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Founded in 1885, the Indian National Congress (INC) was at the forefront of the nationalist movement in India before 1947. After India’s independence in that year, the Congress emerged as the ruling party, and it maintained power uninterrupted for three decades (1947–1977). Since then, the party has been in and out of power.
In the first three decades of its existence the Congress was an elite organization dominated by English-educated, urban middle-class Indians. The organization was much like a debating society, but Mohandas K. Gandhi, who assumed its leadership in 1920 and remained its spiritual leader until his death in 1948, transformed the Congress into a mass movement and a political institution with an organizational structure that paralleled the colonial administration. Gandhi expanded the membership and appeal of the Congress by mobilizing the rural population, especially the lower castes and outcastes of the Hindu social hierarchy—the sudras, or “untouchables.” The Congress became the sole representative of the national cause, leading three campaigns between 1920 and 1947: the noncooperation movement (1920–1922), the civil disobedience campaign (1931–1932), and the “Quit India” movement (August 1942). The Congress won seven of the eleven provinces in the 1937 elections, which were held under British rule following the provisions of the Government of India Act of 1935, and it formed a government in those provinces.
After independence the Congress, hitherto an allembracing national movement, was transformed into a political party. Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister (1947–1964), it retained the character of an eclectic political organization with a wide range of positions. The Congress controlled 70 percent of seats in parliament and held power in most states between 1951 and 1967. This period of one-party dominance has been referred to as the Congress “system” in Indian politics. However, the power struggle between Indira Gandhi (Nehru’s daughter, who was prime minister from 1966 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984) and the Congress organization led to the party split in 1969. The majority followed Mrs. Gandhi to her “New Congress” or “Congress (R)” (R for “ruling”), which was recognized by the election commission as the “real” INC. Mrs. Gandhi’s leadership of the Congress led to the deinstitutionalization of the party as she undermined the federal character of the party by stopping party elections and concentrating power in her own hands.
The Congress lost its dominant position for the first time in ninety years with its defeat in the 1977 elections, held after the unpopular Emergency Rule Mrs. Gandhi had imposed in 1975. Faced with criticism of her leadership, Mrs. Gandhi split the party a second time, in 1978, and formed the breakaway Congress (I) (I for “Indira”). The Congress (I) returned her to power in 1980, but she was assassinated in 1984. Mrs. Gandhi was succeeded by her older son Rajiv Gandhi (1944–1991), who lost power in the 1989 elections. When Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, the party presidency was offered to his widow, Sonia Gandhi (b. 1946), who declined the offer. Although the party held power from 1991 to 1996, the Congress was in decline as a national party due primarily to the lackluster leaderships of P. V. Narasimha Rao (1921–2004) and Sitaram Kesri (1919–2000). In 1998 Sonia Gandhi was elected party president and started rebuilding the party, especially by expanding its support base among Muslims and the poor. Her leadership did not help the party win the 1999 elections, and a small number of Congress (I) leaders led by Sharad Pawar (b. 1940), who questioned the likelihood of foreign-born Gandhi becoming prime minister, formed a breakaway party in 1999 (the Nationalist Congress Party). Nevertheless,
Gandhi’s leadership energized and revitalized the Congress (I) Party. In the 2004 parliamentary elections the Congress won enough seats to form a coalition government with the support of about a dozen center-left parties. Gandhi, however, declined to become prime minister; instead she remained the party president, and Manmohan Singh (b. 1932) became prime minister. The Congress expects that Rajiv and Sonia’s son Rahul Gandhi (b. 1970), who won a parliamentary seat in 2004, will play a significant role in the party in the near future.
- Brass, Paul. 2006. The Politics of India since Independence. 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
- Kochanek, Stanley. 1968. The Congress Party of India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- Mitra, Subrata, Mike Enskat, and Clemens Spiess, eds. 2004. Political Parties in South Asia. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Seal, Anil. 1968. The Emergence of Indian Nationalism. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
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