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Congress Party of Indira Gandhi

Indira Gandhi asserted her independence from the leaders of the party organization by attempting to take the party in a more populist direction. She ordered the nationalization of India's fourteen largest banks in 1969, and then she supported former labor leader and Acting President Varahagiri Venkata Giri's candidacy for president despite the fact that the party organization had already nominated the more conservative Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. After Giri's election, the party organization expelled Indira Gandhi from the Congress and ordered the parliamentary party to choose a new prime minister. Instead, 226 of the 291 Congress members of Parliament continued to support Indira Gandhi. The Congress split into two in 1969, the new factions being the Congress (O)--for Organisation--and Mrs. Gandhi's Congress (R)--for Requisition. The Congress (R) continued in power with the support of non-Congress groups, principally the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK--Dravidian Progressive Federation).

With the Congress (O) controlling most of the party organization, Indira Gandhi adopted a new strategy to mobilize popular support. For the first time ever, she ordered parliamentary elections to be held separately from elections for the state government. This delinking was designed to reduce the power of the Congress (O)'s state-level political machines in national elections. Mrs. Gandhi traveled throughout the country, energetically campaigning on the slogan "garibi hatao " (eliminate poverty), thereby bypassing the traditional Congress networks of political support. The strategy proved successful, and the Congress (R) won a dramatic victory. In the 1971 elections for the Lok Sabha, the Congress (R) garnered 44 percent of the vote, earning it 352 seats. The Congress (O) won only sixteen seats and 10 percent of the vote. The next year, after leading India to victory over Pakistan in the war for Bangladesh's independence, Indira Gandhi and the Congress (R) further consolidated their control over the country by winning fourteen of sixteen state assembly elections and victories in 70 percent of all seats contested.

The public expected Indira Gandhi to deliver on her mandate to remove poverty. However, the country experienced a severe drought in 1971 and 1972, leading to food shortages, and the price of food rose 20 percent in the spring of 1973. The decision by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) to quadruple oil prices in 1973-74 also led to inflation and increased unemployment. Jayaprakash (J.P) Narayan, a socialist leader in the preindependence Indian National Congress who, after 1947, left to conduct social work in the Sarvodaya movement (sarvodaya means uplift of all), came out of retirement to lead what eventually became widely known as the "J.P. movement." Under Narayan's leadership, the movement toppled the government of Gujarat and almost brought down the government in Bihar; Narayan advocated a radical regeneration of public morality that he labelled "total revolution."

After the Allahabad High Court ruled that Mrs. Gandhi had committed electoral law violations and Narayan addressed a massive demonstration in New Delhi, at Indira Gandhi's behest, the president proclaimed an Emergency on June 25, 1975. That night, Indira Gandhi ordered the arrest of almost all the leaders of the opposition, including dissidents within the Congress. In all, more than 110,000 persons were detained without trial during the Emergency.

Indira Gandhi's rule during the Emergency alienated her popular support. After postponing elections for a year following the expiration of the five-year term of the Lok Sabha, she called for new elections in March 1977. The major opposition party leaders, many of whom had developed a rapport while they were imprisoned together under the Emergency regime, united under the banner of the Janata Party. By framing the key issue of the election as "democracy versus dictatorship," the Janata Party -- the largest opposition party -- appealed to the public's democratic values to rout the Congress (R). The vote share of the Congress (R) dropped to 34.5 percent, and the number of its seats in Parliament plunged from 352 to 154. Indira Gandhi lost her seat.

The inability of Janata Party factions to agree proved the party's undoing. Indira Gandhi returned to win the January 1980 elections after forming a new party, the Congress (I--for Indira), in 1978.

The Congress (I) largely succeeded in reconstructing the traditional Congress electoral support base of Brahmans (see Glossary), Muslims, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes that had kept Congress in power in New Delhi during the three decades prior to 1977. The Congress (I)'s share of the vote increased by 8.2 percent to 42.7 percent of the total vote, and its number of seats in the Lok Sabha grew to 353, a majority of about two-thirds. This success approximated the levels of support of the Congress dominance from 1947 to 1967. Yet, as political scientist Myron Weiner observed, "The Congress party that won in 1980 was not the Congress party that had governed India in the 1950s and 1960s, or even the early 1970s. The party was organizationally weak and the electoral victory was primarily Mrs. Gandhi's rather than the party's." As a consequence, the Congress's appeal to its supporters was much more tenuous than it had been in previous decades.

Indira Gandhi's dependence on her flamboyant son Sanjay and, after his accidental death in 1980, on her more reserved son Rajiv gives testimony to the personalization and centralization of power within the Congress (I). Having developed a means to mobilize support without a party organization, she paid little attention to maintaining that support. Rather than allowing intraparty elections to resolve conflicts and select party leaders, Indira Gandhi preferred to fill party posts herself with those loyal to her. As a result, party leaders at the state level lost their legitimacy among the rank and file because their positions depended on the whims of Indira Gandhi rather than on the extent of their popular support. In addition, centralization and the demise of democracy within the party disrupted the flow of information about local circumstances to party leaders and curtailed the ability of the Congress (I) to adjust to social change and incorporate new leaders.

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Page last modified: 16-12-2013 18:44:31 ZULU