The day was March 14, 1998. Stooges of the Congress party were all set to execute a bloodless coup in favour of their leader, Sonia Gandhi. They had earlier met at the residence of Pranab Mukherjee to chalk out plans to oust the then President of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), Sitaram Kesri.
After hindrances were cleared to make way for Sonia Gandhi, a clueless Kesri was invited to a meeting at 24, Akbar Road in New Delhi. When he reached the party headquarters, it felt different for the first time in his 2 years spell (1996-1998) as the Congress chief.
No party member except for Tariq Anwar bothered to stand up and greet Sitaram Kesri. To rub salt to the wound, Pranab Mukherjee thanked him for his service and went on to move a resolution, asking Sonia Gandhi to take over as the new AICC President.
Sitaram Kesri, an OBC leader from Bihar who battled all odds to reach the highest position in the Congress party, realised that the end was near. In a fit of sudden rage, he walked out of the meeting. “It was his emotional way of holding onto something that was soon to become Sonia’s,” wrote Darpan Singh in India Today.
Kesri went to his room directly while some loyalists of Sonia Gandhi including Tariq Anwar and Manmohan Singh pretended to persuade him. But the defiant leader from Bihar refused to come back. It was at this point that the room of Sitaram Kesri was locked from the outside, thus muzzling the last remaining voice of dissent within the party.
Some accounts suggest that Kesri was locked inside the toilet so as to negate his chances of being a spoilsport. It is hard to imagine what he would have gone behind those closed doors on the fateful day of March 14, 1998.
Sitaram Kesri steered the party through the turbulent period from 1996-1998, only to be locked out by his fellow Congressmen at the end of his career. Nonetheless, the stage was all set for Sonia Gandhi to take over as the new President of the All India Congress Committee.
Amidst jubilant cries and thunderous claps of Indian Youth Congress (IYC) workers, a towering Sonia Gandhi entered the premises of her new office. She was declared the new Congress President.
Sitaram Kesari was eventually released from his captivity. When he was about to board his car, the Congress workers tried to pull down his dhoti. It was too much for a 79-year-old to take. After Kesri left, the party did not waste a moment to tear down his nameplate and replace it with one that read, ‘Sonia Gandhi’.
Interestingly, even two months before his formal ouster, Sitaram Kesri was hailing Gandhi as the saviour of the Congress party. However, the writing on the wall was too evident. During the 12th Lok Sabha elections in February 1998, then-party chief Kesri was not allowed to campaign.
Instead, Sonia Gandhi became the lead campaigner. She conducted over 130 public meetings and drew crowds in droves. However, the party failed to garner seats. The Congress party lost its bastion in Amethi (Uttar Pradesh) and was reduced to 142 seats.
Despite Gandhi being at the helm of elections, the Congress stooges found a way to blame the poor performance of the party during the 12th Lok Sabha elections on Sitaram Kesri.
“A faction within Congress crowned Kesri for the debacle, though Kesri had not addressed a single public gathering. Logic was: All advantage of Sonia Gandhi leading the charge was lost due to the weak leadership of Kesri,” wrote Siddhartha Rai in First Post.
This eventually led to the unceremonious ouster of Sitaram Kesri from the position of party President. Once his Rajya Sabha tenure expired in 2000, the party did not bother to renew it. Kesri died a few months later after being subject to glaring indifference by a party, to which he dedicated his entire life.
When PM Modi lamented the treatment meted out to Sitaram Kesri
Make a person outside the Nehru-Gandhi the Congress Party President for five years and I will agree that Pandit Nehru made a ‘Chaiwallah’ the PM.— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 18, 2018
India has not forgotten how a stalwart like Sitaram Kesri Ji was treated by one family. pic.twitter.com/f4HC0XJii7
While addressing a public rally in Chattisgarh in November 2018, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “The nation knows. Sitaram Kesri, how someone from the Dalit, oppressed, marginalised community was removed as party president. How he was locked inside a bathroom.”
“How he was removed from the door, picked up and thrown on the footpath. And madam Soniaji was made to sit (as party president). This history India knows well. He became (party chief) out of compulsion, and they could not tolerate him for two years,” he further added.
This article was originally published in Opindia on October 2, 2022.