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The Indian National Congress

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The British like to think they created modern India, but the firm foundation of the Indian state and the growth of a powerful Indian national identity is no less the achievement of the Indian Congress Party, a fact reflected in the similarities between the Congress flag before independence and the flag of the Republic of India.

'The Congress is the Country', declared Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minster of India in 1953, 'and the country is the Congress'. This is a striking remark to make of one political institution, and a particularly striking remark to make of one political party in a democracy. Nehru was referring to the Indian National Congress, one of the world's oldest political parties, founded well before the great communist parties or the other Afro-Asian nationalist parties, and one of the world's largest parties with a membership which since the 1920s has numbered millions. Nehru was also talking, and with richly deserved pride, of one of the world's successful political parties. Consider some of its more notable achievements: the fashioning of a sense of nationhood in what is ethnically and culturally the most diverse grouping of people in the world; the creation of the organising frame of a nationalist movement which was able, largely by peaceful means, to raise the price of empire in India to levels the British were no longer willing to pay; the almost unparalleled achievement in the annals of decolonisation of making the transition from being sole representative of the national cause to being just one element in the competitive party system of the post-colonial era, though admittedly the dominant one; winning six out of seven general elections and ruling for thirty-two of the thirty-five years since independence in a fashion which, as compared with other new nations, has brought tolerable stability and reasonably effective government.

As Nehru suggested, the Congress is responsible for much of the Indian political achievement, an achievement from which the West traditionally derives much comfort. The existence of one of the world's poorest countries as a democracy calms fears of the inevitable progress of Marxism in developing societies. The sight of hundreds of millions of illiterate peasants regularly going to the polls gives new heart to western democrats, although they would be unwise to place too much faith in peasant adherence to democracy as they understand it. Westerners tend to know something of the great leaders of modern India, of the saintly and politically skilful Mahatma Gandhi, who came to symbolise the Indian nationalist movement, of Jawaharlal Nehru, his much loved but not uncritical disciple, who became the leader of newly independent India, and of Nehru's daughter, Indira Gandhi, who for over fifteen years has seemed to mould the development of Indian politics around her personality. But we tend to know rather less about the Congress, about the history and the characteristics of the political organisation which they have all helped to shape, and on which their achievements were based.

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