History Matters | January 1959: The Rise of an Authoritarian Leader

How Indira would deal with her political rivals became clear in the one year she served as the Congress president.

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(This is part two of a four-part 'January' series that revisits significant historical events and policies, and how the lessons learned from them continue to be of relevance in present-day politics and society. Read part one here.)

It remains one of the enduring mysteries of Independent India. Many critical analysts suggest that the process of the Nehru-Gandhi controlling the Indian National Congress (INC) as a family fiefdom that started in 1929 was further cemented in 1959. Suddenly, the then less than 40-year-old daughter of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi was elected as the President of Congress.

By no means was this a decision foisted on the party by Nehru.

Her name was in fact first put forth officially by the senior Congress leader and future PM Lal Bahadur Shastri. And a whole array of towering Congress leaders did support the move.

Gandhi Family’s Dominance Over the Congress Party

Thirty years prior to that, the then-Congress president had persuaded Mahatma Gandhi to back Nehru as the president. Motilal wanted young blood to rise in the party and made an emotional appeal that he wanted to see him as the Congress president before he died.

Like Indira, Jawaharlal Nehru was 40 years old when he first became the party president.

But the election of Indira Gandhi as the president of the Congress in 1959 was a clear message to party members and voters that she was one of the top leaders of the party.

She was preceded by former CM of Saurashtra UN Dhebar who was the president between 1954 and 1959 and was succeeded by Neelam Sanjiva Reddy who served between 1960 and 1963.

Indira was the Congress president between 1978 and 1983. Her son Rajiv Gandhi held the post between 1985 and 1991. Her daughter-in-law Sonia Gandhi succeeded between 1998 and 2017. Her grandson Rahul Gandhi became the Congress president in 2017 but resigned in 2019 after an electoral humiliation in the Lok Sabha elections. His mother Sonia Gandhi again became "interim” president for three more years till 2022.

Back in 1959, perhaps even Congress supporters could not have imagined that a single family would exercise such overwhelming dominance over their party.

The Article 356 Controversy

How Indira Gandhi would deal with her political rivals became clear in the one year she served as the Congress president. In 1957, the Communist Party of India (CPI) created history in the Kerala Assembly Elections by becoming the first communist party in the world to win a democratically contested, free, and fair election. The powerful Church leaders of Kerala were aghast at the sight of EMS Namboodiripad as the CM.

But there was little they could do. Things changed dramatically after Indira became the Congress president in 1959.

According to reports from that era, Nehru was reluctant to use arbitrary powers and dismiss the communist government. The same reports, never denied by any Congress leader of substance, indicate clearly that it was Indira Gandhi who persuaded Nehru to take the authoritarian step and dismiss a duly elected government.

The weapon used was Article 356 of the Constitution which confers powers on the Union Government to dismiss a State government if there is a constitutional breakdown.

After she became the PM in 1966 and till she lost the 1977 Lok Sabha elections in the aftermath of the Emergency, Indira Gandhi had used Article 356 about 39 times to dismiss democratically elected governments. Subsequent ruling dispensations at the centre, including the current too have tried the same trick.

But a series of verdicts by the Supreme Court have made it virtually impossible for central governments to use Article 356.


How Indira Waded Through Party Factions To Be a Standout

The rise of Indira Gandhi in the Congress triggered yet another significant shift in Indian politics. Since the Avadi session of the Congress in 1955 when the party publicly made it clear that would take a decisive turn towards the Left in economic policies, many veteran Congress leaders like C Rajagopalachari, the former Governor General of India and KM Munshi who was a cabinet minister in the first post-independence government, were unhappy.

Munshi, in fact, had waged a running battle with Nehru when the latter had disapproved of the reconstruction and re-opening of the Somnath Temple. With Indira Gandhi as the Congress president in 1959, the party lurched even more leftwards. Rajagopalachari and some other leaders publicly denounced this, quit the Congress, and formed the Swatantra Party.

The ideology of the new party was the polar opposite of the ideology professed and followed by the Congress. Rajagopalachari eloquently wrote about why he and his associate formed the new party:

“The Swatantra Party stands for the protection of the individual citizen against the increasing trespasses of the state. It is an answer to the challenge of the so called socialism of the Indian National Congress…The Swatantra Party is founded on the claim that individual citizens should be free to hold their property and carry on with their professions freely and through binding mutual agreements between themselves…The new party seeks to oppose the trend of the ruling Congress party to adopt the ways and ideals of the communists in its eagerness to prevent the communists from going forward. The Swatantra Party believes that going over to the enemy is not defence, but surrender”.

In 1959, Rajagopalachari was a far more towering leader than Indira Gandhi. But in subsequent decades, it was Indira who sealed her place in contemporary history.


After a brief spell under the sun in the 1960s, the Swatantra Party faded away as Indira emerged as the undisputed and sole leader of India. But Rajagopalachari must have had the last laugh, albeit posthumously, when India abandoned socialism (though it is still there in the Constitution, added by Indira in 1976) and embraced the markets in 1991.

But it should not be forgotten that it was a non-Nehru-Gandhi leader PV Narasimha Rao who opened up space and opportunities for Indian entrepreneurs. Besides, the inheritor Rahul Gandhi seems to be doing his best to revive the rhetoric that entrepreneurs are crony capitalist robbers out to plunder India.

(Yashwant Deshmukh & Sutanu Guru work with the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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