By Rukma Singh
The birth of the Congress party in 1885 has been one of the most momentous events in the political history of India. It played a massive role in Indian independence by being the first embodiment of nationalism at an all-India level. As such, the Indian National Congress became synonymous to the nationalist processes in India. Indian historian Bipin Chandra rightly argues that the foundation of the Congress was the natural outcome of the political awareness and work done by various bodies in the years between 1850 and 1885.
A long-lasting myth surrounding the Indian National Congress is the myth of the “safety valve”. A.O. Hume and other Britishers believed that the educated Indians may become leaders of the Indian public and organize a rebellion against the government. To handle this, the British Government itself decided to provide a platform to people to channel their opposition. The myth, however, was later busted by researchers. It is important to note that even though the safety valve theory isn’t entirely correct, Gokhale recognized and accepted the contribution of British. “No Indian could have started the Indian National Congress…if an Indian had come forward to start such a movement embracing all Indians, the officials in India would not have allowed the movement to come into existence,” argued Gokhale.
Earliest nationalists cooperated with Hume because they did not want to encourage official hostility at the onset itself.
The Post-Independence Congress
From 1951 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru, the paramount leader of the Indian independence movement under the tutelage of Mahatma Gandhi dominated the Congress Party, which won overwhelming victories in the elections of 1951–52, 1957, and 1962. It was only in 1964 that the future of Congress came into question following the death of Nehru. Kamaraj, the President of the All India Congress Committee, brought Lal Bahadur Shastri to power, who eventually died under mysterious circumstances in 1966. The next Prime Minister was Indira Gandhi, appointed by the Syndicate (group of senior Congress partymembers) so that they could have an upper edge in the party by directing the young prime minister. However, that plan failed and Indira Gandhi’s lack of dependence on the Syndicate led to her expulsion from the party. Undeterred, she went ahead and created another party which won with a massive majority in 1971, due to the significant support from the lower strata of the society, behind the garb of progressive socialism.
One of the first instances of the downfall of the Congress party came about in 1975, with complaints about increasing authoritarianism gaining impetus. What followed was the declaration of emergency, resulting in the party’s complete loss of support. The 19 months of emergency saw widespread oppression and abuse of power by Gandhi’s unelected younger son, Sanjay Gandhi and his close associates. This period of oppression ended when on 23 January 1977, Indira Gandhi called for fresh elections to the Lok Sabha and released all political prisoners. Not surprisingly, the new Congress with 153 seats lost to the Janata party that had a landslide victory with 295 seats. But Indira Gandhi continued the fight by forming a new faction called Congress I (Indira) to signify the independence of the party. Over the next year, her party attracted enough members to become a significant opposition party. In 1980, Congress (I) won with a massive majority and was declared as the real Indian National Congress by the National Election Commission.
In 1984,the whole country was in a state of shock when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards, expressing their anger over her decision to allow the Indian Army to establish control over the Golden Temple. The 1984 anti Sikh riots occurred after her death, marking the loss of over 30,000 lives.
The Rajiv Gandhi period
Following the assassination, Rajiv Gandhi, upon being made the Prime Minister, led the party to a massive victory with 401 seats. Gandhi was regarded as a nonabrasive person who consulted other party members and refrained from hasty decisions.The Bofors Scam shattered his image as an honest politician; however he was posthumously cleared over this allegation in 2004. On 21 May 1991, Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber associated with the Tamil Tigers.
The entry of Sonia Gandhi
Following the lowest ever seat tally of Congress in 1998, party members requested Sonia Gandhi-widow of Rajiv Gandhi, who had earlier refrained from participating in politics, to enter the party. Angered by the inclusion of a Non-Indian member, a group of members, led by Sharad Pawar went ahead and formed the National Congress Party (NCP). Sonia Gandhi’s leadership failed to have an impact initially. However, as time passed, the wise campaigning targeting social inclusion and common man’s benefit coupled with the formation of coalition government (forming the United Progressive Alliance), resulted in the massive victory of UPA government.
By the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, however, the party had lost much of its popular support, majorly because of several years of poor economic conditions in the country and growing concerns over a series of corruption scandals including 2G Spectrum Scam and Coal Scam.
The Indian National Congress saw a massive defeat in the 2014 parliamentary election. For more than three-quarters of a century, it dominated the landscape of Indian politics. But this changed significantly after Congress managed to win just 44 of 543 Lok Sabha seats, accompanied by a lack of strong base in any part of the country. Political Scientist, Zoya Hassan analyzes the reasons behind the momentous downfall, and what comes across as the main influencing factor is the dominating organizational weaknesses. Under Indira Gandhi, Congress moved on from being a dominant democratic party with a formidable organization, distributing patronage in exchange of electoral support, to a family centred political organization. Another basic problem emerges from the lack of new, able and popular leaders. The huge dependence and trust put in the Gandhis might not necessarily work for the betterment of the party, till the time new voices aren’t given space. An evidence has been given by Sanjay Baru in his book ‘The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh’, where points out that the Prime Minister let Rahul Gandhi take credit for NREGA and UPA winning a second term. When the idea of rural employment guarantee scheme was floated, it was Manmohan Singh who was in favour in implementing this programme at the national level but when the program started, there was a Gandhi family stooge who came up to Baru with a request to release a statement that said that it was Rahul Gandhi who urged Manmohan Singh to extend the scope of NREGA to all the 500-odd rural districts in the country.
For Congress to regain its credibility, the need of the hour is the re-structuring of social democratic values of welfare and pluralism. What is essential is to work on the adoption of a suitable platform of revival, one which does not depend only and entirely on the Gandhi family.