One of the world’s largest and oldest political parties of its kind, the Indian National Congress was founded on December 28, 1885, by members of the Theosophical Society. The Congress led India to Independence in 1947 after a long but remarkably peaceful struggle.
The pre-independence period
The Indian National Congress first convened in December 1885, though the idea of an Indian nationalist movement opposed to British rule dated from the 1850s. During its first several decades, the Congress Party passed fairly moderate reform resolutions, though many within the organization were becoming radicalized by the increased poverty that accompanied British imperialism. In the early 20th century, elements within the party began to endorse a policy of swadeshi (“of our own country”), which called on Indians to boycott of imported British goods and promoted Indian-made goods.
First Phase of Indian Nationalism (1885- 1915)
This phase was dominated by moderates. This phase was initially called as the ‘Early Nationalist’ phase, however, with the rise of extremism in the closing stages of the 19th Century, this phase was described as the ‘age of moderates’.
- Establishment of Indian National Congress (INC): a) The INC was established in 1885, by A.O. Hume, a retired civil servant who was staying in Shimla post-retirement.
- b) He invited many Indian leaders regarding the Indian cause, and he laid the foundation of the ‘Indian National Union’.
- c) But, after the suggestion of Dadabhai Naoroji, its name was changed to ‘Indian National Congress’. The word ‘Congress’ was taken from the American Constitution.
By 1917 the group’s “extremist” Home Rule wing, which was formed by Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Annie Besant the previous year, had begun to exert significant influence by appealing to India’s diverse social classes.
The early phase of Indian National Congress
After the first session in Bombay, the Indian National Congress met every year in the month of December, usually at a different place each time.
The second session, attended by about 450 delegates was held in Calcutta in 1886.
Surendranath Banerjee and other leaders of the Indian Association joined the Congress now.
The delegates attending this and a later session where now elected by various conferences which where held at local levels. The first session of the Congress had been described as Indian First National Assembly and the nucleus of future parliament for our country. The second session of the Congress was presided over by Dadabai Naoroji. He was one of the foremost leaders of the Congress for over 20 years.
During his stay in Britain, he had formed an association to win over the British leaders and the public in support of the demands of Indian people. He became the president of the Congress thrice. He also elected to British parliament and promoted the cause of India in that body. He was one of the earliest Indian leaders to hold the view that the poverty of Indian people was the result of the exploitation of India by British. And the drain of India’s wealth to British. He was known as the grand old man of the India.
From this inception, the Congress stood for the unity of the people, irrespective of religion and other differences. The decision to hold this session at a different place every year also had the same objective.
The Indian National Congress had among its leaders some Englishmen. The 1888 session held at Allahabad was attended by 1300 delegates. It was presided over by George Yule, an Englishmen. Other Englishmen who became Congress were William Wedderburn, Alfred Webb, and Henry Cotton.
Some other Congress Presidents during this period from 1885 to 1905 were Pherozeshah Mehta, Surendra Nath Banerjee, Rahmatullah M Sayani, Ananda Charlu, Sankaran Nair, R C Dutt, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale.
This period also saw the beginning of the participation of women in the sessions of Congress. The Indian National Congress sessions became increasingly important in the political life of the country.
In the 1920s and ’30s the Congress Party, led by Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, began advocating nonviolent noncooperation. Many of the acts of civil disobedience that followed were implemented through the All India Congress Committee, formed in 1929, which advocated avoiding taxes as a protest against British rule. Notable in that regard was the Salt March in 1930 led by Gandhi. Another wing of the Congress Party, which believed in working within the existing system, contested general elections in 1923 and 1937 as the Swaraj (Home Rule) Party, with particular success in the latter year, winning 7 out of 11 provinces.
In 1942 the organization sponsored mass civil disobedience to support the demand that the British “quit India.” British authorities responded by imprisoning the entire Congress Party leadership, including Gandhi, and many remained in jail until 1945. After the II World war the British government of Clement Attlee passed an independence bill in July 1947, and independence was achieved the following month. In January 1950 India’s constitution as an independent state took effect.
What was the real reason for the establishment of the Indian National Congress?
There are two broad theories behind this:
- a) Mythical Theory: This suggested that it was the humanistic approach of A.O. Hume that was cited as one of the factors that led to the establishment of the INC. In fact, it was said that Hume was deeply moved by the political plight of the Indians, and he wanted to establish a political platform for Indians that could serve as the ‘voice for Indians’ so that the grievances could reach the British and the discontentment which was gradually growing between the British ruling system and the Indians could be minimized.
The biographer of A.O. Hume, William Wedderburn, who later on also became the President of the INC as well, deeply believed in the humanistic approach of A.O. Hume.
- b) Realistic Theory:
- The extremist elements in India like Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, etc. laid down the theory known as ‘Safety- valve’ theory.
- Lala Lajpat Rai wrote two books, ‘Unhappy India’, and ‘Punjabi’. In these two books, he explained and criticized the policy of the British regarding the establishment of the INC.
- According to him, it was a conspiracy of Lord Dufferin, and O. Hume,that lead to the establishment of the INC. In the second half of the 19th Century with the growing tide of nationalism, the aggression of Indians kept on increasing against the British policies, thus the British think-tanks derived a concept by which it was said that in between the British Government in India and the Indian public, there would be a buffer organization known as the Indian National Congress (INC).
On the basis of modern analysis, the INC was a result of many a regional consciousness uniting together under the context of commonality of interests. In fact, with the beginning of the 19th Century itself, there were many cultural organizations which were established by social reformers. And cultural organizations always lead to political and social awareness.
Postindependence dominance of the Nehru clan
From 1951 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru dominated the Congress Party, which won overwhelming victories in the elections of 1951–52, 1957, and 1962. The party united in 1964 to elect Lal Bahadur Shastri and in 1966 Indira Gandhi (Nehru’s daughter) to the posts of party leader and thus prime minister. In 1967, however, Indira Gandhi faced open revolt within the party, and in 1969 she was expelled from the party by a group called the “Syndicate.” Nevertheless, her New Congress Party scored a landslide victory in the 1971 elections, and for a period it was unclear which party was the true rightful heir of the Indian National Congress label.
In the mid-1970s the New Congress Party’s popular support began to fracture. From 1975 Gandhi’s government grew increasingly more authoritarian, and unrest among the opposition grew. In the parliamentary elections held in March 1977, the opposition Janata Party scored a landslide victory over the Congress Party, winning 295 seats in the Lok Sabha against 153 for the Congress; Gandhi herself lost to her Janata opponent. On January 2, 1978, she and her followers seceded and formed a new opposition party, popularly called Congress (I)—the “I” signifying Indira. Over the next year, her new party attracted enough members of the legislature to become the official opposition, and in 1981 the national election commission declared it the “real” Indian National Congress.
In 1982 her son Rajiv Gandhi became nominal head of the party, and, upon her assassination in October 1984, he became prime minister. Although the Congress Party remained the largest party in parliament in 1989, Rajiv Gandhi was unseated as prime minister by a coalition of opposition parties. While campaigning to regain power in May 1991, he was assassinated by a suicide bomber associated with the Tamil Tigers, a separatist group in Sri Lanka. He was succeeded as party leader by P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was elected prime minister in June 1991.
Policy And Structure
The Congress Party is a hierarchically structured party. Delegates from state and district parties attend an annual national conference, which elects a president and the All India Congress Committee.
However, the 20-member Congress Working Committee, the majority of whose members are appointed by the party president (handpicked by the prime minister when the party is in power), wields enormous influence. The party is also organized into various committees and sections, and it publishes a daily newspaper, the National Herald. Mirroring the party’s declining fortunes, the party’s membership dropped from nearly 40 million in the mid-1990s to under 20 million at the beginning of the 21st century.
The party has traditionally supported socialist economic policies within the framework of a mixed economy. In the 1990s, however, it endorsed market reforms, including privatization and the deregulation of the economy. It also has supported secular policies that encourage equal rights for all citizens, including those in lower castes.
Throughout much of the Cold War period, the Congress Party championed a foreign policy of nonalignment, which called for India to form ties with both the West and communist countries but to avoid formal alliances with either. Nonetheless, American support for Pakistan led the party to endorse a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971.
Congress is one of the two major political parties in India, along with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Congress is a “big tent” party whose social democratic platform is generally considered in the centre to centre-left of Indian politics.
Congress social policy is based upon the Gandhian principle of Sarvodaya–the lifting up of all sections of society–which involves the improvement of the lives of economically underprivileged and socially marginalised people. On social and economic issues, it advocates social justice, equality, welfare state, along with secular society.