The Gandhi connection: A brief history of the Congress party


Rahul Gandhi will likely be the 49th president of the Congress, and the sixth from the Nehru-Gandhi family to head India’s grand old party.

The party was founded on December 28, 1885, and members of the Nehru-Gandhi family helmed it for around 43 of the nearly 132 years that have passed since then. Motilal Nehru, Rahul’s great-great grandfather, was the first from the family to hold the post in 1919. The tenure of the Congress president at the time was just one year.

Motilal’s second stint came in 1928. His son – Jawaharlal Nehru – took over the reins of the party in 1929 and remained at the helm for two years. Jawaharlal next occupied the post in 1936, and continued for another term. In 1947, he became the first Prime Minister of the country. Later, after a gap of 14 years, he assumed the office for the fourth time in 1951 and held it till 1954.

His daughter, Indira Gandhi, headed the Congress for a brief period in 1959, and then – nearly 20 years later – again assumed the post in 1978. She remained the party chief until her assassination on October 31, 1984.

Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi (till then a party general secretary), took over the reins of the Congress soon afterwards and held the post until he was killed in a suicide bomb attack in 1991. After Rajiv’s death, his wife Sonia Gandhi repeatedly turned down appeals to join the Congress. However, she finally relented in 1997 and became a primary member of the party at its Kolkata plenary.

Sonia was elected as the Congress president on March 14, 1998. The Congress Working Committee (CWC) exercised its special power to appoint Sonia as the party chief in the place of Sitaram Kesri. The All India Congress Committee (AICC) ratified the move on April 6, 1998.

However, on May 15, 1999, just before the Lok Sabha elections, she resigned from the post after senior leaders Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar challenged her projection as the party’s prime ministerial candidate ostensibly on the grounds of her foreign origin.

In her resignation letter to the CWC, Sonia wrote: “Although born in a foreign land, I chose India as my country and would remain an Indian till my last breath. India is my motherland, dearer to me than my own life.”

The move prompted a number of senior leaders and chief ministers, including Digvijaya Singh (Madhya Pradesh), Sheila Dikshit (Delhi), Ashok Gehlot (Rajasthan) and Giridhar Gamang (Orissa), to submit their resignations too. Hundreds of Congress workers resorted to hunger strikes and agitations, requesting her to reconsider her decision.

It was only after the CWC expelled Pawar, Sangma and Anwar for six years on May 20, 1999, that Sonia agreed to withdraw her resignation. Five days later, a special AICC session was called to welcome her back as the party chief.

Sonia, who turns 71 on December 9, holds the record for being the Congress president for more than 19 consecutive years. Had she continued in the post for a little longer, Sonia’s would have completed 20 years as the party chief on March 14, 2017.

The grand old party is set for a generational change as Sonia prepares to hand over the baton to her son. The CWC had anointed 47-year-old Rahul as the party’s vice-president in Jaipur on January 19, 2013. The AICC endorsed the move the very next day.