The Indian National Congress


Who Created Modern India?
The British like to think they created modern India, but the firm foundation of the Indian state and the growth of a powerful Indian national identity is no less the achievement of the Indian Congress Party, a fact reflected in the similarities between the Congress flag before independence and the flag of the Republic of India.

'The Congress is the Country', declared Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minster of India in 1953, 'and the country is the Congress'. This is a striking remark to make of one political institution, and a particularly striking remark to make of one political party in a democracy. Nehru was referring to the Indian National Congress, one of the world's oldest political parties, founded well before the great communist parties or the other Afro-Asian nationalist parties, and one of the world's largest parties with a membership which since the 1920s has numbered millions. Nehru was also talking, and with richly deserved pride, of one of the world's successful political parties. Consider some of its more notable achievements: the fashioning of a sense of nationhood in what is ethnically and culturally the most diverse grouping of people in the world; the creation of the organising frame of a nationalist movement which was able, largely by peaceful means, to raise the price of empire in India to levels the British were no longer willing to pay; the almost unparalleled achievement in the annals of decolonisation of making the transition from being sole representative of the national cause to being just one element in the competitive party system of the post-colonial era, though admittedly the dominant one; winning six out of seven general elections and ruling for thirty-two of the thirty-five years since independence in a fashion which, as compared with other new nations, has brought tolerable stability and reasonably effective government.

As Nehru suggested, the Congress is responsible for much of the Indian political achievement, an achievement from which the West traditionally derives much comfort. The existence of one of the world's poorest countries as a democracy calms fears of the inevitable progress of Marxism in developing societies. The sight of hundreds of millions of illiterate peasants regularly going to the polls gives new heart to western democrats, although they would be unwise to place too much faith in peasant adherence to democracy as they understand it. Westerners tend to know something of the great leaders of modern India, of the saintly and politically skilful Mahatma Gandhi, who came to symbolise the Indian nationalist movement, of Jawaharlal Nehru, his much loved but not uncritical disciple, who became the leader of newly independent India, and of Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, who for over fifteen years has seemed to mould the development of Indian politics around her personality. But we tend to know rather less about the Congress, about the history and the characteristics of the political organisation which they have all helped to shape, and on which their achievements were based.

From the perspective of the early 1980s it is possible to divide the history of the Congress into five phases. The first runs from 1885-1916, the early years of the nationalist movement, during which nationalist leaders took part in a discreet dialogue with government. The Congress was founded when between December 28th and 30th, 1885, seventy-two 'representatives' met in the hall of Gokuldas Tejpal Sanskrit College, Bombay, to pass resolutions upon matters of national interest. There was nothing particularly remarkable about the meeting at the time. It was in keeping with the growing trend of associations to meet on an all-India level. But it was out of this meeting, and the annual meetings which followed, that the great national political organisation grew.

Those who attended were fairly typical of the membership during the first phase, largely professional people from the maritime provinces of Bengal, Madras and Bombay, lawyers, doctors and journalists. The proceedings were conducted in English; it was very much an affair of the new western-educated elite. The issues which absorbed them were those about which most could agree: they wanted more elected representatives on the system of legislative councils which the British were developing as part of their system of government; they wanted a much fairer chance of being able to win the top jobs in the imperial bureaucracy; they wanted to reduce the subordination of the Indian economy to that of the imperial powers - the alleged drawing of money to Britain, the discriminatory tariffs against Indian cottons, the failure to encourage industry. They sought respect, as individuals, as Indians, which often British racial hauteur did not allow. There was no suggestion whatsoever that British rule should be brought to an end.

If the aims of the Congress at this time seem tame for a nationalist party, so were its methods. For the rest of the century and beyond it was just an annual meeting in Christmas week which took place in a different city each year. There was no permanent organisation, just a general secretary; it was not until 1908 that there was a widely accepted constitution and a regular system for electing delegates to the annual session through a pyramid of provincial and district committees. Indeed, for much of its early life the important work of Congress was thought to be not in India but in England. It was here that opinion had to be won and much effort was expended on striving to get Congressmen elected to Parliament, a strategy which was eventually successful in the case of Dadabhai Naoroji, member for Central Finsbury from 1892-95. Something of the essentially constitutional and moderate flavour of the early Congress may be learned from the fact that great pandal or tent in which the sessions were held was usually decorated with Union Jacks and a banner saying 'God Save the Queen-Empress'. Several sessions were presided over by retired British officials, and as late as 1916 the lieutenant governor of the United Provinces felt able to make an official visit to the Lucknow session.

By 1916, however, the Congress was no longer recognisable as the tame debating society of the late nineteenth century. It was now a great political institution whose meetings were the high point of the political year and whose attitudes influenced much of educated India. Expertise had been gained in reconciling the various provincial interests so as to present the broadest possible national front to the British. Pragmatism often marched before ideology. Increasingly Congress was recognised as the moulder of the nation, as its symbol. Government had to take its views into account, and the concessions government made, like the Morley-Minto council reforms of 1909 or the repartition of Bengal in 1912, could rightly be interpreted as Congress victories. Moreover, the Congress had already given notice that it was not in the long term going to be satisfied by a steady incorporation into a British-controlled government: the 1908 constitution had declared its first aim to be 'the attainment by the people of India of a system of government similar to that enjoyed by the self-governing members of the British Empire.

The second phase of the Congress's life runs from 1917 to 1946 when it grew quickly into a mass nationalist party. No longer was its support mainly from the more advanced maritime provinces. Now it reached into every district of British India, and beyond into the princely states which accounted for two-fifths of the subcontinent. Leaders of the party came from every region, although there was a tendency for those from the Hindi-speaking heartland of the north to dominate. The party also began to dig down into Indian society as it strove for greater support in its battle with British imperialism. Membership was opened up to anyone willing to pay four annas, a very small sum. In 1921 there were two million members, in 1942, nearly five million. What had been a mainly urban party became well established in the countryside (rather before Mao Tse-Tung led the Chinese Communist Party in a similar direction) and involved in movements for land reform or against land taxes. By the 1930s most active Congress support came from the rural areas and men from the countryside were beginning to make themselves felt among the provincial and national leadership. But, although Congress had gained a mass character, it had by no means won the active support of the majority of the Indian masses. Those mobilised in the countryside were more likely to be from the elite of prosperous peasants than from the multitude of the rural poor.

At the same time the organisation of the party was, developed to meet the challenge of mass mobilisation. In 1920 a new Congress constitution was formulated which provided for distinct but linked stages of Congress organisation from the village to the national level. It paralleled the British administrative apparatus in every respect except that the Congress provinces were organised along linguistic lines to ease mass communication.

The man who formulated the Congress constitution of 1920 was Mahatma Gandhi, the son of the hereditary prime minister of a petty princely state, who in 1915 had returned to India from South Africa where he had been a vigorous and successful protagonist of Indian rights. He brought much more to the Congress than administrative skill and a reputation for political success. Basing himself on Hindu scripture, he also brought a new ideology and a powerful tactic. The right path for man, according to Gandhi, was the search for truth, and so he called his closest followers satyagrahis or truth-fighters. Truth could be expressed in many ways: if for the individual it was self-realisation, and for Hindus society it was breaking down the barriers of caste and custom; for the Indian people it was freedom from foreign domination. This political truth was to be sought through non-violent action. If opponents resorted to violence, this had to be borne cheerfully as a form of self-purification. Truth-fighters, moreover, prepared themselves for their moments of trial by fasts, penances and self-discipline. Until self was conquered there could be no true freedom. Gandhi's ideas and example gave Indians a new confidence in facing British rule. There was pride in going to jail for freedom's sake, there was real strength in facing passively the bruising lathi-charges of the police, there was deep satisfaction in being Indian. Gandhi added moral authority to the weapons in the Congress armoury.

From 1917 the party waged a battle of varied tactics. There were periods of often intense nationalist agitation which coincided with the devolution of power and the changing of the ground rules of politics, 1917-23, 1927-34, 1939-46. Gandhi was pre-eminent at such time and their climactic moments were the campaigns he led: the movement of non-co-operation 1920-22, of civil disobedience 1931-32, and 'Quit India' 1942. There were also quieter periods when some, though not all, Congressmen worked within the political framework established by the British, entering the legislative councils in 1923, for instance, or forming governments in seven out of eleven provinces in 1937 as a result of their victories in the first elections held under the 1935 Government of India Act.

Although Congress could both launch great agitational campaigns and demonstrate its popular appeal at the ballot box, it was never able to win enough support in Indian society to force the British out. When it tried to do so in the 'Quit India' movement, it discovered that it was powerless so long as the British still had the will to use their troops. What the Congress was able to do was steadily to raise the financial and moral price which the British would have to pay if they wished to remain. It was also able to capture those areas of government which the British steadily opened up for competition among Indians, town boards district boards, provincial councils - so that by 1946 its control of much of the machinery of Indian government made it the rightful heir to the British at the centre. There was just one limitation. Although the Congress embraced several conflicting ideologies, it had failed to carry with it many of India's Muslims. The cost of this failure was that it was forced to surrender a portion of the inheritance to the party of India's Muslims, the Muslim League, so that they could form their own separate state of Pakistan.

The third phase of the Congress's life spans Indian independence in 1947, running from 1946, when Congress helped to form the interim government, to 1951, when Jawaharlal Nehru as Prime Minster also assumed the Congress presidency. The problems which beset India were as great as those faced by any infant state: communal hatred as Hindus and Muslims slaughtered each other, millions of Hindu refugees from the new Muslim state of Pakistan, and eventually war with Pakistan over control of Kashmir. Force had to be used to bring some of the princely states into the Indian Union, communists launched a rebellion in southern India, Gandhi was assassinated. That India should have weathered this turmoil without falling to pieces, or becoming a one-party state, or suffering military dictatorship, as happened in many other new states, is often attributed to the strength of the institutions created by British imperialism, the integrity and skills of the Civil Service, for instance, or the apolitical traditions of the army. But the contribution of the Congress was no less important. The traditions and political expertise it had accumulated in sixty-two years of national effort were crucial to India's successful passage through this period as a democratic society prizing political solutions to problems. The values Congressmen cherished, moreover, formed the basis of the greatest constructive achievement of the period, the Constitution, which was promulgated in 1950. Congress, however, had also to change. What was to become of the all-embracing national movement in the new world of democratic politics? As far as Gandhi was concerned, it was to stay clear of the often unsavoury world of party politics and embody his ideals of apolitical social service. Congress leaders, on the other hand, felt that the Congress organisation was too great a political asset to sacrifice and decided that it should become a political party. They began to insist that Congressmen should belong to Congress alone, and it lost something of its character as an umbrella under which many parties might flourish. In 1948 the Congress socialists withdrew to form their own party, and in 1951 so did a group of Gandhians.

A further difficulty lay in working out a new relationship between the Congress party organisation and the Congress party in Parliament, a problem reminiscent of the politics of the British Labour Party, to which Indian leaders would sometimes refer by way of analogy. When the Congress formed provincial governments in 1937, they were subject to the wishes of the Congress party, and when commanded to resign in 1939, did so. But, when Nehru took the top leadership of the Congress with him into the interim government in 1946, so that the Congress formed the very government of India itself, a new relationship began to develop. The years 1946-51 saw continuing friction as the Congress organisation tried to insist that all government decisions be made only in consultation with the Congress president and working committee. Nehru, as prime minister, insisted that matters of policy were for the Parliamentary wing of the party alone; the function of the Congress president was to look after the party organisation. The matter came to a head in 1951 when the reigning Congress president openly opposed Congress government policy. Nehru forced him to resign, was elected Congress president himself, and asserted the pre-eminence of the office of prime minister.

In the fourth phase of its life from 1951 to 1967 the Congress dominated Indian politics. Controlling over 70 per cent of the seats in Parliament, and many state governments, it straddled the middle ground and was the central factor in what came to be termed the Congress 'system' of one-party dominance. The opposition, greatly divided as it was, could not hope to amount to an alternative to the ruling party but acted instead as a series of pressure groups outside it. Because the Congress still had most of its pre-independence character of a great eclectic political organisation embracing a wide range of positions, parties outside were usually able to find sympathetic ears within. Indeed, to maintain its central position, and to limit the growth of opposition parties, the Congress usually made a point of taking over their programmes and trying to absorb their leadership. If elements in a state raised the spectre of political separatism, the Congress would become the voice of regionalism; when a socialist party planned a major thrust, the Congress resolved to support the development of a socialist pattern of society. Congress adopted similar tactics as it competed for support in India's villages. The nationalist movement had mobilised but a small proportion of India's people for politics. In the 1950s and 1960s huge numbers were being drawn into politics for the first time. Winning their support was essential to the continued success of the party and the Congress adopted whatever line was best in the localities, if necessary talking the language of caste and the traditional order, although in its programme for the nation it was pledged to root out the former and to reform the latter.

For much of the period the Congress party in Parliament had the upper hand over the Congress organisation. Nehru's tactic of holding the post of Congress president along with that of prime minister succeeded in reducing the threat from the organisation to his authority. By 1954 he felt able to make junior Congress leaders president, one of whom was his own daughter, Indira Gandhi, who held the post 1959-60. The Congress president, declared one observer, was no more than the 'glorified office boy of the Congress central government headed by the Prime Minster'. It was an extraordinary turnabout from pre-independence days when the Congress president had been the leading representative of the nation.

The dominance of the Parliamentary party, however, was not permanent. It depended ultimately on the Prime Minister being firmly in control, as the years of Nehru's decline (1963-64), of Lal Bahadur Shastri's short tenure (1964-66), and Mrs Gandhi's unpromising debut (1966-67), revealed. The organisation was able to reassert its authority as hopefuls competed for power, and it decided one succession struggle in favour of Shastri, and promoted Mrs Gandhi as a temporary solution to the second. But the consequence was more than just the restoration of the power of the central organisation and the recrudescence of its conflict with the Parliamentary party. New men now controlled the Congress organisation at the centre who had worked their way up from the bottom of the machine and were firmly rooted in their state Congress organisations, true representatives of the deepening thrust of national politics into Indian society. Their success at the centre alarmed many Congress factions in the states who felt increasingly exposed as there was no longer any neutral power at the centre to protect them, or at least to arbitrate between them and other factions. They began to defect to regional opposition parties and the system of Congress alliances in the states began to crumble.

From 1967 there was a major new departure in Congress history, marking a fifth phase in its affairs which continues to the present. For the first time the Congress began to lose its grip on Indian politics, It seemed for a while to deny many of the values for which it had always stood, and then was pushed from the centre of the stage. In the elections of 1967, Congress strength at the centre and in the states was greatly reduced. The drain of Congress support to regional opposition parties continued; Congress governments fell. This intensified the struggle for power between Mrs Gandhi and the Congress organisation which came to a climax in 1969 when she, the prime minister of a Congress government, was expelled from the party. The Parliamentary party split, the majority following Mrs Gandhi, and the minority joining the opposition as the Congress (0) for organisation. How the shades of past Congress stalwarts must have shuddered to see the fabric of unity thus rent!

Without a majority in Parliament, and dependent on small parties, including the Communist Party of India, to survive, Mrs Gandhi went to the people to get a mandate. After she won great victories in the Parliamentary elections of 1971 and the state elections of 1972, all but destroying the Congress (0), it seemed that she had restored the Congress to its former position of dominance. But over the next three years the economic situation deteriorated; there were strikes, riots and a steady swell of anti-government agitation throughout the country. Congress governments fell in the states; Mrs Gandhi was convicted of a minor electoral offence which meant that she would have to resign her seat and the premiership. On June 26th, 1975, she declared a state of emergency, beginning a twenty-one month long period in which the press was more rigorously censored than it had ever been under the British, the constitution was amended to increase the power of Parliament, and therefore the Prime Minister, 110,000 people were detained without trial, some just 'disappeared'. Now it seemed that Congress and Mrs Gandhi could only be kept in power by force.

In March 1977, and to general surprise, Mrs Gandhi held a general election, seeking to vindicate the emergency in the eyes of the world and to prove that the Congress rightfully held power. She was rejected wholesale. For the first time in ninety years the Congress was pushed out of its central position in Indian politics and power was taken by an opposition coalition, Janata, the largest segment of which was formed by members of the Congress (0). It did not last. Within three years the Janata front had fallen to pieces, torn by faction and fresh elections were scheduled for January 1980. Mrs Gandhi fought an extraordinary personal campaign of sixty-three days in which she travelled 40,000 miles, visited 384 constituencies and addressed over 1,500 meetings. She asked the Indian people to vote for 'order, stability, purposeful government and progress', she made no apology for the emergency. The Indian people replied by supporting Congress as they had not supported it since 1962. The party seemed placed to dominate Indian politics once more.

Behind the turmoil of the years since 1967 lie Mrs Gandhi's attempts to restore the mechanisms of Congress dominance which broke down in the mid-1960s. Her solution was increasingly to draw political decision-making towards the centre and therefore into her hands. Between 1969 and 1974 she changed the president of the Congress five times, putting in men with no power base to speak of and moving them quickly lest they acquire one. She used the new influence over the Congress organisation she was able to wield to revive powers in the congress constitution, long dormant, which gave her a hand in the composition of Congress parties and governments in the states. Beyond the Congress organisation she worked to ensure that the president of the Republic was her man, while her cabinet was staffed in general by men of limited political clout who were shuffled frequently. Key government functions were gathered into her hands and more and more government action depended on approval from her secretariat. In the years before the emergency a highly centralised decision-making pyramid was fashioned. But, although Mrs Gandhi was successful at restructuring the channels of power at the centre, she seems to have been less able to extend this process to the Congress power bases in the regions: she remained unable to manage from above the endemic tensions among the inevitably heterogeneous support of her party. The consequence was the deep political crisis of the three years before 1975 to which Mrs Gandhi replied with the declaration of the emergency and further attempts to strengthen the powers of the centre.

Throughout its life the Congress has been an all-India party - India's only real all-India party. Its success has depended on being able to fulfil two conditions. First, it has had to win a wide enough appeal throughout India to be the only credible representative of the Indian nation before Independence and since Independence to be able to control a majority of seats in the Indian Parliament. Second, as fresh layers of Indian society have been mobilized for politics, it had to be able to accommodate within the party more and more groups, groups of increasingly varied, conflicting, and sharply perceived interests. Since the 1960s achieving this end has imposed greater and greater strains on the capacity of the upper echelons of Congress to hold the lower within the party. From 1967 Mrs Gandhi tried to impose a solution from above which patently failed. Since 1980 she has had a second chance to recreate the Congress 'system'. It remains to be seen whether she will be able to prove her father's boast still true, that 'the congress is the country'

By Francis Robinson

Indian National Congress
INC in 1885
Further Reading
Indian National Congress
by J. C. Johari

History of the Indian National Congress.
by B. Pattabhi Sitaramayya

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by Stephen Luscombe