By the early 1930s, the ideological battle between capitalism and socialism had been enveloping the entire globe. Rise of Hitler in Germany, Stalin’s consolidation of power in the Soviet Union, victory of Social Democrats in Sweden, collapse of the Liberal party in Great Britain, the Spanish Civil War, the Infamous Decade of Argentina, the 1931 Communist revolt in Indo-China, the 1935 rebellion in Iran, the Long March in China and birth of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – in their own ways, all of these were various fronts of the ongoing global war between ideas of the Left and the Right. Two factors – success of the Soviet Union and the failure of capitalism during the Great Depression – had thrown the world into an existential crisis. Confused, the humanity was struggling to figure out whether its salvation lay in the promised socialist utopia or the capitalist jungle.
Inevitably, the war came to India as well. By 1934, Congress was facing a brewing insurgency which threatened to split the party into two. On one side stood Congress’s Right Wing led by the party boss Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. On the other were the young radicals like Jayaprakash Narain and PD Tandon, who sought to carry out a coup within the party and establish hegemony of the socialists. On one side was decades of experience in political infighting, and on the other, firebrand radicalism of the youth. Many feared that an open civil war might break out within the party at the time when it was at its weakest and the British government was looking for any way to break it into pieces. But they were underestimating one man who was watching all of this from afar. Mahatma Gandhi was about to give everyone a master class in political maneuvering. Without stepping in himself, he was about to defuse this ticking bomb.
In some ways, the roots of the crisis lay in Gandhi’s own actions during previous years. The economic hardship caused by the Great Depression had increased Congress’s popularity, which Gandhi had used to launch the Civil Disobedience Campaign in 1930 (beginning with the Salt March). However, by 1933 this movement had petered out, partly because of the improving economic situation and partly because of excessive repression of the colonial government. The British Raj had put the entire party leadership in jail and banned most of the Congress organizations. Hence, when Gandhi was released from the prison in May 1933, he was the only front-rank leader not behind bars and had a free hand in restructuring the Congress party.
Unfortunately, 1933 found Gandhi in one of his more idiosyncratic moods. Shortly after his release, the Mahatma declared that Congress will no longer be a political party. Instead, it will become a vehicle of “constructive programs” of social development in Indian villages. Essentially, Congress will go from being the foremost political organization in the country to a village-based NGO. Shortly thereafter, he also announced that he would be resigning from the Congress party altogether and focusing on social issues. Of course, Gandhi continued to exercise dominating influence on the party until he died, however, in that brief moment, it seemed like the Mahatma may be done with politics.
With Gandhi absenting himself and other A-List leaders in jail, the second-string politicians began to maneuver to take over the leftover political wing of the Congress party. Gandhi was only too happy to let them go, believing that this will draw off all the power-hungry politicians away from his “constructive program”. Inevitably, in-fighting broke out almost immediately within this political wing. After years of government repression, and now devoid of true leadership, the machinations of various political operators left the party in disarray and threatened to collapse it all together.
This is how Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel found the party when he was released from prison in July 1934. As he saw it, it fell upon him to whip the party into shape. Patel had launched his political career organizing peasant movements and rose up to dominate Gujarat politics. Throughout 1920s, his position in the party had solidified as he grew closer to Gandhi and emerged as one of his most loyal lieutenants. Eventually, it had catapulted him to becoming Congress President for a short time in 1930. Yet, there were limits to how much weight his name carried within the party. In 1929, when trying to get into a Congress meeting without a pass, he was refused entry by the volunteers who had never heard of him.
In the second act of his career, which began shortly after his release from the prison, things were different. He was the ultimate inside man, adept in the art of political deal-making and organizing. He was the guy who knew when to fight and when to compromise, whom to pay off and whom to crush. Moreover, he had the support of Gandhi. Armed with these two factors, he quickly set about putting the house in order.
This time he based himself in Bombay, instead of Gujarat. He began cultivating Indian industrialists who became the party’s biggest contributors thereafter. He eased out some of the second string players who were jockeying for power. Others left when they saw their career prospects diminish within the party. Many others were bought off. He positioned his people in various levels of the organization, including supporting the election of his ally Rajendra Prasad as the Congress President. For himself, he chose a more humble title as the member of the Working Committee (the most powerful body within the party). He also became the chairman of the Congress Parliamentary Board, which chose the party’s candidates to contest various elections. In short, he took charge of much of party’s day-to-day functioning. He raised the funds, chose the candidates, formulated the policies and decided which parties Congress could ally with. He became the party boss. It was a position he would hold for many years to come.
While Patel was ascending, there was another group plotting the takeover of the party. Congress Socialist Party (CSP) had been formed in 1934 by several rising stars in Congress with left leanings, many of whom would later go on to play important role in independent India. These were Purshottam Das Tandon, Jai Prakash Narain, Ashok Mehta, Minoo Masani and Achhut Patwardhan. The idea had germinated in Nasik Jail where many of these leaders had been put together during the Civil Disobedience Movement. The party was supposed to be within the Congress party and open to Congressmen alone. Its objective, amongst other things, was to “rescue the Congress from the hands of the right wing”.
The threat of CSP to the “right wing” was deeper than what many other political forces had offered as CSP presented a coherent ideological alternative to Gandhian politics. In fact, despite all his political acumen, Gandhi had never really put together a reasonable and lucid economic vision for India. His ideas ranged from self-sufficient villages and benevolent zamindars, to removal of railways and rolling back industrialization. Consequently, the Gandhian camp had ended up attracting many pro-capitalism, pro-business politicians, Patel included. For these leaders, CSP presented a clear threat, not just to the immediate future of Congress but also the long-term future of India.
Patel, in particular, was vehemently against CSP, labelling socialism as “claptrap”. He also dismissed socialists as a disunited force. “There are 84 castes among Brahmins whereas, it would seem, there are 85 different types of socialists!” Tensions between him and CSP also grew personal when he made an off-color joke about Jai Prakash Narain’s wife, which the latter came to hear about.
By 1935, there was open warfare between the two sides. The Working Committee officially issued a statement asking CSP leaders to refrain from “’loose talk” of abolishing private property. On their part, the socialists started attacking everyone on the right, including the holiest of cows – Gandhi. Articles like “Is Gandhi a Nationalist?” began appearing in left-wing journals. However, the Mahatma stayed out of the fight. He refused to make any substantive statement about the socialists and when asked, he would always dodge the question. Once, in a classic Gandhian response, he declared that “If a certain group cannot work the constitution it was up to that group to hand over the working of the Congress in that part to the group which was creating disturbance, saying that they would surrender everything to them”.
Meanwhile, CSP was not just engaging in the war of words but also expanding its base, by a three-pronged approach. First, it was finding alliances with left-leaning parties outside Congress –Communist Party of India and the MN Roy group. MN Roy, the grandfather of Indian communism (he was personally charged with preparing Asia for communist revolution by Lenin in 1920), had returned to India in 1930 and was in the process of forming his own leftist party. Both of these parties could lend support to CSP and allow it to grow within the left-leaning educated circles.
The second approach was to ally with Kisan Sabhas which were emerging in various parts of rural India. These peasant organizations, primarily focused on land reforms and tax reforms, were the perfect vehicle for CSP to expand its base on the ground. Moreover, given that Gandhi’s village-based “constructive program” was proving to be a dud, Kisan Sabhas allowed CSP to outrun Gandhians in the race to win over the rural masses.
Its third strategy was to draft a new leader for itself: a 46-year-old firebrand politician who had already established himself as one of the leading lights of Congress, had wide popularity, impeccable secular credentials and enormous street credit with the leftists – Jawaharlal Nehru. He had already been elected Congress President once before in 1929 and had a loyal following of his own within the party. By early 1930s, he had moved towards the left and started calling himself a “scientific socialist” (although in typical Nehruvian fashion, he refused to commit himself to the ideology completely). In fact, a majority of his speeches in mid-1930s revolved around socialist themes. For the Congress Socialist Party, Nehru represented a real prize, someone who could push them onto another orbit. Throughout early 1930s, he had been away, first in jail and later in Europe by his dying wife. Yet socialist leaders had already begun sounding him out about aligning their agendas. As he prepared to return home in 1935, many within the socialist camp were expecting him to join forces with the CSP.
It was at this moment that Gandhi decided to give CSP what it wanted – Nehru. In the winter of 1935, Gandhi asked Nehru to be the next Congress President. “It was the only way in which much of the difficulties of the Working Committee and the bitter controversies of today can be avoided,” Gandhi wrote. It was an unexpected move. Last thing that embattled Gandhians wanted was to simply handover the reins to the most popular socialist within the party. Patel, in particular, was unhappy with the decision and pushed C Rajagopalachari to step up instead. It took some convincing from Bapu to get both Nehru and Patel to agree. To Nehru, he promised, “so far as I know they [Gandhians] will not resist you, even where they may not be able to follow you.” To Gandhians, he reassured that Nehru would always “accept the decisions of the majority of his colleagues”. He was proven wrong on both accounts.
Nehru was elected President while he was still in Europe. Upon his arrival, he quickly set upon laying out a radical socialist agenda which rattled many of the old guard. His inaugural address was full of revolutionary vigor. In choosing his Working Committee, he brought in three CSP leaders (although with ten seats, Gandhians still had an overwhelming majority). At the same time, he refused to formally join CSP, ducking from the issue by saying that since he was the leader of entire Congress now, he had to go where the majority decided.
Nevertheless, the Nehru-CSP combine started proposing a host of radical and socialist ideas which were alarming to Gandhians. Instead of challenging the new President head-on, Patel began using his intimate command of the party machinery to bury these proposals – they were lost in committees, defeated in motions, watered down in language or made unworkable by attachments. But it was only a matter of month until both sides were clashing openly. Over a fairly harmless remark by Nehru, the entire Gandhian faction of the Working Committee tendered its resignation. Infuriated and humiliated, Nehru sent in his own resignation as well.
Gandhi had to step in to rescind everyone’s resignations, although he treated the issue as a parent might deal with a sibling quarrel, labelling the whole affair “tragicomedy”. “If they are guilty of intolerance,” he admonished Nehru, “you have more than your share of it.” Everyone took a step back from the precipice and the fundamental differences were swept under the rug, at least for the time being.
Yet Gandhi continued to complicate lives of the right-wingers by suggesting that in breach of the tradition Nehru should be kept on as the President for another term. Once again, Patel cast about looking for anyone but Nehru to become the next President, but without Gandhi’s support no one was willing to throw his hat in the ring. In the end, Nehru returned for another term, this time bolstered to believe that his radical socialist agenda was the will of the party.
The central issue of contention became the upcoming provincial elections in 1937. It represented a unique opportunity for the party to taste real power. However, Nehru and CSP wanted Congress to remain a party of resistance by refusing to form government in any province, should it win. Even Patel had his misgivings about accepting offices within the colonial government, but given CSP’s opposition, he gave this project his wholehearted approval. In the process, he also gained support from several provincial leaders who were looking forward to forming their own government in their provinces.
The battle dragged on for months as the Right Wing grew more powerful with the backing of the provincial leaders. Eventually, the momentum for accepting offices became so strong that it seemed inevitable to all but Nehru and the socialists. Finally, Gandhi had to step in once again and broker a compromise, which was essentially a victory for the right wingers. Congress would accept offices in the provinces that it won.
The rest of Nehru’s term ended without any other major battles, although skirmishes continued. For the next few years, CSP steadily lost ground as all three of its strategies collapsed. Nehru never became a member of the party. Its alliance with CPI and MN Roy broke down. The right-wingers, now in power in various provinces, steadily eroded its base within the peasant community. By 1938, it felt itself so weak that it refused to give Subhas Chandra Bose full-throated support in his own fight with the Gandhians. By the end of the decade, CSP had been effectively marginalized.
For many historians, the battle between the Gandhians and CSP fizzled out because of Nehru’s tepid commitment to the cause or Patel’s political maneuverings. However, another way to understand this story may be to read it as an instance of Gandhi’s political genius. There was never any doubt that Patel could win against CSP alone. However, Gandhi understood that Patel was likely to simply bulldoze over the socialists, who would have then ruptured the party and perhaps taken away an important rural base from the Congress. Worse, given that CSP leaders were not particularly enamored with Gandhi, he could not play the role of the arbitrator. Since he didn’t like the match, he simply changed the players by inserting Nehru into the mix. He understood that, given Nehru’s stature and socialist-bent, he would easily become the unspoken leader of the socialists. However, he also knew that for both Nehru and Patel, their loyalty to Bapu and Congress trumped their adherence to their respective ideology. In this situation, Gandhi could easily play the peacemaker. A parent would rather have his own child fighting each other than one of them battling outsiders.
Next on Revisiting India: Businessmen and Nationalists: Rise of Money in Politics
Sources: Gandhi, Rajmohan. Patel, A life. Navajivan Pub. House, 1990; Gopal, Sarvepalli. Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography Vol 1 1889-1947. Random House, 1976; Haithcox, John Patrick. “Left Wing Unity and the Indian Nationalist Movement: MN Roy and the Congress Socialist Party.” Modern Asian Studies 3.1 (1969): 17-56; Tomlinson, Brian Roger. The Indian National Congress and the Raj, 1929–1942: The Penultimate Phase. Springer, 1976.