After my last post “How Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister: Prelude to the Congress Split” some of the readers pressed upon me to write a deeper explanation for the phenomenon known as the Syndicate. Hence this post:
By the end of 1963, Nehru was dying. For the first time in sixteen years since independence, New Delhi was rife with speculation about the question – “After Nehru, who?” To answer this question, four men met at the Tirupathi Temple in the beginning of October, 1963. These were K Kamaraj, the former Chief Minister of Madras, Sanjiva Reddy, an Andhra leader, Nijalingappa, the Chief Minister of Mysore and Atulya Ghosh, the president of Bengal Congress Committee. Together, these men controlled the power of the Congress party in non-Hindi states. Soon, along with a Maharashtra leader SK Patil, they will be come to known as the Syndicate.
Ostensibly, the leaders were at Tirupathi to offer worship at the shrine, but secretly they were together to discuss the future of the country and how to shape it after Nehru. The two questions in front of them were who shall be the next Prime Minister and who will become the next president of the Congress Party, a post that would be tremendously important after Nehru’s death. It wasn’t so much that they agreed on who should fill these posts as who should not – Morarji Desai. Desai was the most prominent leader in the party after Nehru and most likely to succeed him. However, his very prominence was a threat to the Syndicate. Had he become the Prime Minister, his domination would have been complete, leaving the Syndicate members to the fringes. The Syndicate wanted someone more malleable, someone they could control.
Individually the members of the Syndicate were important but minor players in the party, together they proved to be a formidable force. How they ended up becoming the kingmakers of the country is the story of emerging inter-state politics in India. The North, especially Uttar Pradesh, has always dominated the top-level politics in India. For the first thirty years after independence, Allahabad alone supplied all three Prime Ministers. It wasn’t until 1991, that India had its first Southern Prime Minister. Even today, nine out of India’s thirteen Prime Ministers have been from UP. In 1963, it was inconceivable for someone to become India’s Prime Minister without carrying at least some part of UP.
But the size that made UP so important also made it immaterial. Since 1955, the state Congress party had been mired in factional disputes and politicians jostling for power. The immense size of the state made this inevitable; but it also meant that while support from some part of UP was symbolically important to become Prime Minister, none could or needed to carry the entire state. Meanwhile, the other source of power in the North – Bihar – was undergoing a leadership vacuum since the death of its two biggest leaders SK Sinha and AN Sinha since mid-1950s. And so the power rested in the hands of non-Hindi states of South, Bengal and Maharashtra. While they couldn’t supply the Prime Minister, they could decide who from the North would inherit Nehru’s mantle. Unlike the North, members of the syndicate were completely in control of their state Congress parties, and could in alliance, deliver the winning vote.
To translate this electoral power in real one, the Syndicate began by consolidating their hold on the high command of Congress Party – the Congress Working Committee. The committee oversaw the day-to-day workings of the party and – more importantly decided who all would get the party’s tickets for MP elections. In their efforts they found an ally in sick-but-still-powerful Nehru, who wanted to keep Desai out of the power as much as the Syndicate. With Nehru’s support, Kamaraj was elected as the President of Congress. Moreover, the Syndicate managed to get themselves and their supporters elected on the committee. Desai’s supporters like CB Gupta, couldn’t get even a single seat. The Syndicate now had keys to the capital.
When in May 1964 Nehru finally passed away, the Syndicate went into action immediately. Kamaraj needed time to line up the support behind the Syndicate before the discussion over succession became public. So he refused to bring up the issue on any Congress platform for three days, under the guise of a sign of respect for Nehru’s death. This ensured that Desai couldn’t make his move for those three days. What Desai wanted was an open election of all Congress MPs, in which he was confident he would win. To avoid such showdown, Kamaraj began dealing with the major party players through backchannels during those three days. By 30 May, he had gained his first victory – establishing the supremacy of the Working Committee over all other Congress bodies. It would be the committee which would decide the procedure for choosing the new Prime Minister.
With having gained the control of the agenda, the committee could set the pace of the procedure. Desai’s faction needed time to consolidate their support, the Syndicate could work faster. Within forty-eight hours they had lined up overwhelming support for their chosen candidate – Lal Bahadur Shastri. He had the support from all the Southern states, Bengal, Maharashtra as well as parts of UP and Bihar. Desai could only garner support from his home state Gujarat, and smatterings from rest of India. Even though his supporter included CB Gupta, former Chief Minister of UP and DP Mishra, former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, they could not deliver him those states due to the factional politics.
On the night of 1 June, Kamaraj met Desai in a closed door meeting. When they emerged, Desai declared to the press Congress’s unanimous consensus to elect Shastri as the new Prime Minister. Desai would in fact second his nomination. On 2 June, only six days after Nehru’s death, India had a new Prime Minister and it was the Syndicate who had ensured the smooth transition.
They had become the power behind the throne. They will continue to play a critical role in the Indian politics for the next five years, influencing government policies, choosing Cabinet members and setting the agenda of the party. In 1966, they will choose another Prime Minister after Shastri’s death, once again blocking Desai’s ambition.
But their choice for the Prime Minister, the second time will prove to be their demise. Within three years of Indira Gandhi becoming the Prime Minister, the Syndicate would have been ejected from their own party. Worse, many of them won’t even be able to keep their own MP seats. That would be the story of the Congress Split.
Sources: Brass, Paul R, “Uttar Pradesh,” in Wiener, Myron (ed.), State Politics in India, Princeton University Press, 1968; Kochanek, Stanley A, Congress Party of India: The Dynamics of One-Party Democracy, Princeton University Press, 1968; Narain, Iqbal (ed.), State Politics in India, Meenakshi Prakashan, 1976; Narasimhan, VK, Kamaraj: A Study, National Book Trust, 2007