When 23 senior Congress leaders wrote to party president Sonia Gandhi urging comprehensive reform in the party, after Jyotiraditya Scindia’s departure in March and Sachin Pilot’s rather anticlimactic revolt, it came close to an across-the-board-minus-Gandhis acknowledgement that the grand old party has to reinvent itself or perish. Having begun life as the all-subsuming umbrella for the freedom movement, the Congress has a long history of revolts even post-Independence
THE CHALLENGE TO NEHRU
JB Kripalani won the Congress presidency in 1947, supported by both Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel. Soon after Independence, however, a tussle broke out between the right and the left of the party, close to the 1950 contest for the post. Nehru and his socialists opposed the candidacy of Purusottma Das Tandon, seen by Nehru as a Hindu revivalist. Tandon appeared to enjoy Patel’s support, while Nehru championed Kripalani. After Tandon’s victory, Nehru threatened to resign. The crisis resurfaced when Rafi Ahmed Kidwai’s admission to the Congress Working Committee (CWC) was blocked by Tandon. A few months later, Nehru resigned from the CWC. By this time, Kripalani had left the Congress and Tandon had been weakened by Patel’s death in December 1950. Even C Rajagopalachari had been marginalised. With the first General Election (1951-1952) approaching, Nehru was seen as the only leader who could be the party’s face. And after the Congress’ victory, the balance of power within the party shifted to Nehru for the long term.
INDIRA GANDHI’S REVOLT AGAINST THE SYNDICATE
When the next major crisis hit the Congress in 1969, it was the Prime Minister—and a Gandhi—who was leading the rebellion. Tensions between Indira Gandhi and the Congress old guard, known as the ‘Syndicate’, were coming to a head over economic policy, with Indira’s nationalisation blueprint opposed by Morarji Desai. The greased cartridge was the Indian presidential election when the party announced Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy as its candidate. Indira responded with backing VV Giri. Against the backdrop of rival CWCs and open war between the Prime Minister and the Syndicate, party president S Nijalingappa expelled Indira Gandhi from the Congress. This was the first major post-Independence split of the Congress, with the Syndicate becoming Congress (O) while Indira’s faction adopted a new electoral symbol. The identity of the ‘real’ Congress appeared to be settled in the 1971 General Election when Indira’s Congress won more than 350 seats and the Syndicate’s party 16.
THE EMERGENCY SPLIT
The 1977 General Election decimated the Congress. While Jagjivan Ram, elected president of Indira’s Congress faction in 1969, broke away before the election, post-polls, YB Chavan and party president K Brahmananda Reddy moved against Indira Gandhi who, once again, turned the tables on her rivals and split the party to outmanoeuvre them. Her new party, the Congress (I), would return to power in the 1980 General Election.
FRIENDS TURNED FOES: RAJIV VS VP SINGH
After he won a historic mandate following Indira Gandhi’s assassination, Rajiv Gandhi was soon embroiled in a number of controversies—from the Shah Bano case to the Bofors scandal. VP Singh, first finance and then defence minister in Rajiv’s Cabinet, raised the issue of corruption and was soon removed from his ministry and then ejected from the Congress. Singh formed the Jan Morcha which merged with other opposition parties to form the Janata Dal. In the 1989 General Election, the Congress emerged as the single-largest party but Rajiv Gandhi lost power.
THE TURMOIL OF THE RAO YEARS
After Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in May 1991, a leaderless Congress returned to power. PV Narasimha Rao then took the reins. Leading what would remain mostly a minority Government, Rao would undertake the biggest economic reforms in independent India’s history. But turmoil within the party would plague him till the end of his tenure in 1996. In the aftermath of the Babri demolition and Mumbai blasts, as well as the Harshad Mehta scam, veterans like ND Tiwari and Arjun Singh, with the reported backing of Sonia Gandhi who wasn’t then a party member, would lead the rebellion against Rao. After Singh’s ouster from the Cabinet, he and Tiwari would form a new party.
THE KESRI INTERREGNUM
With the Congress losing power in 1996 and Sonia Gandhi unwilling to join politics still, Sitaram Kesri won the party presidency. Following the Congress’s failure in the 1998 General Election, Kesri was removed from his post and Sonia Gandhi took over in March 1998.
SONIA GANDHI’S CONSOLIDATION
Sonia Gandhi faced her first crisis in the run-up to the 1999 General Election when Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar raised the issue of her foreign origin. This ended in the expulsion of the trio and the birth of the Nationalist Congress Party. Trouble for Sonia next came in late 2000 when Jitendra Prasada challenged her for the party president’s post and lost. That would be the last election to the post and Sonia Gandhi’s tenure at the helm of the party would remain uninterrupted till December 2017.
Some prominent regional leaders and their heirs have, time and again, raised the banner of rebellion. An early example is the Bangla Congress of the 1960s formed as a reaction to the Syndicate leadership in West Bengal. A few relatively recent examples:
– In 1996, GK Moopanar formed the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) that would join the United Front Government at the Centre. The TMC’s P Chidambaram was the Union finance minister. In 2002, the TMC merged with the Congress. It broke away again in late 2014. At present, it’s a member of the National Democratic Alliance.
– In 1998, Mamata Banerjee parted ways with the Congress and formed the All-India Trinamool Congress which would be part of both the BJP-led NDA and the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Governments at the Centre as well as end the 34-year rule of the Left Front in West Bengal.
– Two years after the death of YS Rajashekhara Reddy, his son, YS Jaganmohan Reddy, formed the YSR Congress in Andhra Pradesh feeling let down by the Congress’ central leadership. The YSR Congress would come to power in post-bifurcation Andhra in the 2019