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As the Congress stares at a crisis with a string of political defections in Karnataka and Goa, both party haters and its well-wishers are asking if Congress’ ideology is outdated. Why is it not able to retain even its existing base, forget attracting new talent? 

The Congress’ core ideology is not outdated, instead the party has moved away from it over the last few decades. Almost simultaneously, its support base too has shrunk. The party was never an ideological monolith or organisational behemoth, but it had a liberal, moral world view.

It is this spirit of idealism that defines the Congress, or at least used to. Mahatma Gandhi’s moral crusade and Jawaharlal Nehru’s modernism — the two pillars that gave the party its ideological base — were perfectly integrated into the Congress’s character. With the decline of idealism and the moral fibre, and the rise of hedonism — the so-called “killer instinct” philosophy of “success” — the Congress now seems to have lost that character.

Since the party does not have a cadre like the RSS, nor does it have card-carrying members like the Left Front, it will have to bring back that idealism, if it wants to revive itself.

What Congress had

The congress was born in 1885, four years before Nehru’s birth in 1889. Several leaders over the decades became the party’s face, but Nehru’s shadow hovers over it. Somehow, nearly a century later, the BJP still feels threatened by that shadow.

But there is something in that chequered history of the 135-year-old party, which ruled this vast multi-lingual, multi-religious, multi-caste, hierarchy-obsessed mass of people for over 55 years, that at once provides inspiration but also puts a burden on Rahul Gandhi, who is expected to carry the Nehruvian cross.


Also read: Congress still doesn’t know what has hit it. Rahul will have to be the Gandhi India needs


The Congress has had many mass organisations — Indian National Trade Union, Kisan Congress, National Students’ Union of India, legal and human rights department and various cells. All these organisations as well as those active on other social fronts helped the poor and took up causes like setting up schools, promoting literacy classes, organising community activities, including religious festivals, and helping various aggrieved Dalit and Muslim youth groups.

Over the years, those ties became weak. The recruitment of new members began to dwindle. Only the traditional Congress families with access to power survived. To retain that access, they promoted family members in politics. The unrestricted access to power brought money and networks of small and big businesses, which in turn enriched them but further distanced the party from the people.

How the party lost it

It became clear that personal ambition had replaced social concern. Seeking power, and then holding on to that power, took over the ideological beliefs. Winning elections became more important, and since elections needed money, politics was monetised. In this environment, individualism and cynicism enveloped the political consciousness of the party leaders and the second and third rankers.

Today, fronts like even the Youth Congress have lost touch with the targeted community, and have become entry points for power. The social disconnect was concomitant with the rise of the new middle class, emerging prosperity and opportunities created by modernisation policies of Rajiv Gandhi and liberalisation policies of Manmohan Singh. Now, they are merely chapters in the Congress’s distinguished history.

Where someone like Rahul Gandhi, or his successor, will face trouble today in addressing this uncertain future that the Congress is confronted with is in the fact that the party’s glorious past and argumentative legacy has been made irrelevant.

Was there a turning point?

The Congress during its inception was a social organisation aiming for political recognition from the British rulers. Then it became a nationalist movement. After the rise of international socialism, the Congress acquired its socialist idealism. At the end of the second World War and with the rise of western liberalism, the party emerged as a defender of libertarian causes. Its cosmopolitanism and secularism came out of tolerance, respect towards “the other”.


Also read: Rahul can resign as Congress president, but Nehru-Gandhi dynasty never retires nor gives up


The Congress has never been a party with immovable ideological treatise and political shibboleths. It embraced both, the socialist idealism and, later with ease, the liberal economic path. It preferred respect and tolerance towards all religions and social justice to underprivileged, without getting trapped into caste identities.

While trying to explore where and when the Congress began to evolve politically and ideologically, I looked at how the party’s DNA came into being. It is truly fascinating to see how the Congress adapted to its environment in a semi-Darwinian fashion, without giving up some of its basic tenets evolved during the freedom movement.

A journey to the roots

Of the three founding presidents of the Indian National Congress, from 1885 to 1887, one was a Bengali Hindu, the second a Parsee and the third was a Muslim — Womesh Chandra Bonnerjee, Dadabhai Naoroji, and Badruddin Tyabji.

Most of the 72 people gathered to launch the organisation (not yet a political party) were upper caste Hindus. Many of them Vedic scholars or well versed in Indian philosophy and scriptures. They had come wearing their traditional dress and headgears. The initiative was taken by Allan Octavian Hume, a British member of the Imperial Civil Service.

Despite the organisation mostly comprising Brahminical elites rooted in traditions, the Congress elected a Parsee and then a Muslim, in 1886 and 1887, respectively, as its presidents. Bonnerjee, the first president to be elected in 1885, was married to a Hindu, who later converted to Christianity. When he died in England, he was buried without any religious rituals. He was neither an atheist, nor an agnostic.

A.O. Hume, the originator of the idea of Congress, was also a maverick of sorts. Though a Christian, he was a sort of skeptic. He believed more in Theosophy, and was a philosophical disciple of a Tibetan guru. In the late nineteenth century, in the absence of any modern communication devices, it is a fascinating story, perhaps a guide, for today’s leadership how Hume mobilised such diverse people.


Also read: AO Hume, ‘Father’ of Indian National Congress who was distrusted by the British & Indians


Mohandas Gandhi had not become Mahatma nor Jawaharlal had become his disciple. Indeed, exactly 20 years younger, Nehru did not even know Gandhi. When Gandhi was evolving his philosophy of personal and political morality as well as non-violence, Nehru was getting attracted towards Marxist version of Fabian Socialism. And Lokmanya Tilak was emerging as a sort of militant nationalist voice.

There was no pre-defined ideological frame to the Congress. Nor was there a nationwide network of activists. Organisationally, too, the Congress was evolving. But it had the pulse of the people’s sub-conscious mind and the heartbeat of the world’s newly liberating consciousness — the struggle against colonialism, imperialism, racism, apartheid and backwardness.

Although the world has drastically changed today, the values and ideals still remain. They have huge strength and potential. Winning elections is less important than restoring those values. The Congress, before 1947, fought not only for the country’s freedom, but for those values too. The organisation and the huge following for Gandhi, and later Nehru, emerged from that, not from elections and power.

The author is a former editor and Congress member of Rajya Sabha. Views are personal.

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12 Comments Share Your Views

12 COMMENTS

  1. Congress had been a movement and everyone participating in that movement was a member of the party – it was immaterial what was the ideology of the person concerned. Since it was not designed to be a well defined Political Party, no ideology was thought over for the Congress. Since it was synonymous with the movement, Gandhi wanted it to be dismantled after independence, which was not acceptable to the leaders, who by then became rulers. And since they got power and went on getting it election after election, they did not need any ideology. After all, the aim would be to get the power! Congress even did not adopt the ideology of Gandhi ji as it’s own. It just went on using Gandhi and his preachings in a selective way, whichever and wherever they suited them.
    The ruler leaders did use their own people too, the people with ideology – like Indira ji used Chandrashekhar and the Young Turks with socialist orientation against the seniors and got rid of the seniors. Only a few years later Chandrashekhar too was put in jail by the same Indira ji alongwith opposition leaders! This was the Congress ideology. Netaji Subhash had to leave Congress despite his being elected the party President since it was not comfortable to Nehru – this was the Congress ideology! Anyone not comfortable with Nehru and later with Indira ji would be sidelined or would leave the party – this was the Congress ideology!
    And now when the charisma of the leadership has gone – Ketkar ji is searching the IDEOLOGY for the Congress or else the Congress thought the Rulers do not need ideology! Who would formulate the ideology for the Congress now and what would be the IDEOLOGY?
    The real problem with Congress has been that post Nehru no party forum encouraged dissent and discussion. This resulted in sycophancy and hypocrisy and then there was no end to it – from D K Baruah’s ‘Indira is India’ to Zail Singh’s ‘Madam kahengi toh jhadu bhi lagaunga’. Everybody just started competing with each other proving loyalty to the top. So much so that Sanjay became super power centre without any legitimacy whatsoever and every Congress leader was reporting to him sometimes bypassing the Prime Minister as well.
    And when came 1977 when the party was routed including Indira ji too, the same Congress leaders came out criticising Indira ji – like Ketkar ji is doing now.
    With this background of recent history of the Grand old party one entire generation has seen this dark face of Congress only.
    Having said all this Congress has the inherent capacity of bauncing back too, as it has done in the past too. And Ketkar ji is absolutely correct when he says that Sonia ji had given a new lease of life to the party, when it was virtually on death bed. Fact remains, it has the richest team of experienced people, both in politics and in governance. It has the knowledge of India, it’s people and it’s diversity. It knows the people in every nook and corner of the country.
    Ketkar ji is absolutely wrong. Congress does not need any ideology, it never had. And this has been it’s beauty. It nourished each and every ideology. It need people – people of various nature, culture and creed. And it has to Brush up and since the layer of dust is too thick, the brushing up would be harsh and it may even scratch a layer of skin too – thus it will pain. The Great question is – how many leaders are prepared to take and bear that pain? If there are many, Congress is definitely going to come up – if there is none ….. God has to take birth and revive it!

  2. 1. In context of author’s arguments, I wish to share my thoughts on past and future of the Congress party. 2. I have some memories about 1962 General election which was the last election with which Jawaharlal Nehru as PM was associated and in which campaigned for Congress party’s win. My question is this: did Jawaharlal Nehru have any knowledge of the money power which had by then made a quiet entry into our electoral politics? Next question relevant to today’s decline of the Congress is this: what, as the supreme leader of the Congress party and as PM, Jawaharlal Nehru would have done to preserve the so-called Congress culture?
    3. We know that during many years of the Congress party’s rule, political class joined hands with corrupt bureaucracy and businessmen and made huge money at cost of exchequer, most of which was unaccounted and misused to fund and win elections.
    4. Who can save the Congress party at this juncture? Neither Ms Sonia Gandhi nor son Rahul Gandhi, though many may have unbreakable faith in members of Nehru-Indira Gandhi family. Then the next question is this: who can rebuild the Congress party which is in pathetic situation today? If someone wishes to revive Congress party and rebuild it, he must find out why it has been reduced to status of a regional party. Obviously, he/she cannot afford to rely what Smt Indira Gandhi did years ago when she was out of power in 1977. 5. Citizen-voters like me who believe that the Congress party has a future as a centrist (to be precise, left of the centre) political party, wish that senior Congress leaders should make viable plans to reorganize the party. I feel that as and when new Congress Working Committee (CWC) is formed, Smt Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Ms Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra should ideally be not part of CWC. This would be better future of the Congress party and also for ensuring internal democracy in the party.
    6. I think anyone who has a desire to rebuild the Congress party should not go by wrong notions about party’s inner strengths which have simply vanished long back. Is it not true that the Congress party has miserably failed to attract new voters, perhaps a majority of whom are in their twenties and early thirties? Who can find out how to get in touch with this class of citizen-voters? My guess is that not all from new generation of citizen-voters are voters of BJP but almost all of them think that it is PM Narendra Modi who can be relied upon to deliver. This is the truth, whether one wishes to accept it or not.
    7. Who can be the leader who can win over the young voters for the Congress party? I feel search for an honest answer to this question may possibly lead to much needed revival of the Congress party in coming decade. Let me wish the best to the Congress party!

    • Love to read these hard hitting and objective arguments by you, Surendra Barsode and Gopal Vaidya, across many articles. Sadly Ketkar is not listening because he has achieved what he wanted to achieve in his career – Rajya Sabha membership. Rest is all time-pass (namak halali in straight talk).

  3. The liberals were on the prowl from 1947 to early 21st century. The liberal values are under threat globally, even in the western Europe and the US, the cradle of liberalism.
    We have Brexit, followed by Trump in the US, Putin has already announced death of liberalism while China is redefining Human Rights and is gaining support from distant corners.
    This is the time liberals should resort to the trench warfare.
    So far the Congress, the party has become Dharamshala. The occupants have stolen the electric bulbs, ceiling fans,, bed sheets, whatever they can. Still the party and Kumar are banking on the Nehru Gandhi family. If not Rahul, may be Sonia again, let us try Priyanka, else we may urge her daughters to lead and guide the party and nation.
    For Kumar and Congress,Nehru Gandhi dynasty is the ideology and the powerhouse. History of the Congress as narrated by Kumar is just a backdrop.
    Founders of the Congress knew very well that four years after the formation of the party, Jawaharlal Nehru would be born and he would lead the new nation. Their calculation was quite precise, Kumar indicates in this article.

  4. While Kumar has given us a good account of the history of Congress and how it lost its plot in recent decades, there is nothing that he can think of in concrete terms as to what Congress should do now to become a party that will matter in national politics. Today BJP has ideology, organization, proven capability and a leader who India, if not the world, looks up to. The duo of Modi and Shah have effectively decimated Congress and so long as the government delivers on its promises to the people without corruption ( no matter whatever the debate on macro-economic and minority issues) and organization is managed efficiently, there seems to be a little chance for Congress to come back, even if it indeed gets a leader outside Gandhi family. However, political parties do not die and Congress will continue to be listlessly around. In the end, again one more irrelevant article by Kumar but with a change in approach- he is probably longer writing viciously against Modi any more! But I hope I am proved wrong soon.

  5. A lot of mere words without any substance. When did Congress ever have an ideology.? At least not since Indira came to rule. After that, beginning with dismantling non Congress state governments through the imposition of President’s Rule, to “having a committed Judiciary”, and the grand finale of the Emergency to crown it all, was there ever any ideology, even until the inglorious and humiliating successive defeats in 2014 and 2019 ? What we see on the faces of the TOPMOST leaders of the Congress is only anger and contempt; anger at being out of power and contempt for Modi and his government. Not even a trace of any ideology there. And not the slightest chance of their discovering one now.

  6. An analysis of the history of the Congress is fine, but what is the way forward? That has not been spelt out. I too feel that the party must emerge from the shadows of the Gandhi family.

  7. For an article that wants Congress to have a clearly defined ideology, the article doesn’t even define that ideology. Indeed the author himself point out that the party was never an ‘ideological monolith’ and that it embraced ‘socialist Nehru’ and ‘nationalist Tilak’. And, yet, the article tells us that there is a core ideology which isn’t outdated. So, what exactly is the ideology that he is talking about?

    The closest that we can infer about the ideology of Congress, from this article, is that it rests on the pillars of modernism and provides space for people of different religions. Nehurvian modernism is primarily a western context, that while promoting science and industry, also denigrates Indian culture and falsifies history. As far, as supporting people of different religions, Congress has gradually turned into a party that relies on minority vote banks and supports the most reactionary elements of minority orthodoxy. Since the author hasn’t articulated the ideology, there is no plan for practical steps either.

    If Congress cannot even clearly articulate the critical issues then how much harder will it be for them to deal with them?

  8. Congress writers cannot admit that PV Narasimha Rao was the key man who brought up Manmohan Singh and through him created a liberalization program, the benefit of which is we are all reaping now. Rajiv, in spite of having the majority in both houses, squandered his time and went for defense deals to make quick money and ventured into unchartered terrorizes like LTTE base and there after landed in soup and that also cost his life. Stupid he was, the Congress even today consider him as great. And we talk about millers, the congress writers know only two names, Gandhi and Nehru. Rest of them are non existent. Selective amnesia.

  9. You credit the economic liberalization to Rajiv Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. You deliberately left out Rao. This exposes what a wretched man you are. You are beneath my contempt. You are an absolute coward sir!

    • He is not a coward. He is merely a hagiographer, who is repaying continually his debt to the family that elevated him from a journalist to a backdoor parliamentarian. He knows which side of his bread is buttered.

  10. What it becoming increasingly clear, with so many stallions seeking out new stables, not necessarily for the rest of their lives, is that the only ideology is Power. If there are any ideological differences between the DMK and the AIADMK, they are not easily discerned. Barring an approach to the minorities, unclear what really distinguishes one national party from the other. 2. What the Congress needs most of all is to completely change its equation with the Gandhi family. It no longer has anyone of prime ministerial timber. The last member who did was Smt Indira Gandhi. Time now to let the GOP come out of their thrall, allow, slowly other leaders to emerge.a time of hardship and adversity. One reason I admire Sachin Pilot so much is he went back to Rajasthan when Delhi and Jaipur had powerful BJP governments, energised the cadre, brought his party back to power. If the wimpish Gehlot had not been playing games, the Congress would have managed a simple majority. 3. Not accurate to write off the Congress. There is a role and place for it in Indian politics. It needs to go back to the drawing board. Michelangelo is not the man to sculpt a new party.

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