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The Congress Party

19471964Jawaharlal Nehru
19641966Lal Bahadur Shastri
19661977Indira Gandhi
19801984Indira Gandhi
19841989Rajiv Gandhi
19911996P.V. Narasimha Rao
20042014Manmohan Singh
2014Rahul Gandhi
It was India’s “Grand Old Party.” The Congress Party ruled the country for 55 out of 71 years since independence. But following the party’s crushing electoral debacle for a second time in May 2019, there were questions about its future as the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty at its helm is unable to counter the most powerful leader India had produced in decades: Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Contrary to expectations, India’s mammoth general election turned out to be virtually a no-contest between Modi and Congress Party president Rahul Gandhi as it became a presidential-style battle. “It is not what went wrong with the Congress, it is more of a story of what went right for Prime Minister Modi. He stood as a tall leader, as an achiever, as somebody who understood people’s aspirations,” says political commentator Rasheed Kidwai, who has authored a biography of Rahul Gandhi’s mother, Sonia Gandhi. On the other hand, “Rahul Gandhi is temperamentally not a power wielder. He is a trustee of power.”

The sixth member of the Nehru Gandhi family to lead the party, Rahul is often seen as a “reluctant politician”, despite his spirited campaign to revive the party and challenge Modi after its rout in 2014. Gandhi’s rallies drew crowds, but his efforts to project Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party as a threat to India’s secular traditions or to highlight issues of economic distress failed to resonate. His attempts to nail him for corruption in a deal to buy Rafale French fighter jets fell flat. His promise of a minimum wage for India’s poorest families was met with skepticism, even among the poor.

Modi successfully wooed voters with his message of strident nationalism and subtle appeal to the majority Hindu community. Along with it, there was another theme: he projected himself as the humble son of a tea seller, a self made man who fought all odds to reach the top post in contrast to what he called the “entitled” Gandhi who had inherited the mantle of leadership of the Congress Party. It drew cheers from the country’s emerging middle and lower-middle classes, exhausted with dynastic politics.

The Congress Party’s tally of 52 seats in parliament was only a notch higher than the 44 seats it won in 2014 in the 545-member parliament. The party’s candidates returned empty-handed in half the Indian states and in several others the party only mustered a single digit tally.Modi's BJP won 303 seats.

The scale of its losses not just crushed hopes the Congress Party would either lead a credible challenge to Modi or return as invigorated opposition - it once again raised questions over the leadership of the Gandhi family. Rahul Gandhi has offered to resign, but expectedly the party that has no second rung of leadership has turned it down. “The party will fulfill its role as a strong opposition. We need Rahul Gandhi to lead us in these challenging times,” Congress Party spokesman Randeep Surjewala said after a meeting of the party’s senior leaders on the weekend.

Rahul Gandhi also lost the Amethi constituency the party had held for 50 years in Uttar Pradesh state. Rahul Gandhi’s victory in another constituency in South India means he will continue to be a lawmaker. In another humiliating blow for the Gandhi family, his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who was appointed in a senior post to revive the party, failed to make an impact. Rahul's mother, Sonia Gandhi, won her party's only seat in the state.

Sonia Gandhi ended 19 years as head of India’s National Congress party 16 December 2017. Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, 71, stepped down formally as the National Congress president, describing her 47-year-old son Rahul as the party's new hope after it ran up recent defeats in state elections. Rahul Gandhi, the sixth member of the party's dynasty since his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru became Indian independence premier in 1947, accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of inciting "medieval" acts against minorities.

Sonia Gandhi became Congress party president after her husband and former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991 by Sri Lankan Tamil rebels. Six years earlier, his grandmother, prime minister Indira Gandhi, was slain by her Sikh bodyguards in 1984 as revenge for the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Rahul's great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, served as the country's first prime minister after independence from the British Empire in 1947.

The Congress had, by any standards, remarkable political accomplishments to its credit. As the Indian National Congress, its guidance fashioned a nation out of an extraordinarily heterogeneous ensemble of peoples. The party has played an important role in establishing the foundations of perhaps the most durable democratic political system in the developing world. As scholars Francis Robinson and Paul R. Brass point out, the Congress constituted one of the few political organizations in the annals of decolonialization to "make the transition from being sole representative of the nationalist cause to being just one element of a competitive party system."

The Congress dominated Indian politics from independence until 1967. Prior to 1967, the Congress had never won less than 73 percent of the seats in Parliament. The party won every state government election except two -- most often exclusively, but also through coalitions -- and until 1967 it never won less than 60 percent of all elections for seats in the state legislative assemblies.

There were four factors that accounted for this dominance. First, the party acquired a tremendous amount of good will and political capital from its leadership of the nationalist struggle. Party chiefs gained substantial popular respect for the years in jail and other deprivations that they personally endured. The shared experience of the independence struggle fostered a sense of cohesion, which was important in maintaining unity in the face of the party's internal pluralism.

The second factor was that the Congress was the only party with an organization extending across the nation and down to the village level. The party's federal structure was based on a system of internal democracy that functioned to resolve disputes among its members and maintain party cohesion. Internal party elections also served to legitimate the party leadership, train party workers in the skills of political competition, and create channels of upward mobility that rewarded its most capable members.

A third factor was that the Congress achieved its position of political dominance by creating an organization that adjusted to local circumstances rather than transformed them, often reaching the village through local "big men" (bare admi ) who controlled village "vote banks." These local elites, who owed their position to their traditional social status and their control over land, formed factions that competed for power within the Congress. The internal party democracy and the Congress's subsequent electoral success ultimately reinforced the local power of these traditional elites and enabled the party to adjust to changes in local balances of power. The nonideological pragmatism of local party leadership made it possible to coopt issues that contributed to opposition party success and even incorporate successful opposition leaders into the party. Intraparty competition served to channel information about local circumstances up the party hierarchy.

Fourth, patronage was the oil that lubricated the party machine. As the state expanded its development role, it accumulated more resources that could be distributed to party members. The growing pool of opportunities and resources facilitated the party's ability to accommodate conflict among its members. The Congress enjoyed the benefits of a "virtuous cycle," in which its electoral success gave it access to economic and political resources that enabled the party to attract new supporters.

The halcyon days of what Indian political scientist Rajni Kothari has called "the Congress system" ended with the general elections in 1967. The party lost seventy-eight seats in the Lok Sabha, retaining a majority of only twenty-three seats. Even more indicative of the Congress setback was its loss of control over six of the sixteen state legislatures that held elections. The proximate causes of the reversal included the failure of the monsoons in 1965 and 1966 and the subsequent hardship throughout northern and eastern India, and the unpopular currency devaluation in 1966. However, profound changes in India's polity also contributed to the decline of the Congress. The rapid growth of the electorate, which increased by 45 percent from 1952 to 1967, brought an influx of new voters less appreciative of the Congress's role in the independence movement. Moreover, the simultaneous spread of democratic values produced a political awakening that mobilized new groups and created a more pluralistic constellation of political interests. The development of new and more-differentiated identities and patterns of political cleavage made it virtually impossible for the Congress to contain the competition of its members within its organization. Dissidence and ultimately defection greatly weakened the Congress's electoral performance.

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Page last modified: 29-05-2019 18:57:09 ZULU