The Congress System In India: Explained in Depth

Congress system is not a common term. It is a very very specific term given by political scientist Rajani Kothari. It denotes not only the dominance of the Congress in the initial 20 years after the independence of India. But also the ability of the Congress to incorporate all factional pressures and formulate a Grand National organization.

Kothari argued that before and after Independence, the Congress was successful in manifesting itself as the “authoritative speaker of the nation as well as its declared agent of criticism and change”.

Reasons for the Congress system

The reasons for Congress’ hegemony were several. The party was a broad church, containing many shades of opinion within it. It had a powerful presence in all states of the Union.

In the first, second, and third Lok Sabha election, out of 489, 494, and 494 respectively Congress obtained 364, 371, and 361 seats. So unquestionably Congress had a very very dominant presence in overall Lok Sabha in the initial 15 to 20 years.

But what about the states? Almost all of India even at the state level was being managed by the Congress party. Also, none of the opposition parties could even win one-tenth of the number of the seats won by Congress. So this is the kind of dominance we are talking about politically when we talk about the Congress system.

Now this dominance was just not unusual in terms of numbers. It was also in the way these numbers were accomplished. Now through your general awareness, you must be knowing that India is not the only country to have experienced the dominance of one Party.

Other cases where a single party has dominated:

If you look around the world, you will find many other examples where a single party has dominated. But there is a fundamental difference between that kind of dominance and Congress dominance of the Indian political system.

Because in the rest of the cases the dominance of one party was insured by jeopardizing democracy. For e.g. in some countries, especially the communist countries, like, China Cuba the Constitution permits only a single party to contest the elections

So what is novel about India or what differentiates the dominance of the congress party in India from all these cases that it happened under completely Democratic conditions. No compromise was made on Democracy.

Fundamentals for Democratic Setup

Now you should understand that for the Democratic setup to function completely you need to have at least two things.

Firstly, the elections should be conducted in a free and fair manner and for that, you need an independent constitutional Election Commission.

Secondly, you need a multi-party system.

If you analyze all those countries with a single-party dominance, you see that India certainly was the only example where fully Democratic functioning set up under free and fair elections in which many parties were allowed to contest elections.

A single party could maintain its dominance. And hence, it becomes important for us to discuss the causes behind such a dominance.

Causes behind such a Dominance:

The first and foremost cause behind such massive victories of Congress in our political system can be attributed to our electoral system, which is the first-past-the-post system.

So the extent of the victory of the Congress was artificially boosted by our electoral system. The Congress won three out of every four seats but actually did not get even half of the votes. If you analyze the vote patterns in 1952. For example, Congress is obtained only 45% of the total valid votes, but it managed to win 74 percent of the total seats.

Whereas if you see the Socialist Party, which was the second-largest party in terms of the votes secured more than 10% of the overall votes across the country, but it could not even win 3 percent of the overall seats.

So in this kind of system of election that has been adopted in our country the party that gets more votes than others tends to get much more than its proportional share. That is exactly what was in favor of the Congress.

If we add up the votes of all the non-congress candidates. It was more than the words of the Congress, but the non-Congress votes were divided between different rival parties and candidates. So the Congress was still way ahead of the opposition and managed to win.

But this cannot be the complete reason. For in order to garner 45 percent of the overall votes you need huge popularity, as well as credibility.

This extraordinary success of the congress party has a cause that goes back to the legacy of the freedom struggle. Congress was seen as the successor of the national movement. Various leaders who were at the forefront of that struggle were contesting elections as Congress candidates. So if people with such National repute and image become candidates in Lok Sabha elections, obviously people are going to vote for them.

And apart from that another important reason is that by the time of Independence the Congress was already a very well-organized party. By the time other parties could even think of a strategy the Congress had already started its campaign.

So we can say that it had a first-mover advantage which no other party had. In fact, many other parties were formed only around Independence. So by the time of Independence, the congress party had not only spread across the length and breadth of the country but also had an organizational network down to the local level.

The network which earlier was being utilized for Freedom struggle now just after the independence the same organization and machinery until the local level was put to use for a national election.

Hence that can be called as a second important reason behind the massive dominance of Congress in our political system.

They are other important and significant reasons as well i.e. the nature of the Congress as a social coalition as well as an ideological coalition.

Now if you see, Society is not a homogeneous entity. It consists of lots of social groups, some are peasants, industrialists and etc. Some people live in villages whereas others are Urban dwellers. Similarly, there is a caste system in our country as well as religion also plays a major role.

So our society consists of various kinds of social groups and one way to win elections is to appeal to a majority of social groups. The more social groups agree to a party’s programs and agenda higher are the chances of that party winning.

Now if you see the evolution of the Congress it originated in 1885 as a pressure group for the newly educated professional and Commercial classes and 70 years later it became a mass movement.

So you can say that Congress began as a party dominated by English-speaking upper caste, upper-middle-class, or Urban Elites. But with every Civil Disobedience movement, it launched, its social base widened gradually in gradually started including villagers, peasants, women into its fold. Finally, at the time of Independence, it brought together diverse groups whose interests were often contradictory.

For example, the interests of peasants and industrialists as well as workers are contradictory to each other, but they all found please in the programs and agenda of the congress party similarly Villages as well as Urban dwellers.

Hence by the time 1950, the Congress party was a rainbow-like social Collision in which all the social groups or you can say the majority of social groups found their place their voice inside the party.

So the Congress consisted of prominent peasant leaders as well as it consisted of prominent Industries.

So that can be thought of as a third important reason but this is another reason and that is that Congress acted as an ideological coalition as well.

Congress was not just the social Coalition but was also an ideological Coalition. It included diverse ideologies and accommodating both revolutionaries as well as pacifists.

So revolutionaries are people who either participate or advocate a revolution whereas a pacifist is a person who believes that war and violence are unjustified.

Similarly, both radicals as well as conservatives found their places inside the Congress.

So the Congress was a platform for numerous groups’ interests and even political parties to take part in the national movement.

In Pre-Independence days, many organization and parties with their own Constitution and organizational structure were allowed to exist within Congress. Some of these like Congress Socialist Party later separated from the Congress and became an opposition and that is what gave Congress a party a coalition like character.

The victory of Congress in threes consecutive elections

Now, what it did and how it led to win of Congress in threes consecutive elections can be summarized in two main points. Now the Coalition-like character of the Congress gave it an unusual strength.

Now, you know that a coalition accommodates all those who join it, and therefore it has to avoid any extreme position on almost all the matters. And also it has to strike a balance between two conflicting or contradicting positions.

So for example, if you have both Industries as well as farmers in a party your party cannot be either propagating complete agricultural reforms or communism. Neither it will talk about the complete handover of the economy to the private sector.

Hence, the balance will be maintained because two pressure groups exist inside your own party. So compromise and inclusiveness are the hallmarks of a coalition. And hence, you can appease to almost all the groups whether ideological or social into your country and also this kind of Coalition nature of Congress puts the opposition in difficulty.

Because anything that the opposition wanted to say would also find a place in the program and ideology of the Congress. So if there is a party which is advocating socialism, Congress already had socialist. Similarly for parties propagating capitalism party already had capitalist.

And that is why even if a group was not happy with the position of the party, it would remain inside the party and fight other groups rather than leaving the party and becoming an opposition member.

And that is what has famously been called by Rajani Kothari as the Congress system. 

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