On 4 October 1930, Muhammad Ali Jinnah was aboard a ship called Viceroy of India, setting sail from Bombay to London, ostensibly to participate in a political conference being called by King George V. However, unbeknownst to even the ones closest to him, Jinnah did not plan on returning to India for a long time, possibly forever. There simply seemed nothing to come back to in India. His wife Ruttie Jinnah, the love of his life, had died last year. The same could be said for his political career. While fifteen years ago, Jinnah was one of the fastest rising politicians in the country, now he was a marginalized figure with little political power or following. Despite all his brilliance and talent, the political climate of India seemed to have become too petty and self-destructive for him to succeed. So, instead, he had decided to embark on a new chapter of his life at the age of fifty-three by moving his practice to London and seeking a seat in the British Parliament. By the next year, his passport would list England rather than India as his place of residence. For the most part, Jinnah and India seemed finished with each other.
The idea that Jinnah would not only return to India but be at the helm of its second biggest political party by the end of the decade would have sounded farfetched at the time. The prediction that this barrister would singlehandedly altered the course of South Asian and world history by the end of the next decade, would have sounded down right impossible. It would be one of the greatest stories of comebacks in Indian politics. Aboard Viceroy of India, even Jinnah couldn’t foresee what the future held in store for him.
But then Jinnah’s entire career had been full of unpredictable turns. Thirty years ago, at the beginning of the twentieth century, his political rise seemed unstoppable. It was the time when everything seemed to be going his way. He was one of the highest-paid lawyers in Bombay, making more in a day than a municipal judge made in a month. He seemed to have all the right connections, even serving as secretary for Dadabhai Naoroji, the Grand Old Man of India and founder of the Congress party. Even his impeccable taste – he was famous for never wearing a silk tie twice – served him well in those days when it was still in fashion to appear as English as possible in Congress circles. Early on, he demonstrated exceptional skill at political negotiation, a skill which would remain practically unparalleled in Indian politics, serving him well when he would negotiate Pakistan’s secession at the time of independence.
Within the Congress party, he quickly rose to the national stage as a next-generation successor to leaders like Naoroji and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. By 1914, his stock in Congress had risen enough that when the party decided to send a deputation to London to present the case for reforms in India, he was chosen to head it. He also proved to be a legislative wizard, able to shepherd through nuts-and-bolts improvements within the government machinery. Yet, his most significant political achievement was to position himself as the poster child of Hindu-Muslim unity in the country. He often denounced forces that he believed were set to divide the two communities within India. This included a recently-formed small political party known as the Muslim League.
The League was formed in 1906, by a few Muslims (most of them wealthy elites), to protect the interests of the Muslim community in India. Loyal to the British rule, the party stood for gaining separate electorates for Muslims in municipal elections and other governing bodies. For Jinnah, this was an anathema to the united front that the Indian public needed to present against its colonial masters. From its beginning, the League’s leaders recognized the potential of this young leader and wanted to woo him over to their side. However, Jinnah continued to resist their inducements for several years. It was only after the League moved away from its loyalist bent that he considered becoming a member. Even then, he made it clear that his obligations to Congress party came first.
In fact, for him Congress and the League did not seem like two opposing forces but two halves ready to be joined together. Calling upon his skill of political negotiation and brokering compromise, he set about engineering the greatest achievement of his early political career – a pact between the two parties. In 1915, annual sessions of the two parties were held within walking distance of each other allowing leaders like Jinnah to zip in and out of both to hammer out a deal. The result was an agreement to develop a shared platform by the two parties, which eventually resulted in the Lucknow Pact in 1916. It was a seminal moment in the Hindu-Muslim unity in colonial India.
And Jinnah reveled in its glory. His position in Indian politics had catapulted to a new level. He had now become one of the architects of what was believed to be a new era of communal harmony. At the same time, he had helped bring back a splinter faction of Congress back into the party’s fold, raising his status even further. Soon thereafter, people of Bombay raised money to build a new building known as the People’s Jinnah Memorial Hall (known today as the PJ Hall). Jinnah’s standing seemed more solid than ever. Few leaders seemed more suited for the political environment of the time. Unfortunately for Jinnah, the political environment was about to go through a metamorphosis, for a frail-looking man had just arrived from South Africa by the name of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Gandhi was a political juggernaut unlike any seen by India before or since. Within a couple of years of his arrival, Indian politics changed from the era of polite negotiations within upper classes of the society to one of mass agitations and populism. Congress party transformed from a small group of intellectual elites to a behemoth populated by people of all stripes. While in 1914, Congress session was attended by around 850 delegates, in 1920, more than 14,500 delegates showed up. Party’s institutions fell one by one to the whirlwind of Gandhian politics. For the existing leadership, there were only two options – either join Gandhi or be decimated by his political road roller.
Whereas Jinnah was at the height of his popularity in 1916, he found himself outdated by the end of the decade. Indian politics simply did not have space for elite political insiders anymore. Leaders of Gandhian era needed to be earthier in their appearance and bigger firebrands in their speech. While many other leaders quickly rushed to exchange their Saville Row suits for khaddar kurtas, Jinnah was too set in his ways to change now. However, it wasn’t a question of style. He also vehemently disagreed with Gandhi on political issues. To him, Gandhi appeared to be a dangerous force. His extremist rhetoric, Jinnah feared, could plunge India into a spiral of instability. Worse, he believed that the Mahatma was a threat to India’s communal concord.
By 1920, Gandhi had built on Jinnah’s success at achieving Hindu-Muslim unity, by linking the pan-Islamic Khilafat Movement with his own Swaraj Campaign. This way he had tapped into the Lucknow Pact to bring forth new Gandhian-style leaders even within the Muslim community, once again threatening the establishment, and thereby Jinnah’s position.
Jinnah’s frustration with the situation was palpable. To Gandhi he wrote, “your methods have already caused split and division in … the public life of the country not only amongst Hindus and Muslims but between Hindus and Hindus, Muslims and Muslims and even between fathers and sons.” Along with many of the old guard like Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Annie Besant and CR Das, Jinnah tried to fight back the Gandhi express but it proved impossible. When Jinnah rose to argue against Gandhi’s Swaraj campaign in the 1920 Congress Session, he was booed off by the people. Overnight he had become a pariah in Congress party. His position in the League fell too, where populist Khilafat leaders had taken charge. Where only a few years ago he was a rising star of two major parties, now he mattered in neither.
Over the next couple of years Gandhi’s alliance with the Khilafat Movement fell through, ushering in a new era of Hindu-Muslim discord. Jinnah’s cherished Lucknow Pact now lay in tatters. On political level, this development was obscured by the internal collapse of the League, which was divided between populists and conservative factions. Out of these ashes, Jinnah tried to fashion a new “Moderate” party of Hindus and Muslims that would exclude Gandhi altogether. But the plan went nowhere.
Jinnah made yet another stab at political relevance in 1928 when he tried to broker another political compromise between Congress and Muslims. But this fell through as well. By 1930, Jinnah had spent almost a decade as a marginal character in Indian politics. It seemed near-impossible to find a way back to the powerful position that he once occupied. And so, he decided to move on, leaving India behind for the shores of London.
For the next three years, living as a successful barrister in England, complete with an English driver, he tried to get a ticket from the Labour Party to contest for a parliamentary seat. Perhaps if he had succeeded, he would have never returned to India and the history of the subcontinent would have been entirely different. But his dapper appearance proved just as unappealing to Labour voters as it was to Gandhian masses.
Failed once again, Jinnah turned his attention back home, where the League was clamoring for his return. The party had never really recovered from its split with Khilafat Movement. Over the years it had stumbled along, facing stiff competition from other Muslim parties and was rife with infighting. It needed someone of Jinnah’s stature to bring it back from life support.
By now, the leader and the party were also beginning to look like a good match. Over the years, Jinnah had moved away from his ideas of Hindu-Muslim unity and towards a more “separate but equal” approach on the communal question, as he saw his own chances of leading Congress evaporate and alienation of Indian Muslims from Congress grow. He had long abandoned his goal of ushering in an era of unadulterated Hindu-Muslim harmony. His new objective was, as one historian has famously put it, to become the “sole spokesman” for the Muslims of India. He, and he alone, would speak for the ninety-five million Muslims who lived in the subcontinent.
Yet, it was one thing to claim the mantle of Quaid-i-Azam (Great Leader) and quite another for the people to accept it. Congress, claiming to represent the entire nation, was willing to fight Jinnah tooth and nail. Moreover, a number of powerful Muslim provincial leaders had emerged to compete with the League for the Muslim constituency. Like provincial leaders of today à la Mulayam Singh or Nitish Kumar, these leaders were willing to cross the communal lines to maintain their hold on their respective provinces, at the cost of the League’s national agenda. Just as today the existence of SP or JD(U) does not allow BJP to consolidate Hindu vote into a single bloc, Jinnah faced problems in galvanizing a single Muslim constituency. In Punjab and Bengal, two biggest Muslim-majority provinces, the Muslim vote was divided between the League and local parties like Unionist Party and Krishak Praja Party. Even in its own backyard, the United Provinces (modern-day Uttar Pradesh), the League faced off against the Muslim Unity Board and cross-communal National Agriculturist Party.
But Jinnah was steeped in the art of political negotiation and compromise. Instead of taking these parties head on, his strategy became to bring them under the League’s fold. Essentially, the deal he struck with provincial leaders was to give them complete control of their respective provinces in exchange for accepting Jinnah as their leader on the national stage. This was similar to the kind of arrangement seen in the UPA Governments of 2000s, where Congress essentially refused to compete with provincial leaders in their respective states in exchange for their support for the national government. The key difference was that after the 1937 elections, parties could form governments in the provinces but not in the centre. In essence, Jinnah was giving away real power in exchange for the nominal power of being the “sole spokesman” for Muslims of India.
The League thus gained a pan-India presence, but did not enjoy much in the way of grassroots support. This Achilles’ heel became an existential crisis for the party when Congress decided to attack its Muslim base head-on. Jawaharlal Nehru, then president of Congress, was disappointed by the party’s performance amongst Muslim voters of United Provinces (UP) during the 1937 Elections. Believing that secular Congress had much to offer to the Indian Muslims, he decided to launch a Mass Contact Campaign to enroll Muslims of UP in the party. Success of such a campaign threatened to push the League to political extinction.
In a desperate bid to survive, Jinnah launched his own mass contact program. For the first time, the League turned its focus from the wealthy elites, which it traditionally catered to, to masses of rural UP. It also sought to play up the rising Hindu-Muslim riots in the province, under the Congress government of UP. Crucially, the “secular” League also turned for the first time to an influential section of Deobandi ulama. After years of remaining in the hands of wealthy, cosmopolitan elites and headed by a leader who famously drank and enjoyed ham sandwiches, the League’s history reached its logical conclusion by including religious leaders to its ranks.
By 1938, the League had handily defeated Congress in the race to mobilize Muslims, enrolling 300,000 to the latter’s 100,000. This success also transformed the party, changing it from an elite-run enterprise to a mass-based party of agitation and populism. Jinnah’s political career had come full circle.
By the end of the decade, the League had turned Muslim voters of UP into a formidable stronghold. In Muslim-majority provinces which will eventually become Pakistan – Punjab, Bengal, Sind and NWFP – the League’s position was shakier. Regardless, at least on paper, Jinnah could claim some kind of mandate from the Muslim people. In a normal democracy, this would have meant little. But Jinnah understood that the future of India would not be decided by elections but at the negotiating table. Real electoral strength mattered less than the perception of strength in minds of British officials in New Delhi and London.
And there, Jinnah had won. In the minds of those who mattered, he had emerged as the foremost Muslim leader of India. His triumphant return was complete. Jinnah would use the next eight years of his life using this success to leave a colossal imprint on the history of India.
Sources: Brennan, Lance. “The illusion of security: the background to Muslim separatism in the United Provinces.” Modern Asian Studies 18.2 (1984): 237-272; Jalal, Ayesha. The sole spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the demand for Pakistan. Vol. 31. Cambridge University Press, 1994; Owen, Hugh F. “Negotiating the Lucknow Pact.” The Journal of Asian Studies 31.3 (1972): 561-587; Dhulipala, Venkat. Creating a New Medina. Cambridge University Press, 2015; Wolpert, Stanley A. Jinnah of Pakistan. Oxford University Press, USA, 1984.
Next week on Revisiting India – Forged in Fire: India in the Great Depression