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Sitaram Kesri took part in India's freedom struggle at the age of 13, and was arrested in 1930, 1933, and 1942. He became the President of Bihar Pradesh Congress Committee in 1973 and Treasurer of All India Congress Committee (AICC) in 1980.
Kesri was elected to the Lok Sabha from Katihar Lok Sabha Constituency in 1967 when he won on a Janata Party ticket after being given a last moment call by then Bihar Janata Party President S N Sinha. He represented Bihar in the Rajya Sabha for five terms between July 1971 and April 2000. He was Union Minister during the regimes of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P.V. Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister of India.
Kesri served as Treasurer of the Congress party for more than a decade. In addition, he was elected unanimously as the President of the Congress Parliamentary Party on 3 January 1997. After P.V. Narasimha Rao stepped down as president of Congress in September 1996, Kesri was appointed the new president of the party.
The following years were difficult for the Congress Party. Kesri's lack of popular support among the masses caused further damage to the party. Kesri's most controversial act was the sudden withdrawal of support to H.D. Deve Gowda's United Front government that led to the fall of the government in April 1997. However, a compromise was reached and the United Front elected I.K. Gujral as the new leader with continued support from the Congress party.
In the first week of November 1997, part of the report of the Jain Commission inquiring into the conspiracy angle of assassination of Rajiv Gandhi was leaked to the press. It was reported that the Jain Commission had indicted Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) for its ties with LTTE, the organization involved in the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. DMK was one of the constituents of the United Front that was in power at the center. Moreover the party had three ministers in the council of ministers headed by Prime Minister Gujral. The Congress Party demanded removal of the ministers belonging to DMK from the government. Between 20 and 28 November 1997, an exchange of letters took place between Kesri and Prime Minister Gujral. However the Prime Minister refused to meet the demand of the Congress party. Finally, on 28 November 1997, Congress withdrew support to the Gujral government. When no alternative government could be formed, the Lok Sabha was dissolved, paving the way for mid-term elections .
The Congress Party did not adequately prepare for the mid-term elections. A number of senior leaders of the party, such as Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, Aslam Sherkhan and other leaders openly expressed displeasure with Kesri's leadership and left the party. After Sonia Gandhi decided to campaign for the party, she replaced Kesri as the main campaigner for the party. Sonia attracted huge crowds in her campaign rallies but did not win the election for the party. Nevertheless Congress party did maintain a respectable tally of 140 seats. During the election campaign, there were a series of bomb blasts in Coimbatore, where BJP President L.K. Advani was scheduled to address the election rally. About 50 people were killed in the blasts. After the blasts, Kesri made a statement that the bomb blasts in Coimbatore were the handiwork of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and moreover he had the proof of RSS involvement in the blasts. The RSS sued Kesri for defamation but Kesri was granted bail by a city court in 1998
After the electoral defeat, Kesri was stripped of his post in March 1998 by the Congress Working Committee. Sonia Gandhi was appointed President of the Congress party in his place. Kesri's removal from the Congress Working Committee is considered by some as a betrayal of the party constitution considering how Pranab Mukherjee and others conspired to eliminate Kesri for Sonia Gandhi from the party.
Kesri, along with other members of the Working Committee including Tariq Anwar was "roughed up" at Congress Party headquarters on 19 May 1999 by what has been described as an "angry mob" and "Congress goons", following the split in the Congress that led to the formation of the Nationalist Congress Party. After his exit from the office, he maintained a relatively low profile in politics. He was also denied party candidature for Rajya Sabha when his term ended in April 2000.
- "Sitaram Kesri: President - Indian National Congress". Congress Sandesh.
- Sitaram Kesri gets bail in RSS defamation case Indian Express - 5 May 1998
- Kesri and three transitions in Cong. The Hindu - 26 October 2000
- "Congress Plans More Powers for Sonia", The Indian Express, 23 May 1999