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Monday, 9 March, 1998, 19:16 GMT
Congress - a party in crisis
Sonia and Rahul Gandhi
Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul, on the campaign trail: Can the Gandhis save the Congress party?
Once the Congress Party was the dominant force of Indian politics. Today it is gripped by probably the most serious crisis in its history since it was founded in 1885.

The party has ruled India for almost all of its independent history, and for the majority of that time, a total of 38 years, the country's prime minister was a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

The power vacuum created in the party's hierarchy by the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 has remained unfilled, and it is not sure yet whether his widow's decision to campaign for the Congress Party will change that.

While the party is plagued by political infighting, defections, resignations and allegations of corruption, it struggles to cope with an increasing polarisation of Indian society.

Congress election rally
The Gandhi name still can draw crowds
The tensions between secularism and radical Hindus and Muslims has always been a problem for Congress politics. One of the party's dominating influences was Mahatma Gandhi. Although religious, he believed in an inclusive state. Many Congress politicians, however, would have preferred the creation of a Hindu state, and Mahatma Gandhi was killed by a Hindu who was convinced that the 'father of the nation' had made too many concessions to the country's Muslim minority.

Politics in India has gone through three phases, and all are closely linked to the Congress Party and its leaders, particularly the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Establishing the state, party and dynasty

Jawaharlal Nehru was India's first prime minister after independence, and under his leadership the Congress Party shaped the country as a modern, democratic, secular and unified state.

Nehru ruled until his death in May 1964. Two years later, his daughter Indira Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) became prime minister.

This second phase saw a centralisation of both the party and the state. Indira Gandhi established herself as the unassailable leader of the party, systematically removing Congress politicians who were not loyal to her. In 1975 Indira Gandhi declared a state of "internal emergency" and suspended chief ministers of states not ruled by Congress.

In 1977 Mrs Gandhi felt secure enough to hold elections. Congress was comprehensively defeated. But only three years later she was in power again, ruling until her assassination by Sikh members of her own bodyguard in 1984.

Rajiv Gandhi
Rajiv Gandhi
Indira Gandhi's son Rajiv replaced her as prime minister, but he did not have much political experience. Mass demonstrations and strikes across India followed, and Congress suffered a number of setbacks in elections.

At the 1989 general election Congress lost its overall majority once again. For the second time India was ruled by a coalition government.

When Tamil separatists assassinated Rajiv Gandhi during the 1991 election campaign, the dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi family over Indian politics seemed to have come to an end.

The Congress Party found itself short of charismatic politicians, a situation which some blamed on Mrs Gandhi's autocratic leadership style.

Congress without the Gandhis

Nonetheless, the Congress Party once again managed to return to power. The new Prime Minister, P V Narasimha Rao, introduced a series of economic reforms, but his administration was soon plagued by allegations of corruption.

At the same time the Congress party had problems containing the rise in Hindu nationalism which culminated in the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya.

Congress lost the next election in 1996, and has not been in power since. It is this third phase, the emergence of coalition governments in Indian politics, which the party so far has failed to adjust to - even though it tacitly supported several coalition governments.

Meanwhile, the Gandhi family continued to have an almost mythical appeal both to Congress and the Indian electorate. But Rajiv Gandhi's widow, Sonia, for years resisted all calls that she should follow in the footsteps of the family dynasty and enter active politics.

Sonia Gandhi
Sonia Gandhi, Congress' last hope
But as the Congress Party's standing in the opinion polls continue to plummet in the run-up to the elections, Sonia Gandhi announced that she would campaign for her late husband's party.

To the disappointment of many Congress party members, she declined to stand as a candidate in Rajiv Gandhi's former constituency.

On the campaign trail, Sonia Gandhi received a jubilant welcome. Some observers credit her with saving Congress from humiliation at the ballot boxes.

Sitaram Kesri
Sitaram Kesri hoped to be the Congress candidate for prime minister
Veteran Indian politician Sitaram Kesri, who ousted Mr Rao as party president in 1997, resigned as president of the Congress Party in the aftermath of the 1998 general election.

Announcing his resignation, Mr Kesri urged Sonia Gandhi to take up the leadership.

Although the party performed better than many had predicted, it was divided over election strategy.

Critics within the party doubted his leadership qualities, and Mr Kesri stepped down after losing the confidence of many senior Congress Party figures.

His hopes of becoming the next prime minister were dashed when party officials voted in a ballot that the former Finance Minister, Manmohan Singh, should lead Congress in the election campaign.


The BBC's Andrew Whitehead on the renaissance of the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty (3'01")
Links to more India Elections stories are at the foot of the page.

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