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Congress Party of Sonia Gandhi

The ruling BJP-led coalition was defeated in a five-stage election held in April and May of 2004. The party did not name a candidate for the prime minister's post before the elections, saying they would choose one after the polls. Initially it seemed that Sonia Gandhi, the 57-year-old widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, a Christian who was born in Italy, was a strong possibility to serve as prime minister of this predominately-Hindu nation. As the widow of the assassinated prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, many Indians regard her as heir to the Gandhi political dynasty. But to others she is unacceptable, because of her foreign birth. On 15 May 2004 newly-elected Congress Party lawmakers chose Sonia Gandhi as their leader, seeming to assure that a foreign-born woman will become the next prime minister of the world's largest democracy.

But on 18 May 2004 Sonia Gandhi declined to become the country's next prime minister following outrage on the part of Hindu nationalists over the prospect of having a foreign-born prime minister. Her decision stunned her party and its allies. India's former finance minister Manmohan Singh was now the leading contender for the post. A Congress-led coalition, known as the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), took power on May 22 with Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister. The UPA's victory was attributed to dissatisfaction among poorer rural voters that the prosperity of the cities had not filtered down to them, and rejection of the BJP's Hindu nationalist agenda.

The Congress-led UPA government continued many of the BJP's foreign policies, particularly with regard to improving relations with the US. Prime Minister Singh and President Bush concluded a landmark U.S.-India framework agreement on strategic partnership on July 18, 2005, and both countries are now working to implement this historic understanding. In March 2006, President Bush made a reciprocal visit to India to further the many initiatives that underlie the strategic partnership.

Party President Sonia Gandhi was re-elected by the Party National Executive in May 2005. Also a Member of Parliament, she headed the Congress Lok Sabha delegation. Congress prided itself as a secular, left of center party, with a long history of political dominance. Although its performance in national elections had steadily declined during the last 12 years, its surprise victory in 2004, was a result of recruiting strong allies into the UPA, the anti-incumbency factor among voters, and its courtship of India's many poor, rural and Muslim voters. Congress political fortunes suffered badly in the 1990s, but rebounded since its May 2004 ascension to power. It ruled either directly or in coalition with its allies in 9 states. In November 2005, the Congress regained the Chief Ministership of Jammu and Kashmir state, under a power-sharing agreement.

Since the Congress-dominated government has been in power, there had been widespread allegations by the opposition BJP and media commentators that party President Sonia Gandhi had been pulling the strings of government. Her role was more muted and nuanced. She deliberately attempted to preserve the image of being "above the fray" politically, taking maximum advantage of Congress culture, which prescribes that the party figurehead be surrounded by an "inner coterie" to provide advice, and shield the leader from criticism and dissent.

For decades, Congress culture had an "inner coterie" around the Gandhi family, to offer them advice and protect them from dissenting opinions and criticism. The family was secretive about who belongs to the inner circle, which makes it difficult to define the current membership. This complex web assisted and inhibited Mrs. Gandhi to wield power. While the BJP accuses Mrs. Gandhi of acting "as a shadow Prime Minister," she and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh defined their roles, with the PM acting as a corruption-free technocrat handling governance, who remains above the political fray, while Mrs. Gandhi concentrates on the constant give-and-take associated with running an enormous political party with tens of millions of members and a disparate coalition.

There were three components that must be placated and balanced to keep the UPA government in power: Congress, the Communist parties, and the regional/caste parties. Sonia and the Congress leadership complain about Communist obstruction, but were convinced that these parties, although ideological, were not "irresponsible." In the eyes of Congress leaders, most Communists were "pragmatic," projecting an image of looking after the poor and downtrodden, in order to mollify the party faithful, while not preventing government from functioning. While many in the Congress inner circle had some affinity with the Communists and work together with them on selected issues, they viewed the regional satraps of the UPA allies with disdain, and preferred to keep them at arm's length.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Rajnath Singh, held the second-largest number of seats in the Lok Sabha. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee served as Chairman of the BJP Parliamentary Party, and former Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani was Leader of the Opposition. The Hindu-nationalist BJP drew its political strength mainly from the "Hindi Belt" in the northern and western regions of India.

The party held power in the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Orissa -- in coalition with the Biju Janata Dal. Popularly viewed as the party of the northern upper caste and trading communities, the BJP made strong inroads into lower castes in recent national and state assembly elections. The party must balance the competing interests of Hindu nationalists, (who advocate construction of a temple on a disputed site in Ayodhya, and other primarily religious issues), and center-right modernizers who see the BJP as a party of economic and political reform.

Four Communist and Marxist parties were united in a bloc called the "Left Front," which controlled 57 parliamentary seats. The Left Front ruled the states of West Bengal and Kerala. Although it had not joined the government, Left Front support provided the crucial seats necessary for the UPA to retain power in New Delhi; without its support, the UPA government would fall. It advocated a secular and Communist ideology and opposes many aspects of economic liberalization and globalization, resulting in dissonance with Prime Minister Singh's liberal economic approach.

On 22 May 2009, Manmohan Singh took the oath of office as prime minister of India for a second term after his Congress Party's victory in India's 15th parliamentary election. He was the first prime minister since India's independence leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, to be re-elected after serving a full five-year term. The Congress party in India returned to power with a larger share of the vote in the recent parliamentary elections than indicated by pre-election and exit polls. Communist parties, which tried to block the U.S.-India nuclear deal, and the right wing Bhartiya Janata Party, the BJP, which attacked the Congress party during the election campaign for being too close to the United States, were both rejected by Indian voters. This had significance for the future of US-India relations. Much of the rhetoric in the campaign by the Communists on the left and by the BJP was to the effect that Congress and Prime Minister Singh was too close to the United States. The increase in support of the prime minister's party is an indication that most Indian voters were not of that view, and that they welcome a closer relationship with the United States.

Manmohan Singh was widely criticized for the government's policy drift and a sharp economic slowdown, and for allowing corruption to spin out of control since he was appointed to a second term in 2009. The ruling Congress party faced a crushing defeat in December 2013 elections in four key states, signaling a difficult road ahead for the party as it prepares for national elections in May 2014. Congress party faced a humiliating rout in two states where it was in power, Delhi and Rajasthan. The Bharatiya Janata Party emerged the frontrunner in these states, but it was the impressive showing in the Indian capital by a new party born on an anti-corruption plank that captured attention.

The results reflected poorly on Rahul Gandhi, heir of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, who led the party’s election campaign and was widely projected as a future prime minister if the Congress party regains power. Rahu Gandhi said he had heard the message of the people. “The Congress party has the ability to transform itself, the Congress party has the ability to stand up to the expectations of people of this country and the Congress party is going to do that,” he said.

The head of the party, Sonia Gandhi, said the results called for deep introspection. “We have to look into the way we took or did not take our message to the people… people are obviously unhappy, otherwise they would not have given such results,” she said. Her health and private life are closely guarded secrets but have been the subject of much speculation in India since 2011, when she went to the United States for surgery. In 2013 she was rushed to the hospital after she fell ill during a debate in parliament. The 68-year-old matriarch of India's famed political dynasty was admitted to a hospital in the capital on 18 December 2014 for a respiratory infection.

Sonia Gandhi and her son Rahul Gandhi -- the top leaders of India's opposition Congress Party -- were granted bail December 19, 2015 in a New Delhi court on charges they illegally acquired a newspaper's assets. The allegations against the members of India's most famous political dynasty were brought by Subramanian Swamy, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP. The Gandhis deny the charges against them, labeling them as a "vendetta" by the ruling BJP. The National Herald newspaper in question was established in 1938 by Jawaharlal Nehru, Rahul Gandhi's great-grandfather and independent India's first prime minister. The newspaper shut down in 2008.

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Page last modified: 19-12-2015 19:03:48 ZULU