivals from the party, even after the Babri Masjid demolition, even after receiving zero support from the Gandhi family, PV Narasimha Rao delivered 28.8% votes to the Congress kitty and 140 seats in Lok Sabha. But from a historical perspective of the Congress, it was a shocker of a show.
The misplaced fear of decimation was looming large in the hearts of die hard haathwaalahs. They were hoping that Sonia Gandhi would do the time tested trick of arresting the cancer of defeat. Sonia didn’t disappoint her backers. Despite proclaiming no interest in power, she zigzagged and crisscrossed the country campaigning for the Congress in 1998 with vigour and a trademark car-wiper hand wave. The party rank and file assumed that the result would be very different from 1996.
But to their bewilderment, the Congress just about managed 25.82% votes and 141 seats. A comparison of 1996 and 1998 would reveal a downslide of 2.98% and a majestic seat gain of 1.
The 10 Janpath fanboys tom-tomed the ‘one seat gain’ in a bid to turn the spotlight away from the slippage in votes.
Her much ballyhooed ‘reversal of fortunes’ was just the right signal for many old congressmen to return. But the abruptly short tenure of the 1998 Lok Sabha meant elections in 1999. Rookie Sonia Gandhi was pitted once again against the veteran Atal Behari Vajpayee. An unfair competition considering Sonia was a rank outsider to the rough and tumble of Indian politics. Although she could barely string together a sentence in Hindi, the greed of the Gandhi vote, made the INC proclaim her as their messiah, yet again.
The results are eloquent. In 1999, INC finished with 114 seats and 28.3% votes. That’s 27 seats lesser than 1998 and still 0.5% lesser than Narasimha Rao! The dynasty toadies put their own spin on the results. They said, ‘Forget the loss of 27 seats. Sonia has taken our vote percentage up by 2.48% vis-à-vis 1998’.
While Sonia supporters were busy shielding Ms. Maino from criticism, the NDA government was busy preparing the star dust for India Shining. A gross miscalculation by the Senior BJP leadership led to premature elections in 2004. The ‘India Shining’ message seemed too much of an over claim and understandably it dented NDA’s chances. And the Congress made a surprising comeback despite notching a vote percentage less than 1999!
Some clever alliances did the trick for Congress and it ended up forming a minority government. Sonia G ruled herself out of power citing her ‘inner voice’ and MMS took over as PM.
Summary of performance over her political career:
NET VOTE SCORE (1998 to 2004): -2.98+2.48-1.77= -2.27%
NET SEAT SCORE (1998 to 2004): +1-27+31 = +5
CONCLUSION: In the three elections that Sonia Gandhi led, she brought down the Congress vote share by 2.27%. And the seats were upped by a negligible quantum of 5. For taking the Congress nowhere, she was allowed to be the longest serving president of the Indian National Congress. Anyone else in her position would have been unceremoniously retired for good.
MYTH # 4: RAHUL G IS THE NEXT BIG THING
When the party realised that Sonia was not the vote catcher she was made out to be, the clamour began for yet another Gandhi to take over as the Maharaja of Democratic India. On his part, the princeling did what he could.
He travelled by train, dined with Dalits, visited colleges that regarding him as a youth icon, and milked every photo-op that came his way. A fawning press played along and 2009 was touted to be that big moment when the Congress would come back to power on its own strength.
Riding piggyback on the $ 11.7 billion welfare scheme (MNREGA) and with his mom firmly by his side, Rahul Gandhi looked like an enticing prospect as compared to the tired old LK Advani. But as luck would have it, the triumvirate of Rahul, Sonia and Manmohan, were unsuccessful in capturing Red Fort on their own.
The Congress did manage to raise its popularity though by 2.02 % and the Lok Sabha tally went up by 61 seats. The significant spike in seats was largely due to gains from Rajasthan (16), Kerala (13), UP (12), MP (8), Punjab (6), Andhra (4), and Maharashtra (4).
Pundits credit the accretion of seats and the 6% vote jump in UP to the Rahul novelty factor but in every other state it was the local issues at work. Even in Uttar Pradesh, as the 2012 elections proved to us, despite a hyper high voltage campaign by Rahul G, the Congress vote share plummeted by a jaw dropping 7%. And the party finished a pitiable fourth.
Things haven’t gotten any better in the last few years. Rahul’s management consultant like sound bytes, periodic disappearance from the national political scene, quixotic silence on burning issues and the lack of leadership at crucial moments haven’t helped his cause one bit. So much so instead of anointing Rahul G as the next Prime Ministerial candidate, there’s talk of hiding behind the fig leaf of ‘collective leadership’. Some workers in the party are even going to the extent of dropping hints about Priyanka’s imminent entry into politics.
What these naïve people don’t realise is: There’s no such thing as the Gandhi vote bank. If ever there was one, the congress vote share wouldn’t have dropped by an alarming 16% in the last 50 years!