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Why has Congress been so dominant in India’s post-1947 politics?

The beginning of the twentieth century saw the Indian National Congress as a small elite group of middle-class, English-educated, Indian intellectuals who met annually to discuss the problems that faced India and to suggest possible agreed solutions to their British rulers. Within a few decades, Congress had developed into a mass protest movement demanding an end to British Imperial rule. M.K. Gandhi had rallied the masses, particularly those in the villages, to embark on mass campaigns of civil disobedience, acting as a catalyst in building the base of Congressional support throughout India. As Congress support grew, and the prospect of Independence became more apparent, the vast ideological and religious differences that existed between the members of the Congress elite were largely discarded in an effort to confront the British with a united front. However, when Independence was finally reached in 1947, Congress was in a unique position; as an all-Indian mass protest movement without an agenda or the unifying force of a common cause.

As the elite members of Congress strived to transform the movement into an all-Indian political party within an emerging democracy, some of the differences inherent within Congress surfaced almost immediately. Gandhi called for the most dramatic change, proposing that Congress withdraw almost entirely from the political arena and direct its attention towards social problems. Exactly what this proposal would have meant in practice was never clarified before his assassination in 1948, but it is reasonable to assume that the writings of Western, particularly anarchist, thinkers like Tolstoy and Kropotkin bore some influence upon his suspicion of governmental power. The differences between Gandhi’s proposal and Vallabhabhai Patel’s intentions have been described as "diametrically opposed"and clearly demonstrate just how widespread the coalition that went under the Congress banner was. Patel sought to transfer Congress into a highly disciplined, effective political machine by removing those elements that he felt to be desirable and intrusive to his aims. In practice, this consisted of the left wing and he succeeded in alienating the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) with an amendment to the Congress constitution in 1948, resulting in their withdrawal. With so much division, it is surprising that Congress was able to survive post-Independence, nevertheless, under the leadership and guidance of Jawaharlal Nehru, it was able to convincingly dominate Indian politics.

Nehru understood that Congress had an all-embracing character and was reluctant to incorporate a single political ideology upon it. Although he personally leant towards Socialism, he encouraged consensus within the party, a pragmatic approach that proved to be one of the great strengths of Congress. Nehru’s ability, character and personality made him a popular leader, but the Congress Party itself had such tremendous advantages in popular appeal, experience and organisation, that no other Indian party could initially rival. Congress was able to utilise the support and the years of campaigning experience that it had gained previously as a mass movement. An example of the appeal and even mystique of Congress can be found in the sentiments of a voter from the Moradabad rural constituency; "I have begun with Congress, have stayed with Congress and will end with Congress, because Congress is the first party. The flowers that bloom in the field, the crops that grow in the field, they are there because of Congress." This type of loyalty, although rare, was impossible for the new opposition parties to match. Even those like the CSI, whose members had once held important positions within Congress, could not use their pre-1947 experience and reputation to such effect. The idea that a two-party system would eventually emerge in India was supported by politicians of all sides, including Nehru, although the efficiency of the Congress organisation meant that any form of strong opposition was quickly disarmed.

Once Independence had been achieved, Nehru attempted to stamp his own personal agenda upon Congress. He had two main objectives; the first to maintain his own position of supremacy within the party; the second for Congress to rule in every Indian state. His initial objective, though unwittingly aided by the deaths of Gandhi and Patel, was ensured by Nehru’s insistence that the positions of Prime Minister and President should be temporarily combined. To attain his second objective, however, required "considerable political manipulation and the use of the power of the central government to undermine the positions of opposition parties." The strong centralised government that Nehru achieved in Delhi was echoed within the regions where powerful Congress state leaders were able to deliver what the centre required, whether this be votes or the construction of roads. The central ‘High Command’ and the regional governments could act quite autonomously, although both sides could theoretically apply pressure upon the other. A continual process of patronage and mutual bargaining thus formed between these two Congressional powerhouses, building a reputation for delivering what had been promised in the election campaign.

The dominance of Congress was strengthened still further through the consensus character encouraged by Nehru. Although officially a middle party, Congress could effectively embrace both the left and the right wings of Indian politics. Opposition parties found that it was very difficult to campaign as an opposition when their own views were echoed by a faction within Congress itself. Only those at the extremes, such as the Communists on the left, or "the more blatant and bigoted forms of communalist and social reactionary" on the right, could hope to provide a true alternative. Reactions to this state of affairs were mixed. Those such as Jayaprakash Narayan, so disheartened by Congress domination, completely withdrew from the political arena, claiming that "party politics was unsuited to Indian conditions." Others were absorbed into Congress and were able to argue their stand from within, rather than from the outskirts of opposition. For those who wished to remain within politics, but independent of Congress, the most pragmatic, yet still beneficial, approach was outlined by the Socialist leader Asoka Mehta. He expressed the view that the role of opposition was to co-operate with Congress whilst India was still in the process of rapid development, not to simply oppose and compete in the traditional Western manner. This new role for opposition parties as "parties of pressure" was to offer constructive criticism and if possible to suggest beneficial initiatives to current government policy. In practise, those opposition party politicians who kept close links with sympathetic Congressmen were able to influence policy to a certain degree, whilst those who simply refused to have any sort of connection with Congress tended to be lost in the wilderness of Indian politics.

The idea that Congress acted as a heterogeneous centre ‘party of consensus’ has been generally agreed and continually endorsed by political commentators, however, Chhibber and Petrocik dispute this generalisation as "substantively misleading." In state and local elections, Congress represented itself as a number of quite different, often opposed, parties. The different regional and local disputes produced both left and right wing political candidates, each of whom adopted the party name to capitalise on the unique past and reputation of Congress, without having ideological demands imposed upon them. The divisions within Indian society have become the divisions within Congress that, while often disguised within the high command, "are clearly evident at the sub-national level." Whether Congress was an organised ‘party of consensus’ or a mass of warring opportunists, the role of government eluded national opposition throughout Nehru’s lifetime and Congress remained in an insurmountable position of dominance.

Nehru’s death in 1964 left a vast vacuum in the Congressional organisation and was to signal the start of the party’s decline, although the political repercussions were not felt until the 1967 elections. The appointment of Lal Bahadur Shastri as Prime Minister "was smoothly managed and unanimously agreed in public", appearing to have been based upon Nehru’s own wishes. However, Shastri’s death, less than two years later, threw Congress into a long succession crisis. With the general election looming, a new leader had to be quickly appointed. The new leader was chosen, organised and managed by a small but powerful group of provincial leaders known as the ‘Syndicate’. Mrs. Indira Gandhi was not an obvious choice, the daughter of Nehru being her only outstanding qualification. The fiercely ambitious Morarji Desai was enraged, having been overlooked in 1964 for Shastri and then again for such an unlikely candidate. The Syndicate used their power to silence the protests of Desai and granted him the position of Deputy Prime Minister; this was the first time this post had been held for sixteen years. Mrs. Gandhi had been propelled to power by the Syndicate to act in their interests as a puppet leader, promoting their own policies and further enhancing their own power. As a woman with relatively little political experience and without a power base, either within the party or in the country, Mrs. Gandhi did appear an easy target for manipulation; later however, it was to become apparent that her abilities had been grossly underestimated.

The 1967 election saw an end to the total political domination of Congress. The party lost power in five states and "Congress governments were toppled from three more states after the election." There is no single explanation for the result of the election, but a number of points should be considered as contributory factors. India had been hit by a number of crisis that had proved economically damaging in previous years. The early sixties had witnessed the defeat of the Indian army against Chinese aggression and the problems continued later with "a couple of monstrously inadequate monsoons which resulted in poor harvests, food shortages, famine in certain areas, a set-back to industrial growth and steep price rises throughout the system." The difference in the electorate should also be noted, for by 1967, after twenty years of Independence, Congress had largely lost its formidable advantage of association with "the freedom struggle." The appeal was still strong amongst the middle-aged and elderly but negligible to a new generation of Indian voters who, having no personal experience of their own, were only told of the struggles by their elders or in schools. Within Congress itself, a new generation of politicians had started to rise into key positions. Unlike the older Congressmen who had fought for Independence, the new breed had climbed the ‘greasy pole’ of modern politics and "they threw their newly acquired weight around with some satisfaction." This did present the problem of damaging rumours, suspicion and, in a number of cases, evidence of corruption amongst a more sophisticated populace who viewed post-Independence politics with an element of scepticism.

This did not damage the Indian faith in the democratic process however, for the turnout of voters during this period was consistently rising. The scepticism was largely aimed towards Congress and its handling of the above problems. This helped to simultaneously weaken the power of Congress and strengthen the position of opposition parties who were now far more ready to openly criticise government policy. Previously, Congress had always managed a steady outflow of defecting Congressmen who left to form their own parties outside, as well as a steady influx of new members, both from opposition parties and returning defectors. However, in the lead up to and certainly after the election, the number the number of defectors leaving Congress and setting up in opposition far outweighed the intake of new recruits. Although still in government, Congress now had to contend with a strengthened opposition, whose ambitions of ‘ousting’ them had been revived, while simultaneously relying on opposition support to maintain dominance.

Mrs. Gandhi escaped much of the blame for the 1967 election result, the worst on record for Congress, but it did highlight her difficult and volatile position. When in the summer of 1969, the Congressional Election Committee (CEC), under the influence of the Syndicate, selected Sanjiva Reddi as a presidential candidate and N.V. Giri announced his decision to stand as an Independent, "Mrs. Gandhi threw down the gauntlet." Her open support for Giri can be seen on one level as simply aiding one of her own supporters, but also an attempt to undermine the candidacy of Reddi of whom she disapproved. More significantly however, Mrs. Gandhi used the opportunity to free herself from the grip of the Syndicate. She then further antagonised them and their right-wing support, by attempting to push populist socialist principles via the Working Committee. She called for the end to princely pensions and the nationalisation of commercial banks, allowing her the opportunity to dispense of the right-wing Morarji Desai, her most dangerous rival, "on the grounds that he could not possibly be sympathetic to the ‘new line’" Her next plan of action was to ‘go over the heads’ of the regional leaders by embarking on a speaking tour to present her ideas directly to the Indian electorate.

Encouraged by the enthusiasm in which she was received on her tour, Mrs. Gandhi added further pressure and allowed the circulation of a resolution which sought to prematurely end the Congressional presidency of S. Nijalingappa, another of her great rivals. The right-wing of Congress could not reply to the actions of Mrs. Gandhi within the Lok Sabha until it reassembled in November, but Nijalingappa was able to exclude two of her enthusiastic supporters from the Working Committee. Mrs. Gandhi’s surprising response was to simply boycott the Working Committee and set-up a ‘Steering Committee’ to perform in much the same manner, but within her own residence by her own hand-picked team. The Working Committee, now entirely in the hands of Mrs. Gandhi’s opponents, "launched an unprecedented attack" on the Prime Minister and orchestrated her expulsion from the party on the 12th November 1969.

The power struggle had split the Congress Party into two distinct blocks that became two separate parties, Congress-I (sometimes referred to as Congress (R)), under the leadership of Indira Gandhi and Congress-O (Organised or Old) under Nijalingappa. Mrs. Gandhi had successfully escaped the grip of the Syndicate, but she needed to continually declare her socialist intentions in order to gain the much needed support of the left-wing groups within the Lok Sabha. Her position was not however secured until 1971 when she announced the next election a year prematurely. The element of surprise proved to work in Mrs. Gandhi’s favour, with neither the opposition parties, nor the members of Congress-O prepared for such an eventuality. Already one step ahead of her opponents, she launched a highly ambitious election campaign under the populist slogan Garibi Hatao (Eradicate Poverty), calculated to appeal to an all-India electorate by crossing regional, religious and caste boundaries. The result was an overwhelming landslide victory for Mrs. Gandhi, the largest in India’s history and a conclusive end to the succession crisis. When the regional elections followed suit a year later, commentators spoke of the return to the Congress domination period outlined above.

The ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan had assured Mrs. Gandhi’s position of dominance, but it consequently proved extremely difficult to put into practise. The new Congress-I, though numerically superior in the Lok Sabha, could no longer rely on the network of local and regional Congressional factions and ‘bosses’ to deliver their election promises. Mrs. Gandhi, in an attempt to increase efficiency, increasingly centralised the power of the party within a newly structured hierarchical pyramid placing herself at the peak; this however, simply multiplied the problems. Surrounded by a small close-knit group of advisors, including her son Sanjay, Mrs. Gandhi looked upon the organisation of the party suspiciously and the Congress Party’s "once formidable powers as an information-gathering agency soon wasted away." Dissent was widespread and unmanageable, not least for the inability of Congress-I to deliver the promised eradication of poverty. Mrs. Gandhi herself did not help the situation by growing more confrontational towards the opposition parties and aggressively in tolerant of those within her own party. Unsurprisingly, criticism of Mrs. Gandhi grew relentlessly from all sides and the opposition’s use of fasting, amongst other methods of agitation outside of the Lok Sabha, increased the pressure upon her. Jayaprakash Narayan was so incensed by the apparent irrationality of Mrs. Gandhi’s actions that he came out of retirement to lead an opposition movement that rapidly gained strength throughout the countryside. In June 1975, feeling threatened and insecure, Mrs. Gandhi forcefully requested the President to call an Emergency.

The Emergency was an extreme measure legitimised within the Indian Constitution (Article 352), to be used, as the name implies, in conditions of an emergency and crisis. Mrs. Gandhi publicly stated that the Emergency was a purely temporary measure to restore order, but with the suspension of the Lok Sabha, she grasped the opportunity to incorporate some of the Emergency characteristics into legislature unhindered by political opposition. Indeed, criticism and dissent of her was ruthlessly clamped down upon throughout India, with the imprisonment of opposition activists and severe censorship of the media. Freed from open criticism outside of Congress, she turned her attention towards the party, further centralising power and destroying the organisational network that had once, as a platform for debate and compromise, been its great strength. This power, and the ability to produce an effective political class, was replaced by the isolated dictatorial presence of Mrs. Gandhi and her small sycophantic gathering of advisors.

The decision to end the Emergency and confidently call an election in 1977, demonstrated just how isolated and ill-advised Mrs. Gandhi had become. For the first time since Independence, Congress were out of government; the dissent that had been smothered during the Emergency was allowed to surface and the Janata Party, "a hastily assembled coalition of quite different opposition groups", took office. Ranging from the Socialist Party to the Hindu chauvinist right Jan Sangh, the Janata Party had unified against Mrs. Gandhi, yet after the election was over, these groups only really agreed upon the cancellation of the dictatorial laws that were passed during the Emergency. The diversity eventually led to the disintegration of the party in July 1979, and a much subdued Mrs. Gandhi was once more elected into office.

Despite the revival of the fortunes of Congress, the Party was never to regain its previous dominance. The first phase of Congress dominance under the leadership of Nehru had been one of construction, where the network of information-gathering had been installed and consistently improved throughout the party. Delhi held ultimate command but was, through a relaxed system of consensus and patronage, prepared and willingly encouraged local, regional and central input into policy. After Nehru’s death and the poor results of the 1967 election, the party entered the second phase of its electoral dominance, or Congress-Opposition. This second phase saw the gradual decline of the party structure together with its political dominance, as it became reliant upon a growing opposition to maintain its position. It is debatable whether this phase lasted until 1993 as Yogendra Yadav suggests, or whether it was a much shorter phase that lasted just until the Emergency. As the Emergency saw the annihilation of the framework of Congress, leaving it unrecognisable compared to the Congress of the Nehru era, such a dramatic change would evidently represent a third phase. Electorally, Congress has not been guaranteed to form a government, even in alliance with another party, and this has continued to be the case. Since 1993, the Congress vote has dramatically declined, although this could be interpreted simply as a continuation of the third destructive phase of the party. In this light, the uncertainty surrounding the 1998 election, the result of which is to be announced within the next few days, is typical of the recent fortunes of Congress. The BJP have gained momentum and the February opinion polls indicate that they may have a slight advantage over Congress, reducing them, once more, to a period of opposition. A good election campaign with populist policies and the support of other opposition parties now appears the only method by which Congress can maintain any form of future dominance within India.

 

 

Bibliography

Paul Brass THE POLITICS OF INDIA SINCE INDEPENDENCE

(Cambridge University Press, 1996)

A.H. Hanson & INDIA’S DEMOCRACY

Janet Douglas (Wilmer Brothers, 1972)

Sunil Khilnani THE IDEA OF INDIA

(Hamish Hamilton, 1997)

Atuk Kohli (Ed.) INDIA’S DEMOCRACY

(Princeton University Press, 1990)

Rajni Kothari POLITICS IN INDIA

(Sangam Books, 1970)

W.H. Morris-Jones THE GOVERNMENT AND POLITICS IN INDIA

(Hutchinson University Library, 1971)

R. Sisson & DIVERSITY AND DOMINANCE IN INDIAN POLITICS

Ramashray Roy (Ed.) (Sage Publications, 19??)

Percival Spear A HISTORY OF INDIA Vol II

(Penguin Books, 1978)

 

 

 

Journals

Aroon Purie Election Special India Today International (23 February 1998)

Yogenda Yadav Reconfiguration In Indian Politics: State Assembly Elections 1993-1995

Economic and Political Weekly 32:2-3 1996

 

 

 

Other Sources

POLITICAL HANDBOOK OF THE WORLD 1997

(CSA Publications, 1997)