Congress Party, India
The Indian National Congress (INC) has, since the beginning of modern electoral politics in India in the 1920s, been India’s dominant political party. Its leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, became the country’s first prime minister in 1947, the party’s leaders framed the country’s 1950 Constitution, and until 1989, except for a brief interlude from 1977 to 1979, the party always had a solid majority in the Indian parliament. Since 1989 the INC’s position has weakened, with the emergence of a host of regional and caste-based parties that now account for around 40 percent of the seats in the Indian parliament, but the party has nonetheless retained its position as one of the two national parties capable of forming a coalition in New Delhi. Whether the INC or the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) wins power today is in large part a function of who makes the better preelection deals with these regional parties. In the 2004 elections, the INC played this game much better than the BJP: It won only 145 out of 543 seats outright, but its preelection deals gave the INC coalition as a whole 219 seats, unexpectedly enabling the INC to form the national government with the additional support of the Communists and a few smaller parties (Wilkinson 2005).
Unlike many of its rivals, the INC has always been a party of national breadth that has tried to incorporate members of all India’s major religious, linguistic, regional, and caste groups. In contrast to the opposition BJP, the INC has supported a secular state in which minority rights are fully safeguarded, though at times—such as in their complicity in the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi after Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984— some members of the party have conspicuously failed to live up to the party’s declared principles.
The INC was founded in 1885. In its first few decades it represented a relatively loose association of India’s middle and upper middle classes, dedicated to improving Indians’ political rights and employment opportunities within the context of British rule. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, under younger and more radical leadership, it was transformed into a mass party advocating for autonomy and then independence from Britain. Crucial to widening the party’s appeal to the masses was the moral leadership of Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948), who from his first noncooperation satyagraha in 1920 pioneered tactics of massive nonviolent resistance to colonial rule, tactics that would later be influential in civil rights movements in the United States and elsewhere. In the early 1920s, under Gandhi’s influence, the INC forged a wide and deep party organization throughout the country. From 1923, when the INC first decided to compete in the new provincial legislatures set up by the British in 1919, until the late 1930s, the INC used this organization as well as mass campaigns of civil disobedience to establish itself as the country’s dominant political party.
At its height, from the 1930s until the late 1960s, the INC was a strong, internally democratic party that used regular local, district, and national party elections to decide which leaders would receive “party tickets” for seats in the state and national assemblies. This Congress system —a term coined by Rajni Kothari (1963)—provided existing party leaders with an incentive to reach out to newly mobilized groups of voters from middle and lower castes in order to win party elections, and also gave leaders who won these party, state, and national elections broad political support and legitimacy. This internal party democracy has been seen as a major factor in India’s democratic success compared to Pakistan, where the Muslim League was highly centralized, and had no equivalent of the INC’s local party organization, giving it a narrow leadership base that relied on state decrees (Weiner 1990). Unlike the Muslim League, which largely collapsed in Pakistan after the death of its two main leaders (Jinnah in 1948 and Liaquat Ali Khan in 1950), the INC had a solid cadre of democratically elected senior leaders that allowed it to overcome the untimely deaths of Mohandas K. Gandhi in 1948 and Home Minister Sardar Vallabhai Patel in 1950.
The INC’s open membership was not always an unmixed blessing, however. The party’s membership shot up from half a million to four and a half million in the two short years after the party’s unexpected victory in five major provinces in the 1936 provincial elections, and Nehru complained to Gandhi in 1938 that many of these new members were more interested in the INC’s patronage power than in the ideals of the party (Brown 2003, p. 131). Corruption and the abuse of patronage power at all levels of the party remain an issue for the INC, and have periodically helped increase support for various opposition parties, such as Swatantra in the 1960s and the BJP in the 1980s.
Several years after Nehru’s death in 1964, a power struggle broke out in the party between his daughter, Indira Gandhi (prime minister 1967–1984, except for 1977–1979), and a “Syndicate” of INC party barons in the states. This struggle split the party in 1969, after which Mrs. Gandhi used her position as prime minister and her control of state resources to outflank her political opponents within and outside the party—for instance, through development programs that channeled money to her own supporters in the states and away from her opponents, and election finance reforms that effectively denied funding to the opposition Swatantra. In the 1971 national elections, Mrs. Gandhi campaigned as the victorious war leader who had just defeated Pakistan, and also on a platform of abolishing poverty. Her faction of the INC won more than two-thirds of the seats and over the next three years used its majority to push through large-scale nationalization of the financial sector, as well as large-scale nationally funded antipoverty and development programs. Both these programs served a dual purpose: fulfilling the party’s ideological goals and providing large-scale patronage resources for INC leaders.
Under Mrs. Gandhi, however, the INC became more and more centralized—the visible symbol of which was the thousands of INC party hopefuls who traveled to New Delhi before national or state assembly elections to secure her family’s nomination. In 1975 Mrs. Gandhi declared a national emergency to end growing opposition to her centralizing rule. Much of this opposition, ironically, was from INC members using the same nonviolent tactics they had used in earlier decades against the British. The emergency was deeply damaging to the party’s reputation among lower castes and minorities, many of whom suffered disproportionately from slum clearances and sterilization projects directed by Mrs. Gandhi’s son Sanjay. The emergency ended in 1977, when Mrs. Gandhi called national elections and then lost power to a hastily put together Janata coalition, which governed for two years before the INC won power back in 1980. The INC’s crushing 1977 loss did not, however, lead to a fundamental reorganization and democratization of the party. No internal INC party elections have been held since the late 1960s, and the party has since the 1970s been run largely by members of the Nehru-Gandhi family and their allies: by Indira Gandhi (until her assassination in 1984), by her son Rajiv Gandhi (until his assassination in 1991), and then by Rajiv’s Italian-born widow Sonia and her children Rahul and Priyanka.
Since the late 1980s the INC has been committed to reform of the “Permit Raj” regulation of much of industry and the economy instituted by the party under Nehru and Mrs. Gandhi. A balance of payments crisis in 1991 forced Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao’s INC coalition government to accelerate reforms, which have been largely continued and extended by subsequent BJP and INC governments. But because fundamental reforms would require large cuts in subsidies and a substantial scaling back of political patronage, both of which would threaten the INC’s own “vote banks,” the movement to reform is stop-start. In its attempts at reform, the INC government of Manmohan Singh (Rao’s reforming finance minister in the early 1990s) has had to strike a balance between support from industrialists and opposition from many of its own voters and its coalition partners on the Left.
SEE ALSO Ambedkar, B. R.; Caste; Coalition; Democracy; Gandhi, Indira; Gandhi, Mohandas K.; Indian National Army; Indian National Congress; Jinnah, Mohammed Ali; Minorities; Nehru, Jawaharlal; Parliaments and Parliamentary Systems; Politics
Brown, Judith M. 1984. Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kothari, Rajni. 1964. The Congress “System” in India. Asian Survey 4 (12): 1161–1173.
Weiner, Myron. 1990. The Indian Paradox: Essays in Indian Politics. New Delhi: Sage Publications.
Wilkinson, Steven I. 2005. Elections in India: Behind the Congress Comeback. Journal of Democracy 16 (1): 153–167.
Steven I. Wilkinson