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Tuesday, 12 October, 1999, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Congress considers dismal results
election result board
The Congress put in a disappointing showing
By South Asia Correspondent Mike Wooldridge

In India the Congress Party is taking stock after its worst election performance in half a century.

Indian Elections 99
Full results
The five-week election, India's third since 1996, ended with the return to power of the BJP-led coalition now known as the National Democratic Alliance.

The Congress President, Sonia Gandhi, widow of the assassinated former prime minister Rajeev Gandhi, has already called on her own party to make a frank assessment of what went wrong.

sonia gandhi
Sonia Gandhi: Time to take stock
Congress have sought to put a brave face on some aspects of the election outcome, in particular that their share of the vote held up; their problem was translating this into actual seats.

They've also been doing their best to further the notion that the National Democratic Alliance may prove to be even more unmanageable than the coalition the BJP struggled to hold together after last year's election and which ultimately fell in a vote of confidence this April, prompting yet another election.

Constructive opposition

If there were to be such internal tensions again, Congress believes some of those who have aligned themselves with the BJP for now could be tempted to support Congress.

But Congress leaders are also having to face up to the reality that the BJP-led coalition is back with the kind of majority that could provide the political stability many people in India say is almost more important to them than who is in power.

priyanka gandhi
Sonia's daughter Priyanka: A hit with voters
Congress know they've acquired something of a reputation for bringing down governments without justification.

Even though they maintain it's an undeserved reputation, Congress leaders are pledging "constructive opposition" to the ruling coalition.

For Congress themselves the election outcome is yet another pointer to the contrast from the days when they appeared to believe they had the natural right to govern India - and they have done for 45 out of 52 years since independence.

Foreign roots

As party president, Sonia Gandhi may well survive this further humiliating performance.

After all, it was only in May that the party faithful begged her to stay after there was dissent among the leadership over whether her foreign origins and relative lack of political experience made her a liability in being projected as the party's candidate for prime minister.

She may also argue that her wish to see the party organisation overhauled is something that's been made even more necessary and urgent now.

PM vajpayee
Atal Behari Vajpayee: A good election for the BJP
Nehru Gandhi dynasty loyalists will also point to the fact that Sonia Gandhi won both the seats she was contesting for the first time and her daughter Priyanka established herself in this election as a charismatic hit with the crowds, which inspired open envy from the BJP.

Nevertheless, Congress leaders will clearly be asking themselves afresh whether the BJP did strike a chord with voters in relentlessly targeting Sonia Gandhi's foreign origins in the campaign.

Formal coalition

The party's MPs have endorsed her unaminously as their leader in parliament - despite concerns amongst some that the job should be done by a Congress leader with more experience.

There are also those saying there should be a debate about whether the party remains too firmly in the trip of a coterie of older leaders and a younger generation should be given more of a chance.

But perhaps most fundamental of all is whether this historic party should no longer see themselves as fighting elections in their own right, but should now say that in today's India any prospect of a return to power might be through a formal coalition, BJP-style. The frank assessment will clearly take time.


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