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The Congress Party of India.

The Congress Party of India.

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Published by Anupam Gurung
Highlights the genesis and status of the Congress Party of India from birth till now.
Highlights the genesis and status of the Congress Party of India from birth till now.

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Published by: Anupam Gurung on Oct 02, 2009
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TheCongress Party India:
 The Congress in India has, by any standards, remarkable political accomplishments to its credit.As the Indian National Congress, its guidance fashioned a nation out of an extraordinarilyheterogeneous ensemble of peoples. The party has played an important role in establishing thefoundations of perhaps the most durable democratic political system in the developing world. Asscholars Francis Robinson and Paul R. Brass point out, the Congress constituted one of the fewpolitical organizations in the annals of decolonialization to "make the transition from being solerepresentative of the nationalist cause to being just one element of a competitive party system."The Congress party in India dominated Indian politics from independence until 1967. Prior to1967, the Congress had never won less than 73 percent of the seats in Parliament. The party wonevery state government election except two--most often exclusively, but also through coalitions--and until 1967 it never won less than 60 percent of all elections for seats in the state legislativeassemblies.There were four factors that accounted for this dominance. First, the party acquired a tremendousamount of good will and political capital from its leadership of the nationalist struggle. Partychiefs gained substantial popular respect for the years in jail and other deprivations that theypersonally endured. The shared experience of the independence struggle fostered a sense of cohesion, which was important in maintaining unity in the face of the party's internal pluralism.The second factor was that the Congress was the only party with an organization extendingacross the nation and down to the village level. The party's federal structure was based on asystem of internal democracy that functioned to resolve disputes among its members andmaintain party cohesion. Internal party elections also served to legitimate the party leadership,train party workers in the skills of political competition, and create channels of upward mobilitythat rewarded its most capable members.A third factor was that the Congress achieved its position of political dominance by creating anorganization that adjusted to local circumstances rather than transformed them, often reachingthe village through local "big men" (
bare admi
) who controlled village "vote banks." Theselocal elites, who owed their position to their traditional social status and their control over land,formed factions that competed for power within the Congress. The internal party democracy andthe Congress's subsequent electoral success ultimately reinforced the local power of thesetraditional elites and enabled the party to adjust to changes in local balances of power. Thenonideological pragmatism of local party leadership made it possible to coopt issues thatcontributed to opposition party success and even incorporate successful opposition leaders intothe party. Intraparty competition served to channel information about local circumstances up theparty hierarchy.Fourth, patronage was the oil that lubricated the party machine. As the state expanded itsdevelopment role, it accumulated more resources that could be distributed to party members. The
 
growing pool of opportunities and resources facilitated the party's ability to accommodateconflict among its members. The Congress party in India enjoyed the benefits of a "virtuouscycle," in which its electoral success gave it access to economic and political resources thatenabled the party to attract new supporters.The halcyon days of what Indian political scientist Rajni Kothari has called "the Congresssystem" ended with the general elections in 1967. The party lost seventy-eight seats in the Lok Sabha, retaining a majority of only twenty-three seats. Even more indicative of the Congresssetback was its loss of control over six of the sixteen state legislatures that held elections. Theproximate causes of the reversal included the failure of the monsoons in 1965 and 1966 and thesubsequent hardship throughout northern and eastern India, and the unpopular currencydevaluation in 1966. However, profound changes in India's polity also contributed to the declineof the Congress. The rapid growth of the electorate, which increased by 45 percent from 1952 to1967, brought an influx of new voters less appreciative of the Congress's role in theindependence movement. Moreover, the simultaneous spread of democratic values produced apolitical awakening that mobilized new groups and created a more pluralistic constellation of political interests. The development of new and more-differentiated identities and patterns of political cleavage made it virtually impossible for the Congress to contain the competition of itsmembers within its organization. Dissidence and ultimately defection greatly weakened theCongress's electoral performance.It was in this context that Indira Gandhi asserted her independence from the leaders of the partyorganization by attempting to take the party in a more populist direction. She ordered thenationalization of India's fourteen largest banks in 1969, and then she supported former laborleader and Acting President Varahagiri Venkata Giri's candidacy for president despite the factthat the party organization had already nominated the more conservative Neelam Sanjiva Reddy.After Giri's election, the party organization expelled Indira Gandhi from the Congress andordered the parliamentary party to choose a new prime minister. Instead, 226 of the 291Congress members of Parliament continued to support Indira Gandhi. The Congress split intotwo in 1969, the new factions being the Congress (O)--for Organisation--and Mrs. Gandhi'sCongress (R)--for Requisition. The Congress (R) continued in power with the support of non-Congress groups, principally the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Dravida MunnetraKazhagam (DMK--Dravidian Progressive Federation).With the Congress (O) controlling most of the party organization, Indira Gandhi adopted a newstrategy to mobilize popular support. For the first time ever, she ordered parliamentary electionsto be held separately from elections for the state government. This delinking was designed toreduce the power of the Congress (O)'s state-level political machines in national elections. Mrs.Gandhi traveled throughout the country, energetically campaigning on the slogan "
garibi hatao
"(eliminate poverty), thereby bypassing the traditional Congress networks of political support.The strategy proved successful, and the Congress (R) won a dramatic victory. In the 1971elections for the Lok Sabha, the Congress (R) garnered 44 percent of the vote, earning it 352seats. The Congress (O) won only sixteen seats and 10 percent of the vote. The next year, afterleading India to victory over Pakistan in the war for Bangladesh's independence, Indira Gandhiand the Congress (R) further consolidated their control over the country by winning fourteen of sixteen state assembly elections and victories in 70 percent of all seats contested.
 
The public expected Indira Gandhi to deliver on her mandate to remove poverty. However, thecountry experienced a severe drought in 1971 and 1972, leading to food shortages, and the priceof food rose 20 percent in the spring of 1973. The decision by the Organization of the PetroleumExporting Countries (OPEC) to quadruple oil prices in 1973-74 also led to inflation andincreased unemployment. Jayaprakash (J.P) Narayan, a socialist leader in the preindependenceIndian National Congress who, after 1947, left to conduct social work in the Sarvodayamovement (
sarvodaya
means uplift of all), came out of retirement to lead what eventuallybecame widely known as the "J.P. movement." Under Narayan's leadership, the movementtoppled the government of Gujarat and almost brought down the government in Bihar; Narayanadvocated a radical regeneration of public morality that he labelled "total revolution."After the Allahabad High Court ruled that Mrs. Gandhi had committed electoral law violationsand Narayan addressed a massive demonstration in New Delhi, at Indira Gandhi's behest, thepresident proclaimed an Emergency on June 25, 1975. That night, Indira Gandhi ordered thearrest of almost all the leaders of the opposition, including dissidents within the Congress. In all,more than 110,000 persons were detained without trial during the Emergency.Indira Gandhi's rule during the Emergency alienated her popular support. After postponingelections for a year following the expiration of the five-year term of the Lok Sabha, she calledfor new elections in March 1977. The major opposition party leaders, many of whom haddeveloped a rapport while they were imprisoned together under the Emergency regime, unitedunder the banner of the Janata Party. By framing the key issue of the election as "democracyversus dictatorship," the Janata Party--the largest opposition party--appealed to the public'sdemocratic values to rout the Congress (R). The vote share of the Congress (R) dropped to 34.5percent, and the number of its seats in Parliament plunged from 352 to 154. Indira Gandhi losther seat.The inability of Janata Party factions to agree proved the party's undoing. Indira Gandhi returnedto win the January 1980 elections after forming a new party, the Congress (I--for Indira), in1978.The Congress (I) largely succeeded in reconstructing the traditional Congress electoral supportbase of Brahmans (see Glossary), Muslims, Scheduled Castes, and Scheduled Tribes that hadkept Congress in power in New Delhi during the three decades prior to 1977. The Congress (I)'sshare of the vote increased by 8.2 percent to 42.7 percent of the total vote, and its number of seats in the Lok Sabha grew to 353, a majority of about two-thirds. This success approximatedthe levels of support of the Congress dominance from 1947 to 1967. Yet, as political scientistMyron Weiner observed, "The Congress party that won in 1980 was not the Congress party thathad governed India in the 1950s and 1960s, or even the early 1970s. The party wasorganizationally weak and the electoral victory was primarily Mrs. Gandhi's rather than theparty's." As a consequence, the Congress's appeal to its supporters was much more tenuous thanit had been in previous decades.Indira Gandhi's dependence on her flamboyant son Sanjay and, after his accidental death in1980, on her more reserved son Rajiv gives testimony to the personalization and centralization of power within the Congress (I). Having developed a means to mobilize support without a party

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