Dadabhai Naoroji to Nehru; Indira to Sonia: Profiles of Congress presidents
Rahul Gandhi is likely to be made president of the Congress party in December, taking charge of a position which was filled up by freedom fighters before independence and later became a source of great power. Here is a full list of Congress presidents.
Womesh Chunder Bonnerjee, Bombay (Mumbai) 1885 and Allahabad 1892
Bonnerjee, a successful lawyer in Calcutta and an anglophile, was the first president of the Indian National Congress (INC) and the first Indian to contest the election to the British Parliament. At the second session of INC in Allahabad, he denounced the notion that India must prove its worthiness for greater political powers. Banerjee settled in Britain in 1902, advocating “representative and responsible government in India”, helping the Congress and practising before the Privy Council.
Dadabhai Naoroji, Calcutta (Kolkata) 1886 and 1906, and Lahore 1898
Naoroji, a mathematics professor, businessman and thinker, was the first Asian to be elected to the British Parliament. Naoroji’s book ‘Poverty and Un-British Rule in India’ accused the colonial rulers of impoverishing India and causing its “utter exhaustion and destruction”. Naoroji was a co-founder of the INC and a political moderate who mentored Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
Budruddin Tyabji, Madras (Chennai) 1887
Tyabji was the first Muslim president of the INC, calling for “self-government” and Muslims to work “shoulder to shoulder with their fellow-countrymen of other races and creeds, for the common benefit of all”. Tyabji was the first Indian barrister of the Bombay High Court and later the chief justice, becoming the first Indian to hold that post. As a reformer, he opposed purdah and promoted women’s education.
George Yule, Allahabad, 1888
Yule was a Scottish businessman who headed Kolkata’s Andrew Yule company, was that city’s sheriff for a while and president of the Indian Chamber of Commerce. He was the first non-Indian president of the INC, accepting the party’s invitation at its Allahabad session in 1888.
Sir William Wedderburn, Bombay and Allahabad, 1889 and 1910
Wedderburn, a Scotsman, was an Indian Civil Service officer in India for 27 years and after retirement a British MP who sought to protect the country’s interests. As a civil servant and an MP, he promoted a variety of causes: from finding funds for a girls’ school in Mumbai to opposing military expeditions beyond India’s frontiers. He presided over the fourth Congress held in Bombay in 1889.
Pherozeshah Mehta, Calcutta, 1890
Mehta, a lawyer, drafted the Bombay Municipal Act of 1872, worked as the vice chancellor of the Bombay University and founded the newspaper Bombay Chronicle. He was the leading moderate voice in the Congress and had “undoubted faith” in “English culture and English civilisation”. He wanted self-government for India under British rule.
Panambakkam Anandacharlu, Nagpur 1891
Anandacharlu was a leading advocate of the Madras High Court, a newspaper writer who helped in the founding of The Hindu and a political organiser. At the Nagpur session of the INC, he defended the idea of India as a nation and its “Hindu and Mohammedan populations” being “members of a single brotherhood”.
Alfred Webb, Madras 1894
Webb was an Irish nationalist, a parliamentarian, a campaigner for women’s rights and a supporter of anti-colonial movements outside Ireland. He was selected president of the INC at its Madras session in 1894 while on a visit to India.
Surendranath Banerjee, Poona (Pune) 1885 and Allahabad 1902
Banerjee was an early leader of India’s freedom movement and a political moderate who believed in accommodation and dialogue with the British. He started as a civil servant, a barrister and then a professor of English.
Rahimtulla M Sayani Calcutta, 1896
Sayani was a lawyer who held various positions in the Bombay Municipal Corporation, the Bombay Legislative Council and became the first Muslim sheriff of the city in 1885. When he presided over the 1896 Congress session in Calcutta, he called for promoting “personal intimacy and friendship amongst all the great communities of India”.
Sir Sankaran Nair, Amritsar 1897
Nair, a jurist and political moderate, held high positions in the British government despite his criticism of its policies. Nair was a member of the Viceroy’s Council in 1915 when he wrote a dissenting note on the ills of the British rule. In 1908, as a judge of the Madras High Court, he upheld conversion to Hinduism and ruled that such converts were not outcasts. Nair opposed Mahatma Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation Movement but also attacked the British for their crackdown under martial law.
Anand Mohan Bose, 1898 Madras
Bose, a lawyer, scholar, educationist and social reformer, was an early leader of India’s nationalist movement. He founded the Calcutta Students Association to organise students for political work. He and Surendranath Banerjea co-founded The Indian Association, the first national-level political organisation to campaign for citizens’ rights under British rule. Bose was the founder of City School and City College in Kolkata.
Romesh Chunder Dutt, Lucknow 1899
Dutt was a civil servant, economic historian, writer and translator of Indian classics. He, in 1883, became the first Indian to be appointed district magistrate, was professor of Indian history at University College, London, after his retirement and the Dewan (prime minister) of Baroda state on his return to India. Dutt, along with Major BD Basu and Dadabhai Nairoji, formulated an economic theory that emphasised how British colonial rule was causing ‘drainage of wealth’ from India. Dutt wrote a number of works on history, economics and translated the Mahabharata and Ramayana.
Narayan Ganesh Chandavarkar, Lahore 1900
Chandavarkar, a lawyer and judge in the Bombay High Court, was a political moderate who supported British rule in India. In September 1885, he visited London as a member of a three-man delegation sent by the Bombay Presidency Association to inform the British Parliament and people about the ‘situation in India’. Chandavarkar was a leader of the Prarthana Samaj, a Brahminical reform organisation that fought against child marriage and untouchability.
Dinshaw Edulji Wacha, Calcutta 1901
Wacha, a financial wizard and a member of the Bombay municipality for 40 years, steered the INC in its early years as its general secretary for many years and as the president in the 1901. In 1897, he reviewed the entire financial policy of the Indian government and pointed out various defects.
Lal Mohan Ghosh, Madras 1903
Ghosh, a Calcutta barrister, was a liberal and moderate who believed in constitutional means to achieve British type of institutions and rule of law. He believed in Western education and compulsory primary education in India. In 1879, Ghose travelled to Britain to present India’s concerns during the general election there.
Sir Henry Cotton, Bombay 1904
Cotton, who was the chief secretary of Bengal and later the governor of Assam during his career as a civil servant, was a liberal who opposed British rule in India and imperialism. His books New India, or India in Transition, and India and Home Memories supported the Indian nationalist movement. As a British MP later, he formed a radical pro-Indian parliamentary group.
Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Benares (Varanasi) 1905
Gokhale, whom Mahatma Gandhi himself called his political guru, was a political moderate and liberal, ‘attempting to persuade the British with morality and reason’. He campaigned for the end of caste discrimination, education of women and “universal, secular, free, and compulsory education” for all children. Gokhale’s liberal ideology imagined an India ‘supporting all-round liberties for the individual and advocating a just society free from religious and caste prejudices. Mahatma Gandhi said of Gokhale: “As pure as crystal, as gentle as a lamb, as brave as a lion, and the most perfect man in the political field.”
Rash Behari Ghosh, Surat 1907 and Madras 1908
Ghosh, a lawyer, social worker and philanthropist made a fortune as a lawyer in Calcutta and donated lavishly for endowment for scientific studies at Calcutta University and a National Council of Education at Jadavpur. Ghosh’s leadership of the Congress was tumultuous: the moderate and extremist wings of the party were competing for control when they met at the 1907 Surat session. The party split because the extremists wanted a resolution on Swaraj and the moderates held back. Then an election for presidentship of the party was held for the first time and in between the extremists were expelled. Ghosh, a moderate, became the president of the Surat session.
Madan Mohan Malaviya, Lahore 1909, Delhi 1918 and 1932
Malaviya, a leading figure of the freedom movement, was a man of achievements: the founder of Banaras Hindu University; a lawyer who secured the release of 156 freedom fighters accused in the Chauri Chaura case; he was one of the founders of Scouting in India. He was an early leader of the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha, a Hindu nationalist party, but an advocate of Hindu-Muslim unity.
Bishan Narayan Dar, Calcutta 1911
Dar, a Lucknow lawyer, was the first Kashmiri Pandit to have gone to England for higher studies. Dar’s action created a controversy, for at that time foreign visit was considered sacrilegious by some Hindus. Dar had to perform purificatory rites to be readmitted by his community. Dar wrote poetry in Urdu and was a moderate who called British rule “still the greatest gift of Providence to my race”, but blamed the bureaucracy for being the “root cause of most of our misfortunes”.
Raghunath Narasinha Mudholkar, Bankipur 1912
Mudholkar, a leading lawyer of Amravati, was a follower of Gopal Krishna Gokhale and believed the national movement should be in cooperation with the British. Mudholkar advocated social reforms like female education, widow remarriage and removal of untouchability in Hinduism.
Nawab Syed Muhammad, Karachi 1913
Muhammad belonged to one of the wealthiest families in southern India and a descendant of Tipu Sultan from his mother’s heritage. He was the first Muslim Sheriff of Madras, a member of the Madras Legislative Council in 1900 and the Imperial Legislative Council. A staunch Congressman, Muhammad spoke strongly for communal amity and, as a moderate, believed in British sense of justice and fair play.
Bhupendra Nath Bose, Madras 1914
Bose, the owner of a law firm in Calcutta, was a member of the Bengal legislature, an adviser to the British government and later the vice chancellor of the University of Calcutta. Bose, a moderate, supported Britain in the First World War. “Whatever intrigues Germany may stir up in Turkey, Muslim and Hindu in India are alike united in their unswerving devotion and loyalty to the Empire in this crisis,” he said as the Congress president.
Lord Satyendra Prasanna Sinha, Bombay 1915
Sinha, a leading lawyer of the Calcutta High Court, was the first Indian advocate general of Bengal, the first Indian to become a member of the Viceroy’s Council, the first Indian to become a member of the British ministry and the first Indian governor of an Indian province (then Bihar and Orissa). Sinha was a political moderate and believed Indians should campaign for political rights through constitutional means alone.
Ambica Charan Mazumdar, Lucknow 1916
Mazumdar was a successful lawyer and a leading member of the nationalist movement in Bengal. He was selected the president of the 31st session of the INC in 1916 when the Lucknow Pact between the Congress and the Muslim League was signed and the moderate and extremist wings of the party came together.
Annie Besant, Calcutta 1917
Besant was a British social reformer, women’s rights campaigner, and a socialist who became a spiritualist. Besant first visited India in 1893 and after settling in the country, she was a key figure in the political scene. She established the Indian Home Rule League In 1916 to campaign for democracy in India and Dominion Status within the British Empire. She was elected president of the Congress in 1917. Besant was a leader of the Theosophical Society, the campaigner for a religious movement based on Hindu ideas of karma and reincarnation.
Syed Hasan Imam, Bombay, 1918
Imam, hailed as one of the finest barristers of his time, resigned a judgeship at the Calcutta High Court to set up a legal practice in Patna and take a leading role in Congress politics in Bihar. Imam, a moderate, opposed Gandhi’s 1920 Non-Cooperation Movement but joined the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1930 and campaigned for the boycott of foreign goods. Imam was elected president at the 1918 special session of the Congress in Bombay, where the party declared that the people of India were fit for responsible government.
Motilal Nehru, Amritsar 1919 and Calcutta 1928
Nehru was a prosperous Allahabad lawyer -- he owned the city’s first car -- and a modernist who twice served as president of the Congress party. He chaired the Nehru Commission in 1928, a counter to the all-British Simon Commission.
Lala Lajpat Rai, Calcutta 1920
Rai was one of the leaders of the Lal Bal Pal trio, who championed a more assertive nationalism through the Swadeshi movement between 1905 and 1918, calling for the boycott of imported items and advocated the use of Indian-made goods. Rai’s politics was influenced by his deep faith in Hinduism and he was involved in the Arya Samaj movement. Rai was leading a protest march in Lahore on October 30, 1928 when the police attacked him and his supporters. “Every blow on our bodies this afternoon is like a nail driven into the coffin of British imperialism,” Rai said in a speech. He succumbed to his injuries 20 days later.
C Vijayaraghavachariar, Nagpur 1920
Vijayaraghavachariar, a lawyer, was hailed by newspapers as the The Hero of Salem or The Lion of South India after he fought and won a court case in which he had been found guilty of instigating violence that led to the demolition of a mosque. He was one of the members of the committee that drafted the INC’s constitution in 1887 and was instrumental in adopting the resolution on ‘Declaration of Rights’ at the Congress’s Amristar session in 1919.
Hakim Ajmal Khan, Ahmedabad 1921
Khan was a distinguished physician of Unani, the Islamic system of medicine, and a founder of the Jamia Millia Islamia University, becoming its first chancellor in 1920. He is the only person to be elected the president of the Congress, the Muslim League and the All India Khilafat Committee.
Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, Gaya 1923
Das, a leading politician of Bengal between 1917 and 1925, was a lawyer who successfully defended Aurobindo Ghosh in the Alipore bomb case. He led the Non-Cooperation Movement in Bengal, brought out a newspaper and when the Calcutta Municipal Corporation was formed, he became its first mayor. He resigned as the Congress president at the Gaya session after losing a resolution that called for the party to enter state legislatures to Gandhi’s faction. He and Motilal Nehru then founded the Swaraj Party. For his philanthropy and patriotism, Das was called ‘Deshbandhu’. “Chittaranjan Das was one of the greatest men... one of the jewels among the servants of India,” Gandhi said about him.
Maulana Mohammad Ali Jouhar, Cocanada 1923
Jouhar, a scholar, journalist, poet and a founder of the All India Muslim League, was the sixth Muslim to become the president of the INC in 1923 but soon began to “drift away” from the party after Mahatma Gandhi suspended the 1922 Non-Cooperation Movement and the Khilafat Movement failed. Many consider Jouhar to be an inspiring figure for the Pakistan movement. But he once said: “Where God commands I am a Muslim first, a Muslim second, and a Muslim last, and nothing but a Muslim… But where India is concerned, where India’s freedom is concerned, I am an Indian first, an Indian second, an Indian last, and nothing but an Indian.”
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Delhi 1923 and Ramgarh 1939-45
Azad stands along with Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru as one of the foremost leaders of the freedom movement. He was a scholar, a journalist, an orator and the youngest Congress president at 35. Azad spent a total of 10 years in jail for his role in the freedom movement. Rajaji called him the ‘The Great Akbar of Today’. As India’s first education minister, he laid the foundations of India’s modern learning system: from setting the pattern of school textbooks to setting up IIT Kharagpur.
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Belgaum 1924
Gandhi was the leader of India’s independence movement. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, in his book Mahatma Gandhi: Essays and Reflections, describes him as: “Time has discredited heroes as easily it has forgotten everyone else; but the saints remain. The greatness of Gandhi is more in his holy living than in his heroic struggles, in his insistence on the creative power of the soul and its life-giving quality at a time when the destructive forces seem to be in the ascendant.”
Sarojini Naidu, Cawnpore (Kanpur) 1925
Naidu, a poet, orator and progressive thinker, was among the leading freedom fighters of her time. After independence, she became the first governor of the United Provinces (now Uttar Pradesh). Her birthday, March 2, is honoured as Women’s Day in India.
S Sreenivasa Iyengar, Gauhati (Guwahati) 1926
Iyengar, a lawyer, resigned as the advocate general of the Madras province in protest against the Jallianwala Bagh massacre and joined the Congress. He was the leading mind of Congress for 10 years in the Madras province in the 1920s, but in 1923 he broke away along with Motilal Nehru and Chittaranjan Das to form the Swarajya Party.
Mukhtar Ahmed Ansari, Madras 1927
Ansari, a leading physician from Uttar Pradesh, served as president of the INC and the Muslim League. He was one of the founders of the Jamia Millia Islamia University, serving as its chancellor from 1928 to 1936. Ansari led a medical mission to Turkey in December 1912 to help wounded soldiers of the Turkish army in the Balkan War.
Jawaharlal Nehru, Lahore 1929, Lucknow 1936 and Faizpur 1937
Nehru was India’s first prime minister and the builder of many of its institutions. Shashi Tharoor, in his biography of the man, describes him as: “For the first seveenteen years of India’s independence, the paradox-ridden Jawaharlal Nehru--a moody, idealist intellectual who felt an almost mystical empathy with the toiling peasant masses; an aristocrat, accustomed to privilege, who had passionate socialist convictions; an Anglicized product of Harrow and Cambridge who spent over ten years in British jails, an agnostic radical who became an unlikely protégé of the saintly Mahatma Gandhi-- was India.”
Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Karachi 1931
Patel was called ‘India’s Bismarck’ and along with Gandhi and Nehru, he was “a leading member of the triumvirate which conducted the last phase of India’s freedom struggle”. B Krishna in his biography of Patel says: “He was the ‘saviour’ and the ‘builder’. Non-violently, he demolished the princely order Lord Wellesley had created; and in January 1946, he had nearly buried Pakistan in Karachi. Post-independence, Patel was the creator of New India just as Surendranath Banerjea was the father of political consciousness to the newly educated class of Indians in the 19th century; and Gandhi, the awareness of mass awakening pre-Independence.”
Nellie Sengupta, Calcutta 1933
Sengupta (born Edith Ellen Gray) married Jatindra Mohan Sengupta, a zamindar’s son from Bengal, after they fell in love at Cambridge. She followed him to Calcutta where the couple were active in Congress’s nationalist movement. Sengupta was elected Congress chief after president-elect Madan Mohan Malviya was arrested, becoming the third woman and the second European-born woman to hold that post.
Rajendra Prasad, Bombay 1904
Rajendra Prasad, India’s first President, took office on January 26, 1950, the day India celebrates as Republic Day, and remained in the post for 12 years till May 13, 1962. He died the next year.
Subhas Chandra Bose, 1938 and 1939, Haripura and Tripuri
Popularly known as Netaji, Bose was best known for his Azad Hind Fauj and his daring escape out of his Calcutta house, outfoxing the British police. His death in 1945 in a plane crash remains the source of enduring mystery and conspiracy theories.
JB Kripalani, Meerut 1947
Kriplani taught English and History at a college in Bihar from 1912 to 1917. He also taught at the Banaras Hindu University and was the principal of the Gujarat Vidyapeeth founded by Mahatma Gandhi. During his time at the Gujarat Vidyapeeth, he came to be called Acharya Kripalani. He was arrested in 1942 during the Quit India movement and was released in 1945. Kripalani was elected the president of the INC in November 1946.
B Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Jaipur 1948-49
Sitaramayya was a doctor by profession and in 1919, he started an English weekly, the Janmabhumi. He became a member of the All India Congress Committee in 1916. He was arrested and sent to a year in prison in 1930 after breaking the Salt Law by leading volunteers to the sea-shore near Masulipatnam and making salt. He was jailed again in 1933 for picketing a shop selling foreign cloth. He was also arrested during the Quit India Movement. In 1948, he was elected president of the Jaipur session of the INC. He was the governor of Madhya Pradesh from 1952 to 1957.
Purushottam Das Tandon, Nasik 1950
Tandon was a campaigner for Hindi to be made India’s national language. He practised law at the Allahabad high court and later organised ‘kisan sabhas’ to generate support for the freedom struggle. He was arrested for participating in the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1921. He was the Speaker of the Uttar Pradesh assembly from 1937 to 1950 and a member of the Constituent Assembly that drafted the Constitution. Tandon was also elected to the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha and was given the Bharat Ratna award in 1961.
Indira Gandhi, Delhi 1959 and 1978-83, Calcutta 1983 & 84
Jawaharlal Nehru died in 1964 and his only child, Indira Gandhi, joined the cabinet and later became the first woman prime minister of India. Following public unrest after a high court found her guilty of electoral corruption, Gandhi declared a state of emergency in 1975. She lost the election to Janata Party in 1977. In 1980, Gandhi returned for her fourth term as the PM. She was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards after the army attacked militants holed up in Golden Temple.
Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy, Bangalore 1960, Bhavnagar 1961, Patna 1962-63
Reddy was a prominent political leader from Andhra Pradesh. He discontinued studying at college to join the independence movement launched by Mahatma Gandhi, taking part in the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1931. He was an active participant of the Quit India Movement. He was also part of the Constituent Assembly. He became the first chief minister of the new state of Andhra Pradesh. Reddy was the Lok Sabha Speaker from 1967 to 1969. He later became the sixth President of India, serving from 1977 to 1982.
K Kamaraj, Bhubaneswar 1964, Durgapur 1965, Jaipur 1966-67
Kamaraj played a leading role in shaping India’s destiny from the passing away of Jawaharlal Nehru to the Congress split in 1969, according to the party’s website. He was 18 years old when he joined the Non-Cooperation Movement. In 1930, he joined the Salt Satyagraha Movement and was sentenced to two years in prison. He went to prison six times and spent more than 3,000 days in British jails. He became the chief minister of Madras in 1954. A split in the Congress in 1969 adversely impacted his political standing. He was given the Bharat Ratna award posthumously.
Siddavanalli Nijalingappa, Hyderabad 1968, Faridabad 1969
Nijalingappa was born in a Hindu Lingayat family in a village in the Bellary district. He graduated from the Central College, Bangalore in 1924, and got his law degree from the Law College, Poona in 1926. He was the first chief minister of Karnataka. When the Indian National Congress split during the time he led it, Nijalingappa sided with the organisation front against the faction led by Indira Gandhi.
Jagjivan Ram, Bombay 1970-71
In 1934, Ram founded the Akhil Bhartiya Ravidas Mahasabha in Calcutta and the All India Depressed Classes League. Through these organisations, he involved the backward classes in the freedom struggle. He was of the view that Dalit leaders should not only fight for social reforms but also demand political representation. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, he got involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement and Satyagraha.
Shankar Dayal Sharma, Calcutta 1972-74
Sharma was a lawyer by profession, and the President of India from 1992 to 1997. He was jailed for eight months for his involvement in the freedom struggle. He debuted in national politics in 1971 when he was elected to the Lok Sabha. He was the communication minister in the Congress-led government under Indira Gandhi. Sharma also served as the governor of Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Maharashtra.
Devankanta Barua, Chandigarh 1975-77
Barua is known for his remark ‘India is Indira, Indira is India’. Although he was an Indira loyalist, Barua joined the anti-Indira faction when the Congress split. He was the Speaker of the Assam assembly and education minister of the state. He later became a Union minister in the Indira government.
Rajiv Gandhi, Bombay 1985–91
His brother Sanjay Gandhi’s death in 1980 and his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 pushed Rajiv Gandhi into politics. His career was tarred by sectarian bloodshed, and he lost the PM’s post in 1989. Gandhi was assassinated while he was campaigning in May 1991. He was killed along with 17 others, including the female suicide assassin, during a rally in Tamil Nadu.
PV Narasimha Rao, Tirupati 1992–96
Rao was the ninth prime minister of India. He inherited an economy on the verge of an international default and a foreign policy that needed to change after the Soviet Union’s collapse. He backed his finance minister Manmohan Singh to launch radical economic reforms. The destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992 led to riots across the country during his term.
Sitaram Kesri, Calcutta 1996–98
Kesri joined the freedom movement in Bihar at the age of 13. He was arrested by the British several times in 1930, 1932 and 1933. He served as a Union minister in charge of many portfolios. He presided over the INC session at Calcutta in 1997.
Sonia Gandhi, since 1998
Sonia Gandhi has been at the helm for nearly two decades now, making her the longest serving president of the party. She led the Congress to victory in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, but made Manmohan Singh the prime minister. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance returned to power in the 2009 general election. The Congress won 206 Lok Sabha seats, which was then the highest total by any party since 1991. The UPA government introduced landmark reforms like MNREGA and Right to Information, but corruption allegations against its ministers and Sonia’s son-in-law, Robert Vadra, dented her image. The Congress in 2014 suffered its worst election defeat.
(The names of some cities in this story are historical.)