The Syndicate: Kingmakers of India

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:

The Congress Syndicate

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.

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How Indira Gandhi became the Prime Minister: Prelude to the Congress Split

Shastri's body brought home

Shastri’s body brought home

On the grey winter afternoon of 11 January 1966, a huge crowd of Indian Government officials, politicians, military officers, heads of states of other nations and common public thronged the Palam Airport in New Delhi. They were awaiting a small Soviet aircraft bringing in the dead body of India’s second Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri. India had woken up to Shastri’s sudden death in Tashkent, Uzbekistan only hours ago. A sense of uncertainty over India’s political future surrounded the airport thicker than the Delhi fog. Many had come to the airport to mourn Shastri’s death, many for appearance sake. But at least one person was there for a clearer purpose. Clad in white khadi, was an astrologer, much consulted by top-level Congress politicians. He was there to predict who will be the next Prime Minister.

Unlike with Nehru, no one had anticipated Shastri’s death and there had been no discussion over the issue of his succession. Only two hours after his death, the President had sworn in the home minister, Gulzari Lal Nanda as the acting Prime Minister in the middle of night. But Nanda was considered a light-weight, unlikely to be able to turn his job permanent. Nevertheless, within twenty-four hours he threw his hat in the ring to be considered as the next Prime Minister. So did many others. Within two days of Shastri’s death, the list of politicians circling around the throne had grown considerably, including the defence minister YB Chavan, Mahashtrian politician SK Patil and the future President of India Sanjiva Reddy. But the strongest candidate was Morarji Desai.

Desai had already had already had bitter experience in his ambition to be India’s Prime Minister. In early 1960s, Desai was a centre of power within the Congress Party. A right-leaning, pro-business conservative leader, he had emerged as the opposing pole within the party to left-leaning, liberal Nehru. As the finance minister in Nehru’s Government, he had become so influential as to be considered by many as his natural successor, to the extent that in some of his foreign visits he got the treatment reserved for visiting heads of state. Had Nehru not eased him out of the Cabinet in 1963, he would have most likely become the next Prime Minister automatically. Instead, in 1964, when Nehru passed away, it was the unimpressive Shastri who got the chair, a shy, placating man who was so unimposing that his greatest achievement at the time seemed to be that he had “hardly ever made an enemy during his entire career”.

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The Beginning of the Raj: War over Calcutta (Part One)

In 1644 there was an accident in Agra, the capital of the Mughal Empire. The favourite daughter of Emperor, Shah Jahan, was severely burnt when her dress caught fire. Many doctors tried to help her, but none succeeded. One of the courtiers informed the Emperor of some traders in Surat from a far-away land, who had a skilled medicine man with them. Messengers were quickly dispatched to Surat. They brought back one Gabriel Boughton, surgeon of an East India Company ship. The surgeon was able to successfully heal the daughter. Pleased, the Emperor promised him whatever reward he may desire. May be because of company loyalty or simply a lack of imagination, Boughtan asked for permission for the East India Company to trade in Bengal. At the time, India represented close to 25% of the world’s GDP, second only to China, while Britain had a paltry 2%. Bengal was the richest of Indian provinces. Trading with it could be an immensely profitable opportunity for the Company. The Emperor granted the doctor’s wish and soon first British trading post of opened in a village close to the town of Calcutta.

Calcutta in 1788, thirty years after the war

Calcutta in 1788, thirty years after the war

One hundred and twelve years later, Bengal looked very different. It was now ruled by a Nawab in Murshidabad, who was formally a servant of the Emperor in Delhi but retained de facto independence. The British controlled entire town Calcutta, defended by Fort William. Bengal also had towns of other European powers like the French and the Dutch, but the British settlement was the most wealthy and prosperous of them.

In the summer of 1755 the Nawab, Alivirdi, was dying. For the last few years he had been working to ensure the succession of his favourite grandson 21-years-old Siraj-uddaula. He had even made his general, Mir Jafar, swear an oath of loyalty to his grandson on Koran. Yet when Alivirdi died, Siraj-uddaula’s hold on power was far from confirmed. On the one hand, his own family members, including his aunt, conspired against him. On the other, the Emperor in Delhi kept threatening to march on Bengal and take it back. Even the Europeans, who seemed to be getting exorbitantly rich and powerful through trade, posed a threat to his rule.

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The Beginning of the Raj: The Battle of Plassey (Part Two)

Read: The Beginning of the Raj: War over Calcutta (Part One)

Bengal in 1750s. This map is not accurate; it is only intended to give an estimation. Bengal borders are modern-day, not a reflection of Bengal in 1750s.

Bengal in 1750s. This map is not accurate; it is only intended to give an estimation. Bengal borders are modern-day, not a reflection of Bengal in 1750s.

Clive’s victory over Nawab’s forces in February 1757 had ensured that the British were back to the status they had been before Siraj-uddaula had taken the throne. But now he wanted to make sure that they retain their power for all time to come. He turned his attention to the French. The French and the British had lived in Bengal amicably for many decades. Even during the recent war between the Nawab and East India Company, the French had remained neutral. But Clive had spent his career in Madras, where Europeans regularly fought with each other. Looking from that prism, the French appeared as the greatest threat to the British. In reality, they were far from it. The French East India Company in Bengal was broke, drowned in debt from the local merchants. Its town Chandernagore had little fortifications or manpower. So when the British began making threatening moves, it sought the Nawab for help.

But the Nawab had bigger concerns. The Emperor in Delhi was once again threatening to march on Bengal. To pre-empt this attack, the Nawab wanted to move his forces up to Patna to defend Bengal. His army was severely demoralized after their defeat in Calcutta, so he sought help from the only logical ally he could think of – the British. He proposed to Clive to march with him to Patna in return of Rs. 1 lakh a month as retainer. Clive said he was happy to oblige but in return he wanted permission to attack the French town of Chandernagore. After much back and forth, the Nawab reluctantly gave his permission.

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Indira Gandhi and the Pakistani Bomb

AQ Khan with design of neutron initiator, which serves as the kick-start mechanism for a nuclear chain reaction

AQ Khan with design of neutron initiator, which serves as the kick-start mechanism for a nuclear chain reaction

In December 1975, a thin man with a light moustache landed at the Karachi Airport, where he was awaited by a top Pakistani Military general. He had three large suitcases with him, all stuffed with photographed and hand-written documents that he had stolen from a Dutch lab where he worked as a translator. These documents were technical designs of a revolutionary new technology to make a nuclear bomb. His name was Abdul Qadeer Khan. He was here to make, as the world would come to know of it, the first Islamic Bomb.

In July 1974, AQ Khan had written to the Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, offering to build a nuclear bomb for Pakistan. The timing of the letter had been perfect, for only two months ago India had exploded a nuclear bomb of its own, which had thrown Islamabad into a tizzy. Pakistan had been trying to develop its own nuclear bomb since 1958, but had consistently failed because of the lack of money and the technical know-how. The Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission (PAEC) was still many years away from developing a bomb. So the letter from this unknown mining engineer had come as a god-sent for Bhutto.

Pakistan had been trying to develop a nuclear bomb through Plutonium, which is a very expensive and difficult exercise. What AQ Khan offered, instead, was building the bomb with Uranium-239, enriched through centrifuges, which was a cheaper and quicker process. This enrichment technology was just being developed by a European Consortium called UNRECO, where AQ Khan worked as a translator. His job offered him unlimited access to the technical information, which he was willing to steal and bring to Pakistan.

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The almost-split of Congress and anti-Climax of 1931

1926 General Strike

British Government was forced to use tanks in London to contain the strike

In May 1926, 1.7 million British workers went to strike. It was the only general strike in the British history. The strike lasted nine days and was ultimately a bust. Nevertheless, it made the government immensely unpopular. Fearing defeat at the hands of the Labour Party in the next election (still three year away), the Conservatives began preparations for losing power in 1929.

A part of this preparation related to India. The Government of India Act 1919, the law through which British ruled India, was set to expire in ten years and was supposed to be reviewed and renewed in 1929. That meant that the review would have been carried out by a leftist Labour Party Government which had always been favourable to Indian nationalist cause. The Conservatives feared that in a wave of idealism, the socialists may end up giving Indian nationalists too much. To pre-empt this, the Conservative Government hastened the review process and sent a Commission of British Parliamentarians under Sir John Simon to India in early 1928.

The timing of the Simon Commission put it smack in the middle of growing divisions within the Congress Party. At the time, the party was witnessing ideological struggle between its moderate and the extremist wings. On one hand were the old leaders, Mahatma Gandhi and Motilal Nehru, who wanted to get autonomy while keeping India within the British Empire. On the other were young, emerging leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, who wanted much more. As we will see, the Simon Commission ended up impacting these divisions in very strange ways, and eventually resulted in the Congress Party calling for complete independence for the first time in its history. Continue reading

The Rise of Bal Thackeray

Bal ThackerayThe year 1956 was of great tumult for Western India. The Government had just created the great bilingual Bombay State, which included most of what now constitutes as Maharashtra and Gujarat. The idea of the Bombay State had support in New Delhi, where Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were hesitant to divide the country along linguistic lines, and in Bombay itself, where city elites like JRD Tata were concerned that a pure Marathi state may drown out the cosmopolitan nature of Bombay city. However, the idea had no traction among large sections of both Marathi and Gujarati societies which were in uproar. And so began a four year long struggle of strikes, violence and vandalism, which finally resulted in creation of Maharashtra and Gujarat in 1960, after several people had died in the protests.

It was in these turbulent times that Bal Thackeray began his career as a cartoonist. He was son of KS Thackeray, a progressive Marathi leader of 1930s, who gave him a fervent hatred for communism and a caustic tongue in legacy. Thackeray’s early cartoons, published in the English daily Free Press Journal, suggest mind of a well-read young man concerned about international issues like world peace, Middle East crisis and the European discrimination against third-world countries.

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Kerala Crisis (1957-1959): First Litmus Test of Indian Democracy

EMS (left) with Nehru in 1957

The political crisis that unfolded in Kerala exactly a decade after independence was probably (one of the) first true litmus test for the Indian democracy- a test that the country certainly did not pass. It was a political clash involving violence, ideologies, populism, religion and ethnicities in which no actor was blameless, a political theatre that has been repeated innumerable times since. It is also a personal story, one of leaders – all of whom with the best of intentions – struggling with forces bigger than themselves.

In 1957, the Communist Party of India won Kerala’s assembly elections by a slim majority, forming the first communist state government in the country. At the height of Cold War (five years to Cuban Missile Crisis), this generated tremendous interest from around the world as one of the first democratically-elected communist governments. There were concerns within India as well including New Delhi.

However, Jawaharlal Nehru, having just returned as Prime Minister in the second national elections, had no qualms. While he saw Indian communists as out of step with contemporary India, he was willing to give the new democratically-elected state government a chance. He was further reassured by the communist party’s promise to act within the constitutional bounds.

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How was Indian history discovered

Portrait: Sir William Jones

Let’s begin at the beginning, the discovery of Indian history. When the British took over Bengal after 1757, there was absolutely nothing known about Indian history prior to the Mughal Empire and early Islamic invaders (when the Islamic historians began chronicling events in India). In fact, everything we know about events before 1000 AD was discovered in the last two hundred years. This is a fascinating story of how that modern understanding of our past began:

The biggest challenge was finding that first clue, the thread that could be followed into our ancient past. And the man for the job was Sir William Jones, a Supreme Court judge. Jones had become obsessed with India as soon as he arrived in 1783. At that time, much of India was ruled by Hindu Law that was written in Sanskrit and the British had to rely on local Brahmins to translate it. To bypass this clumsy arrangement, Jones decided to learn Sanskrit for himself. In the process he became the first person to recognize the similarity between Sanskrit and European languages, what would later be recognized as the Indo-European language family.

On his agenda was also to uncover the ancient Indian history. To this end, he waded through ancient scripts from Europe and India for ten years before striking gold.

As Jones and others studied Sanskrit literature, they found a long list of wars, kingdoms and events. But they were all disconnected. There were no dates and names of all the locations had long since been changed. These were undated stories from places that no one knew about. What Jones needed was a marker – an ancient event that Jones could connect to a modern place and a date.

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India is a land of thousand myths but no memory. We, as a people, have absolutely no recollection of our past, only mangled fantasies and half-true gossips. May be one of the greatest tragedies of the nation is that its tragedies and triumphs have faded away from the public consciousness, replaced by only hazy legends and complete apathy.

Of course, India does not stand alone in misunderstanding its history or reinterpreting its past to suit to contemporary political or nationalistic needs. Glorifying catastrophes and turning heroes into villains or vice versa has been a long-standing sleight of hand employed in countries around the world.

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