Rahul Gandhi is said to be adamant about stepping down as Congress president following the party’s disastrous performance in the just-concluded parliamentary elections, in which it increased its tally to just 52 seats from its 2014 score of 44.

Gandhi had expressed his desire to resign as party chief during the Congress Working Committee meeting held on May 25, but members of the party’s most powerful body rejected his offer unanimously.

According to reports, Rahul Gandhi even shot down suggestions that any other member of the Gandhi family could lead the party.

Reports say that Gandhi has been asked to remain as a caretaker chief until a replacement is identified.

Rahul Gandhi, who was elected unopposed as party president in 2017, is the 16th Congress president since Independence and the sixth person from the Nehru-Gandhi family to lead the party.

Under his leadership, the Congress managed to unseat the Bharatiya Janata Party from three Hindi heartland states – Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan – during the 2018 Assembly elections. But it not only failed to beat the BJP in the general elections just a few months later, the saffron party returned to power with more seats than it had won in 2014.

The result shows that the expectation that Rahul Gandhi’s leadership would rejuvenate the party was misplaced.

Despite this, several top leaders are attempting to persuade him to continue as president for the sake of the party.

But this is not the first time that the party is facing such a crisis. Through the decades, several decisions surrounding Congress presidents have created controversy. Here is looking at how some of them played out.

When Mahatma Gandhi forced Netaji Bose to resign as Congress president

Historians point out that the Left had a significant presence in the Congress during the 1930s, which saw Subhas Chandra Bose elected as party president during the Congress’s 58th annual session in Haripura, Gujarat, in 1938.

Bose’s victory was attributed to the support of most of the senior Congress leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel.

A year later, during the party’s Tripuri Session, Bose rebelled against Mahatma Gandhi and stood for election to the post again. Mahatma Gandhi had made it clear that he did not want Bose to seek re-election.

Bose won that election, defeating Pattabhi Sitaramayya – a lesser known candidate backed by senior party leaders – by 205 votes.

Bose had based his election campaign on the issue of cooperation with the British. While Bose was against any understanding with the British, Mahatma Gandhi wanted to collaborate with them for a new form of government.

Bose’s victory shattered Gandhi. “The defeat is more mine than his,” Gandhi declared in a letter.

In his book, The Man who Saved India, journalist Hindol Sengupta writes, “To weaken Bose’s position, Gandhi even issued a public statement advocating ‘unconditional cooperation with Britain in the prosecution of the war’. Bose, as president, demanded a mass civil disobedience, instead, against the British Raj.”

Mahatma Gandhi’s pressure tactics worked, and all members of the Congress Working Committee resigned except for Bose and his brother Sarat Chandra Bose. Left with no choice, Bose finally resigned as party president in 1939, and Rajendra Prasad took over.

Mahatma Gandhi's disapproval led Subhas Chandra Bose to resign as Congress president in 1939.
Mahatma Gandhi's disapproval led Subhas Chandra Bose to resign as Congress president in 1939.

How a ‘bearded, venerable orthodox Hindu’ Purushottamdas Tandon resigned because of Nehru

As 1949 was nearing its end, and India was on the verge of a transformation from a dominion to Republic, serious differences emerged between Nehru and his deputy Patel.

While Nehru wanted C Rajagopalachari, the Governor General at the time, as India’s first president, and had even assured him that he would be nominated for the post, Patel favoured Rajendra Prasad.

Since Prasad, who had Patel’s backing, was more popular than Rajagopalachari in the Congress, Nehru had to concede.

A few months later, Nehru and Patel had another disagreement over who should be named the first Congress president of independent India. Patel had recommended Purushottamdas Tandon, who Nehru described as “a bearded, venerable orthodox Hindu”.

In his book, India After Gandhi, historian Ramachandra Guha writes how Nehru had criticised Tandon for backing the imposition of Hindi on all regions of India. Nehru was also upset with Tandon for speaking about revenge against Pakistan at a conference of refugees.

“India, Nehru believed, needed the healing touch, a policy of reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims,” writes Guha. “The election of Tandon as the president of the premier political party, the prime minister’s own party, would send all the wrong signals.”

Despite Nehru’s reservations, Tandon won easily at the Congress’s annual session in 1950. This irked Nehru so much that he wrote to Rajagopalachari about how he felt that Tandon’s election was considered more important than his presence in the party.

Nehru threatened to resign, claiming that communalist and reactionary forces were overjoyed with Tandon’s elevation as Congress party chief. He added that the “spirit of communalism and revivalism have gradually invaded Congress”.

Within a few months of this incident, Patel died of a heart attack in Bombay, in December 1950.

About nine months later, Tandon resigned as party president because of differences with Nehru. On September 8, 1951, the Congress passed a resolution declaring Nehru as its new president.

Nehru did not approve of Purushottamdas Tandon.
Nehru did not approve of Purushottamdas Tandon.

Kamraj’s role in Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi’s elevation to PM post

Nehru died on May 27, 1964, after which the Congress started worrying about finding a successor. Though Home Minister Gulzarilal Nanda took over as caretaker prime minister, the party leadership was looking at those who enjoyed acceptability in the party to ensure a stable government.

Congress President K Kamaraj was entrusted with the job of finding India’s next prime minister. He began interviewing top party leaders, including several chief ministers.

One of the names that came up during these discussions was that of Gujarat Chief Minister Morarji Desai, who was seen as an able administrator, and who was also keen to take up the job.

However, during his conversations with national and state leaders, Kamraj realised that Lal Bahadur Shastri’s leadership had more acceptability than Desai’s. Realising this, Kamraj persuaded Desai to give up his claim. This led Shastri to take oath as India’s second prime minister in 1964.

But Shastri died of a heart attack two years later during an official visit to Uzbekistan, after signing the Tashkent Declaration. His death, yet again, reignited the power struggle within the Congress for the post of prime minister.

Desai was quick to make his claim, but Kamraj had other plans. He wanted Indira Gandhi for the top job and worked behind the scenes with senior leaders to endorse her name for the post. Desai lobbied with party leaders too, but Indira Gandhi’s claim was bolstered by the fact that she was Nehru’s daughter. On January 19, 1966, the Congress Parliamentary Party voted in favour of Indira Gandhi, making her India’s third prime minister.

K Kamraj worked behind the scenes to make Indira Gandhi prime minister in 1966. (Photo credit: Warren K Leffler/Wikimedia Commons).
K Kamraj worked behind the scenes to make Indira Gandhi prime minister in 1966. (Photo credit: Warren K Leffler/Wikimedia Commons).

When Indira Gandhi split the Congress over VV Giri

A year later, Zakir Hussain was elected as the third President of India. However, he died two years later, in 1969. The tussle to chose the next president led to an all out war within the Congress. While one faction was led by the older generation of Congress leaders, the other was led by Indira Gandhi.

The Congress had announced Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy as its candidate for president while VV Giri had filed his nomination as an independent. Defying the party leadership, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi decided to throw her weight behind Giri.

An infuriated S Nijalingappa, the Congress president at that time, expelled Indira Gandhi from the party for defying the party line. However, by then, she had managed to secure the support of a large number of party leaders and MPs.

Indira Gandhi’s expulsion from the Congress led her to form her own faction known as Congress (Requisitionist), which later became the Congress (Indira). The faction led by the old guard was known as Congress (Organisation), which was led by Nijalingappa.

As many as 220 MPs joined Indira’s Gandhi’s faction, which was just 45 seats short of a majority in Parliament. She asked the Communist Party of India and Independents for support, which helped her reached the majority figure. She returned to power with a huge majority in the 1971 general elections.

When Kesri did not see his ouster coming

After Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in 1991, and the Congress emerged as the single-largest party in the general elections that year, PV Narasimha Rao took charge as prime minister, leading a coalition government supported by the Left.

At that time, Congress leaders had begged Sonia Gandhi to take charge of the party, but she declined.

Rao was subsequently elected Congress president.

The party’s dismal performance in the 1996 elections and allegations of corruption against Rao, however, led party leaders to demand his resignation as party chief. Rao resigned as head of the party in September that year, and Sitaram Kesri was elected his successor.

Senior Congress leaders continued to coax Sonia Gandhi to play a more prominent role in the party. In 1997, Sonia Gandhi capitulated and announced that she would campaign for the party for the 1998 Lok Sabha elections.

Kesri was still the president of the Congress, but pressure was mounting on him to quit to allow Sonia Gandhi to take over.

Kesri, however, did not want to go so easily.

On March 14, 1998, he arrived at the Congress headquarters at 24 Akbar Road to attend a Congress Working Committee meeting, confident that it would be against the party’s Constitution to remove an elected president.

He was greeted by no one else except Tariq Anwar at the meeting. Thereafter, Pranab Mukherjee began reading out a resolution thanking Kesri for his services.

Little did Kesri know that the majority of Congress Working Committee members had a meeting at Mukherjee’s residence prior to the scheduled meeting, where they agreed to pass a resolution thanking Kesri for his services, and another announcing that Sonia Gandhi would be taking over as the new party president.

An infuriated Kesri left the meeting. Sonia Gandhi served as president for 19 years and is the Congress’s longest serving president. In 2017, she made way for her son to take over as party president.