6. 1937 Elections: The Indian Democratic Experiment Begins

Imperialism-India-Colonialism-Imperialism-Cartoons-Punch1932-01-13-43

A cartoon depicting Willingdon and Gandhi

At the end of his term in 1936, Lord Willingdon, the departing Viceroy of India, could look back in satisfaction. Five years ago, when he had arrived, the country was in disarray. In the throes of the Great Depression, discontent amongst the public was widespread. Congress’s Civil Disobedience campaign was proving to be successful, having paralyzed the British administration. Worse, Willingdon’s predecessor, Lord Irwin, had tried to buy off the movement by negotiating one-on-one with Mahatma Gandhi, leading to the famous Gandhi-Irwin Pact. In Willingdon’s book, this was a grave mistake, which elevated Congress to a level equivalent to the British government.

 

During his tenure, Willingdon tried to put things back on track. He crushed the Civil Disobedience campaign, rounding up thousands of Congressmen and outlawing most of Congress organizations. By 1933, the campaign had to be suspended due to lack of enthusiasm. Willingdon never granted Gandhi a one-on-one audience and insisted that Congress was just one of many political voices in India. Over Congress’ vehement protests, he introduced a new constitution to govern India in 1935. All in all, by the time of his departure, things were looking up. Congress seemed to be in disarray and British officials felt confident that the party will soon split because of the infighting between the Gandhians and the Socialists. The upcoming elections of 1937, in which they expected Congress to perform poorly, would prove for once and for all that the party could not claim to speak for the entire country. Willingdon could have scarcely believed that only months after his departure, Congress would emerge united and stronger than ever before. And it would do this by using the instrument he had left behind – the 1937 elections. Continue reading

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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 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

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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