1. Bose v. Gandhi: Playing for Keeps

Gandhiji with Subhas Chandra Bose at Haripura Congress in 1938.

Gandhi and Bose in 1938

On 29 January 1939, as Subhas Chandra Bose sipped tea at a party in Calcutta celebrating the wedding of his eldest nephew, his mind was elsewhere. As the Bose family engaged in festivities, votes were being counted across the country for the election of Congress Party’s Presidency. For Bose, it was a make or break moment. He had positioned himself as a challenger to the party establishment and gone against some very powerful people. The electoral contest had been bitter, with dirty tricks and harsh invectives being hurled by both sides. By the day of the election, it had become a nail-biter. As early trends poured in, Bose allowed himself to relax. Province after province began to turn his way – Bengal, United Provinces, Assam and a sweep of the South. To those who called in to congratulate, he happily declared, “we are winning”.

Two thousand kilometers away, on the other coast of India, Mahatma Gandhi was meeting with peasants of Bardoli, Gujarat, as election results trickled in. This frail-looking man dressed only in loin cloth was the most powerful politician in India. For the last two decades, he had single-handedly picked men to run the Congress Party. Although his modesty would have never allowed him to admit it, often a mere nod from Gandhi had been enough for leaders to become Party Presidents unopposed. Now, however, it seemed that the unchallenged hegemony of Bapu was coming to an end. His name did not appear on the ballot, but everyone had known that this election was between Bose and him. And the people wanted Bose. By the end of the day, Bose had won the election with 1,580 votes against his opponent’s 1,375. There are no records of this, but one can easily imagine Gandhi going about his daily chores after hearing the news, not showing any signs of distress. Yet it is likely that he knew that this battle was far from over. In fact, it was just beginning. Continue reading

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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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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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