Indian National Congress

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Indian National Congress


Founded in 1885, the Indian National Congress (INC) was at the forefront of the nationalist movement in India before 1947. After Indias independence in that year, the Congress emerged as the ruling party, and it maintained power uninterrupted for three decades (19471977). 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 hierarchythe sudras, or untouchables. The Congress became the sole representative of the national cause, leading three campaigns between 1920 and 1947: the noncooperation movement (19201922), the civil disobedience campaign (19311932), 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 all-embracing national movement, was transformed into a political party. Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indias first prime minister (19471964), 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 (Nehrus 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. Gandhis 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 (19441991), 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 (19212004) and Sitaram Kesri (19192000). 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, Gandhis 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 Sonias son Rahul Gandhi (b. 1970), who won a parliamentary seat in 2004, will play a significant role in the party in the near future.

SEE ALSO Anticolonial Movements; Civil Disobedience; Congress Party, India; Democracy; Gandhi, Indira; Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Indian National Army


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.

Sunil Sahu

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Indian National Congress, Indian political party, founded in 1885. Its founding members proposed economic reforms and wanted a larger role in the making of British policy for India. By 1907, however, the Congress had split into a moderate group led by Gopal Krishna Gokhale, who sought dominion status for India, and a militant faction under Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who demanded self-rule. In 1920 the Congress began a campaign of passive resistance, led by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, against restrictions on the press and political activities.

Although the Congress claimed to represent all Indians, many Muslims, fearful of the vast Hindu majority, began to withdraw from the Congress. The Congress was divided on approaches to economic reform; the conservatives favored cautious reform while the leftists, of which Jawaharlal Nehru was a leader, urged socialism. The great strength of the organization was shown in the provincial elections of 1937.

At the outbreak of World War II, the Congress voted for neutrality. When India came under Japanese attack, the Congress demanded immediate concessions from Great Britain toward a democratic government in return for cooperation in the war effort. The British responded by outlawing the organization and arresting its leaders. In the 1946 elections to the Indian constituent assembly, the Congress lost the Muslim vote to the Muslim League; it reluctantly accepted the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the formation of the state of Pakistan.

After partition the Congress, as the largest party, governed India under Nehru's leadership. The Congress successfully adjusted to its new role as a political party and won the majority of the seats in the next election. It retained this support into the 1960s. After Nehru's death, the party began to lose support. The leadership of Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, who became prime minister in 1966, was challenged by a powerful right-wing group within the Congress, and in 1969 the party formally split into two factions; one led by Morarji Desai, the other (New Congress) by Indira Gandhi.

In the 1971 national elections and the 1972 state elections Gandhi's faction won strong victories, but, in a reaction against her emergency rule, it lost the election of 1977. It was the first time the Congress had lost government control since independence. Gandhi (now with a new faction, Congress Indira) returned to power in the 1980 elections, called when the opposition coalition disintegrated.

After her assassination (1984), her son Rajiv Gandhi succeeded to the leadership. Although he led Congress to reelection in 1984, the party was defeated in 1989 because of scandals and became the major opposition party. Following the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi during the 1991 election campaign, P. V. Narasimha Rao became head of the party and, after Congress won a plurality in parliament later that year, prime minister. In 1996 scandal again led voters to reject Congress at the polls, but Rao remained party leader. Leadership soon passed to the ineffectual Sitaram Kesri, but in 1998 Rajiv Gandhi's widow, Sonia Gandhi, a political newcomer, was elected head of Congress and had some success in rebuilding party support among Muslims and the poor. Congress nonetheless did poorly in the 1999 elections. In 2004, however, Congress returned to power, but the foreign-born Gandhi declined to lead the new coalition government; Manmohan Singh, a former finance minister, became prime minister; the party remained in power, with a larger plurality, after the 2009 elections. In 2014, however, Congress and its allies suffered a landslide loss in the parliamentary elections.


See S. Kochanek, The Congress Party of India (1968); A. M. Zaidi and S. Zaidi, The Encyclopaedia of the Indian National Congress (18 vol., 1976–83); B. N. Pande, A Concise History of the Indian National Congress, 1947–1985 (1986); P. Brass and F. Robinson, Indian National Congress 1885–1985 (1987).

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Indian National Congress See Congress Party