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How the Indian National Congress Lost India

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The Pulse

How the Indian National Congress Lost India

India’s Grand Old Party has decidedly lost its grandeur. What happened?

How the Indian National Congress Lost India
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Soman

The Indian National Congress is a “sinking ship”; many of us have heard that by now. Yet it’s a bit astonishing to think how far the political party has fallen. After all, until recently the history of Congress ran almost in parallel with the history of India itself, to an extent where the line between these histories seemed blurred. Leaders of Congress were the leaders of India and a large part of the Indian Freedom Movement owed its existence to this “grand old party,” which was not just a political party, but an umbrella organization where different schools of thought used to co-exist together.

From Gandhi to Jinnah, from Nehru to Bose, from Tilak to Gokhale, Congress itself contained people poles apart from each other ideologically. And yet it not only remained as one party, but went on to define the political system itself in India, leading Dr. Rajani Kothari to coin the term “Congress System.” The organizational structure of Congress was so deep-rooted and entrenched that it reached to the grassroots level, to the last man, as a part of Gandhian idealism.

But Congress couldn’t uphold these ideals of working on the ground for as long as the people of India hoped it would. Much of Congress’ dominance at the center as well as the state level was due to the fact that people voted in the name of Congress, which had won freedom for the country. People felt almost indebted to the party and continued to bring them back to power in the hope that Swarajya (self-rule) would actually be realized on the ground and the days of Ram Rajya (the idyllic rule of Rama), which Gandhi used to mention in his speeches and writings, would come.

People waited for years, but neither Swarajya nor Ram Rajya came about. Instead, the people realized, nepotism and corruption were increasing day by day in the political system. It was not Ram Rajya, but the Raaj of one family — the Gandhi family. The family alone accounts for three prime ministers, who ruled the country for around 37 years, while another 10 years of governance in the 21st century was also largely led by the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.

Slowly, as disillusionment set in, the Congress System started to deteriorate. Still, it took around a decade for a non-Congress party to come into power in a state. Kerala did the honors when the left was voted into power in the 1957 legislative assembly elections. E.M.S. Namboodripad became the first democratically elected communist leader, though Congress was still a huge force to reckon with.

But things were about to change tremendously, especially in the heartlands of India, where people were now looking for an alternative. They were angry with the false promises made by Congress politicians in election after election.

The first jolt to the Congress came when Jawaharlal Nehru died in 1964. Everyone in Congress was asking only one question: “Who comes after Nehru?” Nehru was the tallest national leader of the party and India itself; his death created a vacuum in the political space, which he had been acquiring for the last 17 years since the independence of the country. Congress positioned Lal Bahadur Shastri as India’s second prime minister, but not for long. He died suspiciously at Tashkent in 1966.

With the death of two prime ministers in quick succession, the Congress party, which had previously been able to win constituencies based solely on the charisma of its leaders, could no longer do so, at least at the regional level. The fight within the party was increasing. The tide finally turned in the 1967 elections, held from February 15 to 22. Of the 16 states, only eight returned Congress to power with absolute majorities in the state legislatures.

Equally bad was the rout of the Congress’s top leadership. Seven members of Indira Gandhi’s cabinet at the center were defeated. The presidents of Congress party organizations in six states also lost, along with the chief ministers in four states. Congress was clearly losing its touch, as the party started showing the first signs of break. The party became divided into many factions like Indian National Congress (I), Indian National Congress (O), Bharatiya Kranti Dal, Utkal Congress, and Bangla Congress. Many of these factions later became defunct as they merged with the Janata Party during the emergency.

Despite the challenges, Indira Gandhi, who was mockingly referred to as “Goongi Gudiya,” emerged as a strong and decisive leader, under whose leadership India won a decisive war against Pakistan in 1971. The war resulted in Congress reclaiming its place as the most dominant player in the Indian political system, so much so that its power became increasingly unchecked. In a democracy, a government with unchecked power is quite problematic.

India belatedly learned this lesson. At midnight on June 26, 1975, an emergency was proclaimed in the country by her government, thereby suspending all democratic rights of the people and concentrating all the power in the hands of Indira Gandhi. This was done to subvert the decision given against Indira Gandhi by the Allahabad High Court Bench in the case of fraudulent electoral practices in the 1971 elections. The emergency was the darkest period in India’s independent history. The government had become authoritarian; the opposition was decimated as most political opponents were put behind bars; the press was under extreme censorship.

The 21-month emergency proved to be costly for Congress. In the 1977 elections, for the first time, a non-Congress government was formed at the center. Though, the new government, led by Morarji Desai, couldn’t stay in power for the full five years, the period was definitely a paradigm shift in Indian politics. Both people and political parties started believing that there could be an alternative to the Congress. However, it took another two decades after the Janata government for a non-Congress party (this time the BJP) to come to power and stay for a full five-year term.

In 2004, Congress made a comeback again in quite an astonishing fashion by defeating the incumbent BJP in power. Congress would spend the next decade fully in control of India’s central government. This decade, especially the second half, was marred by corruption. Telecom, railways, coal, land, sports, and various other ministries saw their names tarred under charges of corruption. Popular resentment against the regime grew prevalent among the public due to the increasing corruption within the government and the party’s inability to take any affirmative action against it. Then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was largely seen as a weak leader, who couldn’t take tough action against corrupt members within his party and government.

As a result, the party lost pathetically in the 2014 general elections, where it won only 44 seats in the Lok Sabha out of the 543 up for grabs — an all-time low. Since then, the party still hasn’t settled into a new role. It has been losing election after election across many states in India. The most notable recent loss came Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state in India, where the party got just seven seats in an assembly of 403 seats.

Most political observers are of the opinion that Congress lacks a genuine mass leader, of which it used to have in dozens in its glory days. The vice president of the party, Rahul Gandhi, has been somewhat of a laughingstock due to his lack of leadership skills and his inability to win elections.

To sum up, the Congress has lost its sheen and doesn’t look to be in a position to even pose a challenge to the current BJP regime in the 2019 general elections. If they manage to do so, the party would be pulling a rabbit out of a hat!

Worryingly, the demise of Congress means the demise of a balanced political system in India. Congress and the BJP, the two most dominant powers, used to balance off each other in Indian politics. With this balance lost, the earlier Congress System is being replaced by a newly emergent “BJP System.”

Martand Jha is a junior research fellow, at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.