The history of the Indian National Congress (INC) falls into two distinct eras:The pre-independence era, when the party was the umbrella organisation leading the campaign for independence;
The post-independence era, when the party has had a prominent place in Indian politics.
The Congress was founded in 1885 by Indian and British members of the Theosophical Society movement, including Scotsman Allan Octavian Hume. It has been suggested that the idea was conceived in a private meeting of 17 men after a Theosophical Convention held in Madras in December 1884. Hume took the initiative, and in March 1885 the first notice convening the first Indian National Union to meet in Poona the following December was issued.
Its objective was to obtain a greater share in government for educated Indians and to create a platform for civic and political dialogue between educated Indians and the British Raj. The Congress met each December. The first meeting was scheduled to be held in Poona, but due to a cholera outbreak there it was shifted to Bombay. Hume organised the first meeting in Bombay with the approval of the Viceroy Lord Dufferin. Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee was the first president of the Congress; the first session was held from 28–31 December 1885, and was attended by 72 delegates. Representing each province of India, the Party's delegates comprised 54 Hindus and 2 Muslims; the rest were of Parsi and Jain backgrounds.
Within the next few years, the demands of the Congress became more radical in the face of constant opposition from the British government, and the party decided to advocate in favour of the independence movement because it would allow a new political system in which the Congress could be a major party. By 1905, a division between the moderates led by Gokhale—who downplayed public agitation—and the new "extremists"—who advocated agitation and regarded the pursuit of social reform as a distraction from nationalism—opened. Bal Gangadhar Tilak—who tried to mobilise Hindu Indians by appealing to an explicitly Hindu political identity displayed in the annual public Ganapati festivals he inaugurated in western India—was prominent among the extremists.
The Congress included a number of prominent political figures; Dadabhai Naoroji, a member of the sister Indian National Association was elected president of the party in 1886 and was the first Indian Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons (1892–95). It also included Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Lala Lajpat Rai, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mohammed Ali Jinnah—later leader of the Muslim League and instrumental in the creation of Pakistan. The Congress was transformed into a mass movement by Surendranath Banerjea and Sir Henry Cotton during the partition of Bengal in 1905 and the resultant Swadeshi movement.
Mahatma Gandhi returned from South Africa in 1915. With the help of the moderate group led by Ghokhale, Gandhi became president of the Congress, and formed an alliance with the Khilafat Movement. In protest, a number of leaders, Chittaranjan Das, Annie Besant, and Motilal Nehru, resigned to set up the Swaraj Party. The Khilafat movement collapsed and the Congress was split. After the First World War, the party became associated with Mahatma Gandhi, who remained its unofficial spiritual leader and icon.
The rise of Gandhi's popularity and his Satyagraha art of revolution led to support from Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, Khan Mohammad Abbas Khan, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Chakravarti Rajgopalachari, Dr. Anugraha Narayan Sinha, Jayaprakash Narayan, Jivatram Kripalani, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. The prevailing nationalism, Gandhi's popularity, and polices aimed at eradicating caste differences, untouchability, poverty, and religious and ethnic divisions, the Congress became a forceful and dominant group. Although its members were predominantly Hindu, it had members from other religions, economic classes, and ethnic and linguistic groups.
At the Congress' 1929 Lahore session under the presidency of Jawaharlal Nehru, Purna Swaraj (complete independence) was declared as the party's goal, declaring 26 January 1930 as "Purna Swaraj Diwas", Independence Day. The same year, Srinivas Iyenger was expelled from the party for demanding full independence, not just home rule as demanded by Gandhi.
The British government allowed provincial elections in India in the winter of 1936–37 under the Government of India Act 1935. Elections were held in eleven provinces – Madras, Central Provinces, Bihar, Orissa, United Provinces, Bombay Presidency, Assam, NWFP, Bengal, Punjab and Sindh. After contesting these elections, the Indian National Congress gained power in eight of the provinces – the three exceptions were Bengal, Punjab, and Sindh. The All-India Muslim League failed to form the government in any province. The Congress ministries resigned in October and November 1939 in protest against Viceroy Lord Linlithgow's declaration that India was a belligerent in the Second World War without consulting the Indian people.
In 1939, Subhas Chandra Bose, the elected president in both 1938 and 1939, resigned from the Congress over the selection of the working committee. The party was not the sole representative of the Indian polity – other parties including Hindu Mahasabha and Forward Bloc. The party was an umbrella organisation, sheltering radical socialists, traditionalists, and Hindu and Muslim conservatives. All the socialist groupings, including the Congress Socialist Party, Krishak Praja Party, and Swarajya Party, were expelled by Gandhi, along with Subhas Chandra Bose in 1939.
In 1943 Azad Hind, an Indian provisional government, had been established in Singapore and was supported by Japan.
In 1946 Indian soldiers, who had fought alongside the Japanese during World War II, were tried by the British in the INA trials. In response the Congress helped to form the INA Defence Committee, which assembled a legal team to defend the case of the soldiers of the Azad Hind government. The team included several famous lawyers, including Bhulabhai Desai, Asaf Ali, and Jawaharlal Nehru. The same year, Congress members initially supported the sailors who led the Royal Indian Navy mutiny, but they withdrew support at the critical juncture and the mutiny failed.
After Indian independence in 1947, the Indian National Congress became the dominant political party in the country. In 1952, in the first general election held after Independence, the party swept to power in the national parliament and most state legislatures. The party held power nationally until 1977 when it was defeated by the Janata coalition. It returned to power in 1980 and ruled until 1989, when it was once again defeated. It formed the government in 1991 at the head of a coalition, as well as in 2004 and 2009, when it led the United Progressive Alliance. During this period the Congress remained centre-left in its social policies while steadily shifting from a socialist to a neoliberal economic outlook. The Party's rivals at state level has been national parties the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPM), and various regional parties such as the Telugu Desam Party.
From 1951 until his death in 1964, Jawaharlal Nehru was the Congress' paramount leader under the tutelage of Mahatma Gandhi, whose Indian independence movement dominated the Congress Party. Congress gained power in landslide victories in the general elections of 1951–52, 1957, and 1962. During his tenure, Nehru implemented policies based on import substitution industrialisation and advocated a mixed economy, where the government-controlled public sector co-existed with the private sector. He believed the establishment of basic and heavy industries was fundamental to the development and modernisation of the Indian economy. The Nehru government directed investment primarily into key public sector industries – steel, iron, coal, and power – promoting their development with subsidies and protectionist policies. Nehru embraced secularism, socialistic economic practices based on state-driven industrialisation, and a non-aligned and non-confrontational foreign policy that became typical of the modern Congress Party. The policy of non-alignment during the Cold War meant Nehru received financial and technical support from both the Eastern Bloc and the Western Bloc to build India's industrial base from nothing.
During his period in office, there were four known assassination attempts on Nehru. The first attempt on his life was during partition in 1947 while he was visiting North-West Frontier Province in a car. The second was by a knife-wielding rickshaw-puller in Maharashtra in 1955. The third attempt happened in Bombay in 1956. The fourth was a failed bombing attempt on railway tracks in Maharashtra in 1961. Despite threats to his life, Nehru despised having excess security personnel around him and did not like his movements to disrupt traffic. In 1964, Nehru died because of an aortic dissection, raising questions about the party's future.
After Nehru's death, K. Kamaraj became the president of the All India Congress Committee. Kamaraj had also been involved in the Indian independence movement and he introduced education to millions of the rural poor by providing free education along with a free midday meal, when he was chief minister of Tamil Nadu (1954–63).
As a member of "the syndicate", a group within the Congress, he proposed the Kamaraj Plan that encouraged six Congress chief ministers and six senior cabinet ministers to resign to take up party work. Kamaraj was widely credited as the "kingmaker" in Indian politics for bringing Lal Bahadur Shastri to power in 1964. No leader except Shastri had Nehru's popular appeal. Shastri became a national hero following the victory in the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965. His slogan, "Jai Jawan Jai Kisan" ("Hail the soldier, Hail the farmer"), became very popular during the war. Shastri retained many members of Nehru's Council of Ministers; T. T. Krishnamachari was retained as the Finance Minister of India, as was Defence Minister Yashwantrao Chavan. Shastri appointed Swaran Singh to succeed him as External Affairs Minister.
Shashtri appointed Indira Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter and former party president, Minister of Information and Broadcasting. Gulzarilal Nanda continued as the Minister of Home Affairs. As Prime Minister, Shastri continued Nehru's policy of non-alignment but built closer relations with the Soviet Union. In the aftermath of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, and the formation of military ties between the China and Pakistan, Shastri's government expanded the defence budget of India's armed forces. He also promoted the White Revolution – a national campaign to increase the production and supply of milk by creating National Dairy Development Board.
The Madras anti-Hindi agitation of 1965 occurred during Shastri's tenure. On 11 January 1966, a day after signing the Tashkent Declaration, Shastri died in Tashkent, reportedly of a heart attack but the circumstances of his death remain mysterious.
After Shastri's death, the Congress elected Indira Gandhi as leader over Morarji Desai. Once again, politician K. Kamaraj was instrumental in achieving this result. In 1967, following a poor performance in the general election, Indira Gandhi started moving towards the political left. In 1969, she was in dispute with senior party leaders on a number of issues; the party president S. Nijalingappa expelled her from the Congress. Gandhi launched her own faction of the IRC, retaining the support of most of the Congress MPs, 65 of which supported the original party.
In the mid-term parliamentary elections held in 1971, the Gandhi-led Congress (R) Party won a landslide victory on a platform of progressive policies such as the elimination of poverty (Garibi Hatao). The policies of the Congress (R) Party under Gandhi before the 1971 elections included proposals to abolish the Privy Purse to former rulers of the Princely states and the 1969 nationalisation of the 14 largest banks in India.
In the mid-1970s, the New Congress Party's popular support began to wane. From 1975, Gandhi's government grew increasingly more authoritarian and unrest among the opposition grew. On 12 June 1975, the High Court of Allahabad declared Indira Gandhi's election to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India's parliament, void on the grounds of electoral malpractice. However, Gandhi rejected calls to resign and announced plans to appeal to the Supreme Court. She moved to restore order by ordering the arrest of most of the opposition participating in the unrest. In response to increasing disorder and lawlessness, Gandhi's cabinet and government recommended that President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed declare a State of Emergency, which he declared on 25 June 1975 based on the provisions of Article 352 of the Constitution.
During the nineteen-month emergency, widespread oppression and abuse of power by Gandhi's unelected younger son and political heir Sanjay Gandhi and his close associates occurred. This period of oppression ended on 23 January 1977, when Gandhi released all political prisoners and called fresh elections to the Lok Sabha to be held in March. The Emergency officially ended on 23 March 1977; in that month's parliamentary elections, the opposition Janata Party Won a landslide victory over the Congress, winning 295 seats in the Lok Sabha against the Congress' 153. Gandhi lost her seat to her Janata opponent, Raj Narain. On 2 January 1978, she and her followers seceded and formed a new opposition party, popularly called Congress (I)—the I signifying Indira. During the next year, her new party attracted enough members of the legislature to become the official opposition.
In November 1978, Gandhi regained a parliamentary seat. In January 1980, following a landslide victory for the Congress (I), she was again elected prime minister. The national election commission declared Congress (I) to be the real Indian National Congress for 1984 general election and the designation I was dropped.
During Gandhi's new term as prime minister, her youngest son Sanjay died in an aeroplane crash in June 1980. This led her to encourage her elder son Rajiv, who was working as a pilot, to enter politics. Gradually, Indira Gandhi's politics and outlook grew more authoritarian and autocratic, and she became the central figure of the Congress. As prime minister, she became known for her political ruthlessness and unprecedented centralisation of power.
Gandhi's term as prime minister also saw increasing turmoil in Punjab with demands for Sikh autonomy by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his militant followers. In 1983, they headquartered themselves in the Golden Temple in Amritsar and started accumulating weapons. In June 1984, after several futile negotiations, Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to enter the Golden Temple to establish control over the temple complex and remove Bhindranwale and his armed followers. This event is known as Operation Blue Star.
On 31 October 1984, two of Gandhi's bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, shot her with their service weapons in the garden of the prime minister's residence in response to her authorisation of Operation Blue Star. Gandhi was due to be interviewed by the British actor Peter Ustinov, who was filming a documentary for Irish television. Her assassination prompted the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, during which more than 3,000 people were killed.
In 1984, Indira Gandhi's son Rajiv Gandhi became nominal head of the Congress and became prime minister upon her assassination. In December, he led the Congress to a landslide victory, in which it secured 401 seats in the legislature. His administration took measures to reform the government bureaucracy and liberalise the country's economy. Rajiv Gandhi's attempts to discourage separatist movements in Punjab and Kashmir backfired. After his government became embroiled in several financial scandals, his leadership became increasingly ineffectual. Gandhi was regarded as a non-abrasive person who consulted other party members and refrained from hasty decisions. The Bofors scandal damaged his image as an honest politician but he was posthumously cleared of bribery allegations in 2004. On 21 May 1991, Gandhi was killed by a bomb concealed in a basket of flowers carried by a woman associated with the Tamil Tigers. He was campaigning in Tamil Nadu for upcoming parliamentary elections. In 1998, an Indian court convicted 26 people in the conspiracy to assassinate Gandhi. The conspirators, who consisted of Tamil militants from Sri Lanka and their Indian allies, had sought revenge against Gandhi because the Indian troops he sent to Sri Lanka in 1987 to help enforce a peace accord there had fought with Tamil separatist guerrillas.
Rajiv Gandhi was succeeded as party leader by P. V. Narasimha Rao, who was elected prime minister in June 1991. His rise to the prime ministership was politically significant because he was the first holder of this office from South India. His administration oversaw a major economic change and several home incidents that affected India's national security. Rao, who held the Industries portfolio, was personally responsible for the dismantling of the Licence Raj, which came under the purview of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. He is often referred to as the "father of Indian economic reforms".
Future prime ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh continued the economic reform policies begun by Rao's government. Rao accelerated the dismantling of the Licence Raj, reversing the socialist policies of previous governments. He employed Manmohan Singh as his Finance Minister to begin a historic economic change. With Rao's mandate, Singh launched India's globalisation reforms that involved implementing International Monetary Fund (IMF) policies to prevent India's impending economic collapse. Rao was also referred to as Chanakya for his ability to push tough economic and political legislation through the parliament while he headed a minority government.
By 1996, the party's image was suffering from allegations of corruption, and in elections that year the Congress was reduced to 140 seats, its lowest number in the Lok Sabha to that point, becoming parliament's second largest party. Rao later resigned as prime minister and, in September, as party president. He was succeeded as president by Sitaram Kesri, the party's first non-Brahmin leader.
In the 1998 general election, the Congress won 141 seats in the Lok Sabha, its lowest tally until then. To boost its popularity and improve its performance in the forthcoming election, Congress leaders urged Sonia Gandhi – widow of Rajiv Gandhi – to assume the leadership of the party. She had previously declined offers to become actively involved in party affairs and had hitherto stayed away from politics. After her election as party leader, a section of the party that objected to the choice because of her Italian ethnicity broke away and formed the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), led by Sharad Pawar. The breakaway faction commanded strong support in the state of Maharashtra and limited support elsewhere. The remainder continued to be known as the Indian National Congress.
Sonia Gandhi's appointment initially failed to have an impact; in the snap polls called by the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in 1999, the Congress won 114 seats – its lowest tally ever. The leadership structure was unaltered and the party campaigned strongly in the assembly elections that followed. At these elections the party was successful; at one point, the Congress ruled 15 states. In the 2004 general election, the Congress forged an alliance with several regional parties, including the NCP and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. The party's campaign emphasised social inclusion and the welfare of common people, contrasting with the NDA's "India Shining" campaign that sought to highlight the successes of the NDA government in making India into a "modern nation". The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) won 222 seats in the new parliament, defeating the NDA by a substantial margin. With the support of the communist front, the Congress won a majority and formed the new government. Despite massive support from within the Party, Gandhi declined the post of prime minister, choosing to appoint Manmohan Singh instead. She remained as party president and headed the National Advisory Council (NAC).
During its first term in office, the UPA government passed several bills aimed at social reform. These included an employment guarantee bill, the Right to Information Act, and a right to education act. The NAC, as well as the Left Front that supported the government from the outside, were widely seen as being the driving force behind such legislation. The Left Front withdrew its support of the government over disagreements about the U.S.–India Civil Nuclear Agreement. Despite the effective loss of 62 seats in parliament, the government survived the trust vote that followed. In the Lok Sabha elections that occurred soon after, the Congress won 207 seats, the highest tally of any party since 1991. The UPA as a whole won 262, enabling to form the government for the second time. The social welfare policies of the first UPA government and the perceived divisiveness of the BJP are broadly credited for the victory.
By the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the party had lost much of its popular support, mainly because of several years of poor economic conditions in the country and growing discontent over a series of corruption allegations involving government officials, including the 2G spectrum scam and the Indian coal allocation scam. The Congress won only 44 seats, which was its worst-ever performance in a national election that brought into question whether it would continue to be identified as an officially recognised party.
As of 2014, the election symbol of the Congress, as approved by the Election Commission of India, is an image of a right hand with its palm facing front and its fingers pressed together; this is usually shown in the centre of a tricolor flag. The hand symbol was first used by Indira Gandhi when she split from the Congress (R) faction following the 1977 elections and created the New Congress (I).
The symbol of the original Congress during elections held between 1952 and 1971 was an image of two bullocks with a plough. The symbol of Indira's Congress (R) during the period 1971–77 was a cow with a suckling calf.
The Congress is structured in a hierarchical manner and the organisational structure, created by Mohandas Gandhi's re-arrangement of the party between 1918 and 1920 has been largely retained. A president and the All India Congress Committee (AICC) are elected by delegates from state and district parties at an annual national conference, In every Indian state and union territory – or pradesh – there is a Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC), which is the state-level unit of the party responsible for directing political campaigns at local and state levels, and assisting the campaigns for parliamentary constituencies. Each PCC has a working committee of twenty members, most of whom are appointed by the party president – the leader of the state party – who is chosen by the prime minister. Those elected as members of the states' legislative assemblies form the Congress Legislature Parties in the various state assemblies; their chairperson is usually the party's nominee for Chief Ministership. The party is also organised into various committees, and sections; it publishes a daily newspaper, the National Herald. Despite being a party with a structure, the Congress under Indira did not hold any organizational elections after 1972
The AICC is composed of delegates sent from the PCCs. The delegates elect Congress committees, including the Congress Working Committee consisting of senior party leaders and office bearers. The AICC takes all important executive and political decisions. Since Indira Gandhi formed the Congress (I) in 1978, the President of the Indian National Congress has effectively been the party's national leader, head of the organisation, head of the Working Committee and all chief Congress committees, chief spokesman, and the Congress' choice for Prime Minister of India. Constitutionally, the president is elected by the PCCs and members of the AICC; however, this procedure has often been by-passed by the Working Committee, which has elected its own candidate.
The Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) consists of elected MPs in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. There is also a Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leader in each state. The CLP consists of all Congress Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in each state. In cases of states where the Congress is single-handedly ruling the government, the CLP leader is the Chief Minister. Other directly affiliated groups include the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the Indian Youth Congress – the party's youth wing – Indian National Trade Union Congress, Mahila Congress, its women's division, and Congress Seva Dal – its voluntary organisation.
The Congress is a civic nationalist party that follows a form of nationalism that supports the values of freedom, tolerance, equality, and individual rights.
Throughout much of the Cold War period, the Congress supported a foreign policy of nonalignment that called for India to form ties with both the Western and eastern Blocs but to avoid formal alliances with either. American support for Pakistan led the Party to endorse a friendship treaty with the Soviet Union in 1971. In 2004, when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance came to power, its chairperson Sonia Gandhi unexpectedly relinquished the premiership to Manmohan Singh. This Singh-led "UPA I" government executed several key legislations and projects, including the Rural Health Mission, Unique Identification Authority, the Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, and the Right to Information Act.
The Congress endorses a mixed economy in which the private sector and the state direct the economy, reflecting characteristics of both market economies and planned economies. The modern Congress advocates import substitution industrialisation; the replacement of foreign imports with domestic products. The party also believes mixed economies are likely to protect the environment, standardise the welfare system, and maintain employment standards and competition. The Congress also believes the Indian economy should be liberalised to increase the pace of development. In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh introduced value added tax, which replaced sales tax, and has continued the Golden Quadrilateral and the highway modernisation program that was initiated by Vajpayee's government. In 2009, India achieved its highest GDP growth rate of 9% and became the second-fastest growing major economy in the world.
In 2005, the Congress-led government started the National Rural Health Mission, which employed about 500,000 community health workers. It was praised by the American economist Jeffrey Sachs. In 2006, it implemented a proposal to reserve 27% of seats in the All India Institute of Medical Studies (AIIMS), the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and other central higher education institutions for Other Backward Classes, which led to 2006 Indian anti-reservation protests. The Singh government also continued the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme, which includes the introduction and improvement of mid-day school meals and the opening of new schools throughout India, especially in rural areas, to fight illiteracy. During Manmohan Singh's prime-ministership, eight Institutes of Technology were opened in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Orissa, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.
The Congress has strengthened anti-terrorism laws with amendments to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The National Investigation Agency (India) (NIA) was created by the UPA government soon after the Nov 2008 Mumbai terror attacks in response to the need for a central agency to combat terrorism. The Unique Identification Authority of India was established in February 2009 to implement the proposed Multipurpose National Identity Card with the objective of increasing national security.
The Congress has continued the foreign policy started by P. V. Narasimha Rao. This includes the peace process with Pakistan and the exchange of high-level visits by leaders from both countries. The party tried to end the border dispute with the People's Republic of China through negotiations. Relations with Afghanistan have also been a concern of the party; during Afghan President Hamid Karzai's visit to New Delhi in August 2008, Manmohan Singh increased the aid package to Afghanistan for the development of schools, health clinics, infrastructure, and defence. India is now as one of the single largest aid donors to Afghanistan.
When in power between 2004 and 2014, the Congress worked on India's relationship with the United States. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited the US in July 2005 to negotiate an Indo-US civilian nuclear agreement. US President George W. Bush visited India in March 2006; during this visit a nuclear agreement that would give India access to American nuclear fuel and technology in exchange for the IAEA inspection of its civil nuclear reactors was proposed. Over two years of negotiations, followed by approval from the IAEA, the Nuclear Suppliers Group and the US Congress, the agreement was signed on 10 October 2008.
The Congress' policy has been to cultivate friendly relations with Japan and European Union countries including the United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Diplomatic relations with Iran have continued and negotiations over the Iran-Pakistan-India gas pipeline have taken place. In April 2006 New Delhi hosted an India–Africa summit that was attended by the leaders of 15 African states. Congress' policy has also been to improve relations with other developing countries, particularly Brazil and South Africa.
As of May 2016, Congress is in power in the states of Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram – where the party has majority support. In Puducherry and Uttarakhand it shares power with alliance partners. Before 2014, Congress governed Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Punjab, and Goa.
A majority of non-Congress prime ministers of India are former Congress members.