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The Legacy of Congress

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By P. V. Swati:

The nature of Indian politics in the last six decades has attained several transformations which, if not constant, have been there from time to time.  To understand these changes better, the best way is to trace down the role of Congress party in these years of transformation, as it’s evident that it has contributed majorly to the Indian politics, down from the years immediately after independence to contemporary political scenario.   But, it is also significant to analyze that the congress as the political party went through a lot of changes in itself all these years which brought along various phases of Indian politics.

Congress with its nationalist legacy and a leadership like Nehru undoubtedly had a strong political grip immediately after independence, so much that the party and the Government were almost the same.  The inclusive character of the national movement led by the congress enabled it to attract significant sections, groups and interests making it a broad-based social and ideological coalition.  Over time a ‘Congress system’ culminated which was based on the consensus building machine, constantly involving negotiations and accommodations.  There were oppositions within the congress.  The various factions at the State and the Central level were held in a chain and there was no scope for the State-Centre problems.  Instead of confrontations like in the case of Hard-Line parties, in congress there were accommodations of various ideologies.

By 1960s, these characters of congress began to fade away.  The notion of being in power became more important to the members than working for the people.  Besides, the party members in the government became too powerful.  To check on this, the party adopted the “Kamaraj Plan”.  Kamaraj asked the older congress member to give way to the new people in the government and just work for the party.  This in a way made Nehru’s position more powerful as there was nobody to counter his power in the government.  Besides, at that point, any varied opinion from Nehru was seen as a challenge to the parties and the process of nation-building.

Following Nehru’s demise in 1964, the parties lost a sense of leadership.  In 1967 elections, congress, for the first time, lost in 5-6 assemblies.  This loss was a hard blow to Indira Gandhi who just came to power succeeding Lal Bahadhur Shastri.  This reflected the emergence of new socio-economic groups.  There were sections which were opposed to congress’ policy of license-quota —permit raj and the inefficiency of various land reforms that were introduced.  People now were often unhappy with the ambiguous ideological positions of the congress.

By 1969, a factional rivalry developed between Indira Gandhi and “Syndicate”, a group of powerful and influential leaders from within the congress.  This rivalry deepened further with the clash over the presidential elections.  N. Sanjeeva Reddy was the official congress candidate, but Indira Gandhi retaliated by backing V.V. Giri as an independent candidate.  Ultimately, V.V. Giri won and the defeat of official congress candidate formalized the split in the party.  Indira Gandhi and her followers went on to form Congress [Requistionists] and the party retained by syndicate came to be the Congress [Organization].

With this, Indira Gandhi’s congress [R] was in an immediate need for legitimacy to establish itself independently.  At that point, came the Bangladesh war of 1971.  A victory against Pakistan undoubtedly reflected a sweeping victory for Indira Gandhi in elections with the 2/3rd majority in the Parliament. Congress came back to a powerful position unlike 1967 and Indira Gandhi had a firmer grip over her position.

In 1975, the unfortunate Emergency happened lasting for two years, proving extremely unhealthy for not only the Indian democracy, but also for Congress’s position. The rural elite and emerging middle class in the Northern India and Muslims in many parts of India were extremely unhappy with the various atrocities Congress imposed. As a result in 1977 elections, the newly formed Janata Party came to power. The Janata Party had various kinds of ideological groups within it, of them the three most significant were Bharatiya Janata Sangh, Socialist Party and a few members of Congress [o]. But as soon as the party came to power there were clashes over the post of prime minister and various other issues. With this the party was dissolve in 1980 and in the same year the Bharatiya Janata Party and many other right wing parties were formed with members of Janata Party.

Though Congress came back to power after this there was a reconfiguration of the party system in India by then. Thus, from 1980s the states came to play a larger role. There was greater assertion of state governments in determining the nature of power in the centre. One of the reasons behind this was the emergence of regional elite. There were also many groups breaking away from Congress, especially in the Southern states 1980s onwards. There were new classes and groups who were not satisfied with Congress’s ‘catch all’ policy.

In 1984 after the assassination of Indhira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi took over in a troubled situation. The Sikh riots and adding on to that was the Muslim Women’s Bill which was seen as a tilt towards minority. To succeed the majority votes Rajiv Gandhi switched to a majority orientation. With this Congress lost its secular character which was a cardinal principle of Nehruvian Consensus. Along with this the three Ms entered the Congress politics- Mandal, Mandir and Market. In the initial years Congress ignored the demand of Backward Castes; it was after the Mandal Commission came out with its report that the issue caught some fire. But, congress still ignored and with this Mandal Commission became the symbol around which the politics of Other Backward Castes was built in North India.

The economic policy of India started to transform from 1980s and there was no initial resistance in market or politically to the adoption of new market policies. The further political changes and power equation just accelerated this new economic policy and led the Indian market to a new phase.

The already shaky secular character of Congress was further suspected when Rajiv Gandhi opened the locks of the controversial Ram Janam Bhoomi. This marked the Mandir issue which was one of the events which marked the contemporary Indian politics and changes in the working of Congress system. Thus, these three Ms in a way characterized the nature of Indian politics.

As I discussed earlier the Congress party and the government have been almost coterminous for most of the political process in India.  Hence, any change within Congress as a political party at any point has had an equal impact on the then political scenario. Even in the contemporary era of coalitional governments, Congress still is a significant political party and has an influence in both social and political space in India. Thus, though there might be a transformation in the nature of Congress party contrasting its working with early year’s immediately after independence, it still mobilizes considerable political power. The days of ‘Congress system’ are over, but Congress is no where absent as a political player.

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  1. Karmanye

    A nice article broadly summing up the history of the Congress.

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