During the first twenty years of its inception the Congress was completely controlled by the liberal leaders known as the Moderates. Every community of the country was represented in the organisation and it was truly a national body. Most of the leaders came from the upper strata of the society and were the product of western education. Some of the notable leaders of the early congress were Dada Bhai Naoroji, Pheroz Shah Mehta, M.G. Ranade, Baddrudin Tyabji, G.K. Gokhale, S.N. Banerjee, W.C. Banerjee, Subramanyam Iyer etc.
The early congress enjoyed the good will and sympathy of the British authority. But this attitude lasted hardly for three to four years giving place to an attitude of suspicion, intolerance and even of positive hostility. In the first two years of its existence, the congress merely passed paper resolutions. But after being dissatisfied with the attitude of the government by 1887, the congress started a campaign of agitation against the various acts, omissions and commissions of the government by means of public meetings, pamphlets and leaflets.This led the government to reverse its policy towards the congress, Dufferin ridiculed it as representing only a microscopic minority of the people. In 1900 Lord Curzon announced to the Secretary of state that "the congress is tottering to its fall, and one of my great ambitions, while in India, is to assist it to a peaceful demise."
During this period the congress demanded appointment of a royal commission, reduction in military expenditure, protection of trade by import and export duties, industrialisation of India, separation of judiciary and executive, freedom of press and, speech, reduction of revenue, expansion of legislative council, representation of Indians in the legislature, appointment of Indians to higher posts, opening of technical and professional colleges etc. The demands suggest that the congress acted as a spokesman of every interest and section of the people. The demands were moderate because the leaders believed in piecemeal reforms and subscribed to the philosophy of gradualism
They followed the method of prayer, petition, persuation, representation and deputation in order to convince the government about the justness of their demands. This method was called the 'method of medicancy'. The moderates had complete faith in the British sense of justice and therefore functioned within constitutional limits. They attempted to regenerate Indian society in all fields of life and enlighten British public opinion and parliament concerning Indian affairs. Dadabhai Naoroji spent a major part of his life and income in England in popularising India's case among its people. The Moderates were loyal to the British Government. They believed that India has benefitted in many ways under British rule. So they desired self-rule for India but they were not prepared to break up ties with Britain. They considered the interest of Britain and India as allied rather than antagonistic.
Thus the moderates made a humble but correct beginning. They infused national consciousness among the people, provided political education to the Indians, propagated the ideas of liberty, self-government and democracy and helped in organising public opinion against the British rule. They, at the same time failed to take account of the pit falls of foreign rule. Bipan Chandra has opined that the moderates failed because of thier wrong beliefs. They failed to realise that there existed conflicts of interest of the rulers and the ruled. They attached too much importance to the British sense of justice and fairplay. They failed to keep pace with the yearnings and aspirations of the people.
Despite the failures the Moderates did the pioneering work in exposing the true character of British Imperialism in India. The agitation of the Moderates in the economic field completely undermined the moral foundation of British rule in India. In spite of their many failures they laid strong foundations for the national movement to grow upon and they deserve a high place among the makers of modern India. In the opinion of M.N. Roy, " It was the golden period of modern Indian history." Though the immediate gains of the Moderates were insignificant, their contribution towards political and national awakening was of permanent value to India.