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Congress party and its presidents: Past and present, as future nears

As Rahul Gandhi prepares to take the position that his mother, father, grandmother and great-grandfather have occupied in the past, the Congress is at its lowest ebb, electorally and politically, in its 133-year history

Written by Manoj C G |
Updated: November 22, 2017 9:59:12 am
Congress leadership, Indira Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Congress leadership, India News, Indian Express News Three Congress presidents, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and P V Narasimha Rao (Archive)

As Rahul Gandhi prepares to embark upon the Himalayan challenge of reviving his party, he has before him the examples of 16 others who led the Congress in the years since Independence. What challenges did they face? How did they deal with them? Indian Express gives a short course in the history of the Congress presidency

In an article written last year, Gopalkrishna Gandhi, the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, mused over what Acharya J B Kripalani, the man who was president of the Indian National Congress when India gained independence, might’ve said to Congressmen of today: “(Congress) is bigger than its office bearers, certainly bigger than the self-images of those office bearers… the institution of Congress president is meant to be assisted by strength, not sycophancy and visionary foresight, not smart hindsight”.

As Rahul Gandhi prepares to take the position that his mother, father, grandmother and great-grandfather have occupied in the past, the Congress is at its lowest ebb, electorally and politically, in its 133-year history. The party has survived debilitating splits, humiliating electoral defeats and ferocious internal power struggles, but has never faced an existential crisis of the kind it faces today.

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As he takes up the Himalayan challenge of reviving his party, Rahul Gandhi faces no major dissent from within; no ideological divisions either. But this wasn’t the case always. The 14 men and 2 women — giants and dwarfs — who preceded him in the years after independence faced a range of circumstances that were peculiar to their historical and political contexts, and that of the Congress party of the time. What were they? How did these presidents deal with them?

The Nehru Years: Independence and Later

Kripalani, Congress president in 1947, was a leader and intellectual in his own right, but the party was packed with towering leaders — Jawaharlal Nehru, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Mahatma Gandhi himself. Nehru backed him, more so to counter the conservative Purushottam Das Tandon. But Nehru rejected Kripalani’s view that the party should be consulted on important decisions and policy pronouncements of the government. The Prime Minister had the upper hand in the first Party vs Government tussle in independent India — Kripalani was succeeded by the low-key Pattabhi Sitaramayya at the Congress’s Jaipur session in 1948.

A power struggle erupted in 1950 when Tandon, backed by Patel, staked claim to the post. The other contenders were Kripalani and Shankarrao Deo, a member of the Constituent Assembly. Nehru had no particular liking for either, but was vehemently opposed to Tandon. After Tandon was elected despite Nehru’s opposition, Nehru initially refused to be a member of the Working Committee. He relented later, but the crisis came to a head after Tandon did not honour Nehru’s wish that his cabinet colleague Rafi Ahmed Kidwai be inducted into the CWC. The war of nerves continued even after Patel’s death in 1950. Kidwai quit the Congress but stayed on in the cabinet; Tandon objected, and Kidwai had to resign.

In July 1951, Nehru forced a showdown by resigning from the CWC. The party was wracked by full-blown war. Months later, Tandon too resigned. Nehru was elected president that October. He was succeeded by U N Dhebar, who was president until 1959.

The Kamaraj Years: Transition and Crises

Indira Gandhi succeeded Dhebar in May 1959, but stayed in the post for only a few months. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy took over in January 1960 and, in 1964, the presidentship passed to Kumaraswami Kamaraj, who had been president of the Tamil Nadu Congress and Chief Minister of Madras. Within months, the party was plunged into perhaps its biggest crisis since independence.

On May 27, 1964, Nehru died, and Kamaraj, then president for four months, faced the challenge of negotiating the transition. Morarji Desai, the heavyweight from Gujarat, had thrown his hat in the ring even as Kamaraj began a massive exercise to consult the party’s Chief Ministers and MPs. A meeting of the extended CWC at the end of May produced no decision. By then, Kamaraj had realised that Lal Bahadur Shastri had popular support; Morarji, too, had understood he was not the first choice of most leaders. Kamaraj persuaded him to withdraw, and Shastri became Prime Minister.

Congress leadership, Indira Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Congress leadership, India News, Indian Express News (Clockwise from top) Current president Sonia Gandhi and her likely successor Rahul Gandhi; a 1955 picture of Jawaharlal Nehru with the Mother of Aurobindo Ashram in Puducherry with, from right, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira and K Kamaraj; Sitaram Kesri, who presided over the Congress in a period of turmoil in the late 90s; Indira and Kamaraj, the ‘Kingmaker’. (Express Archive)

A year before he became Congress president, Kamaraj, who was then CM of Madras, had proposed to Nehru that all senior leaders holding government offices should resign and take up party work. The proposal, which came to be known as the Kamaraj Plan, shook the Congress — several union ministers, including Shastri and Morarji, and CMs, including Kamaraj himself, resigned.

The next big challenge came in January 1966 when Shastri passed away unexpectedly in Tashkent. Kamaraj faced managing the transition again. Morarji staked claim again. But Kamaraj had other plans. He wanted Indira to take over. He consulted CMs, who endorsed Indira’s candidature. Morarji lobbied hard, but Kamaraj, with the party old guard, ensured Indira secured a majority in the Congress Parliamentary Party and became Prime Minister.

Indira and Old Guard: The Decade of Turmoil

Though S Nijalingappa, Jagjivan Ram, Shankar Dayal Sharma and D K Barooah succeeded Kamaraj one after the other after he demitted office in February 1968, the decade from 1967 can be called the Indira years. She clashed with the Syndicate and the-then Congress president Nijalingappa, reviving memories of the Nehru-Tandon war. The occasion was the election of the President of India in August 1969. Neelam Sanjiva Reddy was the official Congress candidate, but Indira backed V V Giri, who won.

As a slighted Nijalingappa prepared for open war, Indira sought his removal, and the Congress faced a major crisis. The party president and the Prime Minister clashed openly and bitterly, both camps held their own CWC meetings, and Nijalingappa ultimately expelled Indira, the Prime Minister, from the party. The Congress officially split, the first major division in the party. In December, the two factions held parallel AICC sessions. The Indira faction elected Jagjivan Ram as president. The rival Congress (O) faction brought a no-confidence motion against the government in Parliament, but was defeated. Jagjivan Ram remained Congress president until 1972, and was succeeded by Shankar Dayal Sharma and then, Dev Kant Barooah, a man best known for his “Indira is India and India is Indira” slogan. He became president in December 1975, months into the Emergency, and remained at the helm until 1978 when Indira, having been routed in the elections of the previous year, took over the reins herself. She remained president until her assassination in 1984.

The Rajiv Gandhi Years: Dizzying Heights to Rubble

Rajiv became party president in December 1985. He had become Prime Minister with an unprecedented majority and had absolute control over the party. But trouble began in 1987 as the Bofors scandal erupted. The Congress lost power in the Lok Sabha elections of 1989 — crashing from a dizzying 416 seats to fewer than 200. Rajiv was the head of the Congress when the country was pushed into the cauldron of mandir and Mandal politics. In 1991, he became the second Congress president to be assassinated while in office. The party was again plunged into turmoil. In the seven years that followed, intrigue, splits and factional feuds wracked and hollowed out the Congress.

The Rao and Kesri Era: Times of Intrigue

The Congress was not headed by a Gandhi, or even an all-powerful leader, when India ushered in the economic reforms of the 1990s, and the Babri Masjid was demolished. P V Narasimha Rao faced difficulties from day one in running not just the government but also the party. At the AICC’s Tirupati session in 1992, Rao’s detractor Arjun Singh won by the highest margin. Sharad Pawar won, too. Rao played a political masterstroke — he asked the entire newly-elected CWC to resign on the pretext that women and Dalits were underrepresented. He later reconstituted the CWC and included Singh in the nominated category. Rao’s detractors made a beeline for 10 Janpath where Rajiv’s widow Sonia granted them audience. In 1994, the Congress lost in Rao’s home state Andhra Pradesh, giving his critics an opportunity to go after him. The feud resulted in Arjun Singh’s ouster from the cabinet and his suspension from the party. A breakaway faction called Congress Tiwari was formed with N D Tiwari as president and Singh as working president.

Rao made way for Sitaram Kesri, the party’s treasurer for nearly two decades, in 1996. Rao tried to hang in, but the mood was against him. The factional feuding was hotting up. The Congress extended outside support to H D Deve Gowda’s United Front government, and Kesri put himself at the centre of the power game. He pulled down Gowda’s government in April 1997 and in November, withdrew support from the I K Gujral government demanding the withdrawal of DMK ministers from the government following the report of the Jain Commission inquiry into Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

In the party too, the Kesri era was disruptive. For the first time since the Tandon contest, there was an election for the post of Congress president. Sharad Pawar and Rajesh Pilot challenged Kesri and received a hammering. But in December 1997, Sonia Gandhi announced her decision to campaign for the Congress in the 1998 elections. In March 1998, after the general elections, Kesri was removed in a bloodless coup. At a CWC meeting convened ostensibly to discuss the issue of government formation, some members sprang a surprise on Kesri, asking him to fix a date for the AICC session to elect Sonia as his successor. Kesri refused and walked out, and the members then passed a resolution appointing Sonia their party chief.

The Sonia Years: From Wilderness to Glory and Back

Sonia is now the longest serving president of the Congress party. She overcame initial challenges — with Pawar and P A Sangma walking out citing her foreign origin in 1999 and Jitendra Prasada challenging her for the post of president in 2001 — to gain absolute control over the party. And from a botched bid to form the government in 1999 to being the power behind the throne for a full decade starting 2004, she has come a long way.

Under her, the Congress ruled as many as 16 states at one point in the decade of the 2000s, but plunged to an all-time low in its history when, in 2014, it was reduced to 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. Several former union ministers, former state presidents, state ministers and Chief Ministers have left the party since 2014, emasculating the Congress in many states. Sonia has shown her own style of coalition making, in ways the exact opposite of Kesri’s. As Rahul takes over, he will have the example of his mother, and of a galaxy of predecessors, to help negotiate his many challenges.

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