The Congress And Parliamentarism

Just as the termination of the Non-Cooperation Movement had been followed by an intense debate over council entry, so the phased withdrawal of the CDM during 1933-34 led to a similar polemics within the Congress and outside it. Like the Swarajists of 1920s, leaders like MA Ansari, C Rajagopalachari, Bhulabhai Desai, Satyamurthi and BC Roy advocated work in the legislature not, as they claimed, from any constitutional illusions, but for preparing the people and the Congress organisation for the next phase of mass struggle. The opposition, though much milder this time, came from Gandhi, Sardar Patel and others who were for satyagrahas and reform work in villages. But unlike in the 1920s a third, left alternative pronounced itself — firm rejection of the the British trap to absorb the nationalist movement in that very colonial state machinery which it purported to overthrow, and continuation of extra-parliamentary mass struggle.

Thanks to Gandhi’s efforts, before the end of 1934 a patch-up was effected between the two sections of the Congress and the party decided to contest elections unitedly, as we have already seen. Then in August 1935 the British parliament imposed on the nation the notorious Government of India Act. The Act had two components. One, the “Federal Plan”, was an All-India Federation in the shape of a bicameral Central Legislature with representatives from (a) British Indian provinces — elected by about one-sixth of adult population there; (b) Princely States — nominated by their rulers; (c) Muslims and other minorities in British India — elected by these special electorates. Defence, foreign affairs, the Reserve Bank and railways were kept entirely outside the control of the Federal Legislature, while on other subjects too the Viceroy retained special control. The other component was — elected ministries in British Indian provinces controlling what nowadays we call “state subjects”. But here also, the Governors would retain special powers including vetoes. Even the indefinite promise of Dominion Status contained in Irwin’s offer of November 1929 was conspicuous by its absence in the Act of 1935. As Linlithgow later commented, this Act was considered to be “the best way … of maintaining British Influence in India.”[1]

The first component of the Act — the Federal Plan — fell through because the princes and the Muslims League declined to share power with the Congress as minority partners in the Central Government; as for the Congress, it rejected the proposal as a sham. But the other component was implemented by declaration of elections to provincial assemblies to be held in early 1937. With this the aforesaid debate reached a new stage: contesting the elections for propaganda purpose etc. was OK, but should the Congress form ministries if they got majority in some provinces? Nehru, Bose and the CSP leaders firmly opposed this and recommended council-entry for creating obstructions and making the working of the Act impossible. Rajendra Prasad, Vallabbhai, Rajagopalachari and others argued that since provincial ministries shall be elected anyway, it would be wise not to leave the field for the Liberals, the Muslim League and others but to form and utilise the ministries, as best as possible, in the cause of Swaraj. Once again there was patch-up at the instance of Gandhi: the Congress sessions at Lucknow and Faizpur (April and December, 1936) decided to go in for elections and to put off a decision on office-acceptance for the post-election period.

Even as the tactical debate of 1934-36 progressed from the question of poll-participation to that of ministry-making, a definite rightist consolidation was silently taking place in the Congress leadership as a reaction to the growing leftward shift in the national politics which could not but be reflected in the Congress itself (See Text VI27 for a CPI pamphlet “To All Anti-Imperialist Fighters” (December 1936) which correctly catches the mood of “Gathering Storm”). Gandhi the great tactician got Nehru elected to Congress presidentship both at Lucknow and Faizpur and himself stood aloof from electoral politics, concentrating rather on “constructive wor”. Nehru was then at the peak of his socialist rhetoric and he gave vent to it in numerous public speeches and writings. The Working Committee nominated by him included three known socialists — JP, Narendra Dev and Patwardhan. His call for a “joint popular front” against imperialism and many of his others proposals (e.g., collective affiliation of TUs and Kisan Sabhas to the Congress) were welcomed by the CPI. The election manifesto and provisional agrarian programme drafted under his guidance did contain some progressive demands, such as reductions in revenue and rent, agricultural income tax, partial waiver of loans, fixity of tenure etc. All these invoked a protest manifesto signed by 21 big guns of business led by Walchand Hirachand (May 1936, i.e., just after Nehru’s Lucknow address), as well as a resignation threat from seven Working Committee members headed by Patel, Rajagopalachari and Rajendra Prasad (June 1936).

But there were saner people both in politics and in business. Gandhi moved in to diffuse the crisis in the Working Committee by forcing a compromise on Jawaharlal, while in the business community this role was discharged by the most far-sighted of Indian businessmen — GD Birla. The above-mentioned manifesto denounced socialism as a threat to property, religion and personal liberty, but Birla sharply criticised this in a letter to Walchand: “It is curious how we businessmen are so short-sighted. … It looks very crude for a man with property to say that he is opposed to expropriation in the wider interest of the country …”; so this should be left to “those (like Gandhi — Ed.) who have given up property” and to help themselves the business community should strengthen those opposed to Jawaharlal within the Congress. To Thakurdas he wrote just after the Lucknow session : “Mahatmaji kept his promise … he saw that no new commitments were made. Jawaharlalji’s speech in a way was thrown into the waste-paper basket because all the resolutions that were passed were against the spirit of his speech … Jawaharlalji seems to be like a typical English democrat who takes defeat in a sporting spirit. He seems to be out for giving expression to his ideology, but he realises that action is impossible and so does not press for it.”[2]

Note :

1. See Modern India, op. cit., p 338

2 For details of the Birla letters, see Jawaharlal Nehru A Biography Vol. I 1889-1947 by Sarvepalli Gopal; Oxford University Press (Bombay, 1975) pp 209-12 and Modern India, op. cit., pp 345-46.

Thus it was that the Indian capitalist class, growing “In the Shadow of the Mahatma” (to borrow the title of an excellent book by GD Birla), learned to appreciate the limits as well as the value of Jawaharlal’s socialism, which would draw very large crowds in the election meetings the latter conducted throughout the country. Nehru soon emerged as the most popular Congress leader after Gandhi. Though he was still against office-acceptance and the Congress was still undecided about it, Birla knew what was what. As early as in April 1936, he assured an anxious Thakurdas : “The elections which will take place will be controlled by ‘Vallabbhai Group’, and if Lord Linlithgow handles the situation properly, there is every likelihood of the Congressmen coming into office.”[3]

And this was exactly what happened about a year later. The tremendous success of the Congress in the February 1937 elections (absolute majority in five provinces, near-majority in one and quite a good standing in two others) created great pressure on Nehru and Gandhi and made them acquiesce to the popular demand for government formation. In the AICC session of March 1937, JP proposed total rejection of office, but was badly outvoted. Congress ministries were formed in Central Provinces, Orissa, Bihar, UP, Madras and Bombay in July 1937 and later in NEFA and Assam. Thus started a unique experiment in the history of national movement in India : combining movemental with the governing role; working the 1935 parliamentary with extra-parliamentary work and the constitution in deed while rejecting it (in favour of Puma Swaraj) in words; governing the provinces with very limited powers while opposing the Central Government, the real seat of power; and balancing various class interests and other (communal, regional, casteist etc.) interest groups while ultimately representing and consolidating a definite class base. And if the contradictory parameters of this experiment and of the entire course of debates leading upto it conjures in the reader’s mind a comparable experiment in the communist movement that started two and three decades later, that only proves the blood relation between nationalism and communism in India.

Congress becomes the junior Raj

To start with, the Congress ministries evoked tremendous mass enthusiasm. The national flag, the national anthem and the nationalist leaders in State assemblies and secretariats — the latter now giving orders to bureaucrats and police officials who tortured and imprisoned them only the other day — greatly boosted the morale of the freedom movement. The Congress ministries curbed the arbitrary powers of the police and CID, promoted freedom of the press, expanded civil liberties and democratic rights, released political prisoners including many patriotic terrorists. Communists enjoyed somewhat greater freedom for their activities though the Congress ministries and leaders did nothing to put pressure on the Central Government to lift the ban on the CPI. Despite regional variations (for examples, the Madras and Bombay governments arrested and harassed socialist and communist leaders from the very beginning), this was the general picture during the first few months. Congress membership rose several times within a year and there was a great advance, as we shall see, in workers’, peasants’, youth and cultural movements and organisations. The positive impact of the Congress capturing office also included a massive growth in the movements against princely autocracy and for responsible government, agrarian reform and other reforms in most of the Princely States.[4]

But it was not for these that Birla had contributed Rs 5 lakhs to the Congress election fund, with others of his tribe also making handsome donations. At the initial phase, certain measures of the Congress ministries, such as the urban property tax and sales tax on cloth levied in Bombay to compensate for the loss of excise duty caused by prohibition of alcohol and the recommendations of Labour Enquiry Committees in UP and Bihar in favour of extended TU rights and improved labour welfare did create some apprehensions in the minds of industrialists, but only for a short while. As soon as the workers in Bombay, Madras and elsewhere came forward to snatch their just demands, the Congress ministries came up definitely on the side of the capitalists, just as they did to protect zamindars from a new high tide in peasant militancy. About these we shall discuss under separate subheadings, here we take only a broad overview of the contradictory tendencies through which the Congress rediscovered itself in the new role of the British Raj’s junior partner.

Notes :

3. Modern India, op. eft., p 348

4. It was these movements, developing from below, that brought the States within the ambit of the national mainstream in spite of both the British policy of nurturing these citadels of feudal autocracy as counter-weights against the nationalist movement and the complimentary Congress policy of non-interference in the affairs of these States. Although praja mandals had come up in the early twenties under the impact of Non-Cooperation and Khilafat Movement and the All India States” People”s Conference (AISPC) had been set up in 1927 as a body seeking to coordinate civil libertarian activities, these remained largely cut off from basic peasant and tribal grievances. Neither the AISPC nor the Congress demanded abolition of privy purses and integration of all States with the rest of India. Even as late as in the Haripura session (February 1938), the Congress ‘expressed only moral support and sympathy to the States’ people’s movements and refused to be directly involved with them. But with militant movements (details later) developing in Mysore, Hyderabad, Travancore and some other States during late 1937 through 1938, the Congress could wait no longer. From the end of 1938, Gandhi, Vallabbhai and Jamnalal rushed to Rajkot and Jaipur to try out peaceful satyagraha. In 1939, the Tripuri session of the Congress formally declared its changed policy of “increasing identification … with the States’ peoples” and Nehru was elected president for the Ludhiana session of the AISPC.

The first and primary basis of this metamorphosis lay in the emergence of the Congress as expert managers of the affairs of the future ruling classes from the corridors of political power. In the agrarian sector, the role of Congress ministries lay not only in protecting landlords from increasing peasant militancy by the free use of Section 144, police pickets and police firing etc., but more importantly, in a moderate reform programme that would safeguard the zamindari system in return for small concessions (like security of tenure and reduction/stability of rent) to appease mainly the rich and middle peasants. Nehru and others who often clamoured about zamindari abolition did not press for it when the party was in power. It was, however, in the industrial sector and in the realm of overall economic management that the Congress held out a great promise even with its very limited powers. While some simple steps like the policy of placing government orders, as far as possible, with swadeshi concerns brought in higher profits, there were other, more important long-term measures too. Thus when the sugar industry (like many others) faced the crisis of over-production around the year 1937, the UP and Bihar governments not only recommended but also ensured the formation of a syndicate by putting pressure to bear on some dissenting manufacturers of sugar. Again Gandhi’s Harijan carried a series of articles against what it called “the menace of India Limited”, i.e., the subsidiaries of foreign companies (as mentioned at the beginning of Part IV) which put up a very tough competition; and in April 1939 VN Gadgil moved a resolution in the Central Legislature echoing the protests of FICCI on this issue. But the most important of all was the conceptual advance that was started in this period towards ‘socialistic’ planned economy. When Subhas Bose as the Congress president set up in late 1938 the National Planning Committee (NPC) headed by Nehru, leading industrialists warmly, welcomed it, and closely associated themselves with its work. From the capitalists’ point of view, the economic rationale was quite strong. A point had already been reached in the country’s industrialisation where no further progress was possible without huge investments in basic industries and infrastructural facilities – for which the Indian bourgeoisie was as yet neither capable nor willing (because of the risks involved, the long gestation period etc.) – and which could therefore be set up only under “state planning”, i.e., with people’s money for the capitalists’ benefit. Thus started, along with the political experiment of ministry-making under British paramountcy, the economic experiment of utilising ‘socialist’ steroids for a flabby colonial capitalism. The conceptual foundation was now being laid for the famous Bombay Plan of 1944 and then the “Mixed Economy” of independent India and in the process, Nehru the ‘socialist’, Nehru the visionary of modern, industrialised India, was emerging as the capitalists’ pet even more than the aging, saintly Bapu.

A modern political party, however, does not come to power merely by serving the dominant classes. To be sure, the Congress did much to broaden its own social base. Extension of democratic rights has already been mentioned; social welfare measures for advancement of the conditions of untouchables, betterment of health and sanitation facilities, expansion of primary education etc. were also taken care of by the Congress ministries. But there was at least one constituency where the Congress lost much of its support base — the Muslims. The factors responsible for this included : strained relations with the Muslim League following the rejection of its offer for a coalition government in UP, which the League utilised in a barrage of anti-Congress propaganda; the total failure of Congress ministries to check communal riots; the active involvement of many Congressmen with organisations like the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha during the 1930s whereas they were debarred from membership of the Muslim League; and so on. But the loss in Muslim support was partly compensated in another field. As we have just seen, during this period the party made a bold bid to expand its influence to the Princely States — not by head-on collisions with their repressive rulers, but by satyagrahas and bargainings from a new position of strength. All these constituted the second element in the process of the Congress becoming a ruling party.

A third element, and one that posed the most difficult dilemma for the provincial ministries, involved the question of how to deal with the growing popular movements fanned by economic hardships as well as by enhanced but rarely fulfilled expectations. In many cases popular intervention indeed took up novel and “intolerable” forms (to cite just one example — soon after the formation of the Bihar ministry, a peasant rally at Patna marched Straight into the assembly house and occupied it for some time, with the security forces helplessly looking on). After some initial hesitations, particularly in those cases where the Congress activists and mass base were involved, the new rulers hardened their stance. An AICC resolution in September 1938 condemned those, “including a few Congressmen”, who “have been found in the name of civil liberty to advocate murder, arson, looting and class war by violent means”. Nehru and Gandhi saw the danger of alienation associated with free use of the repressive machinery. So they sought, in private, to restrict it while discouraging popular militancy — but with little success on both counts.

The inherent contradictions of the Congress’ new status were thus getting intensified with every month in office. Clearer identification with bourgeois and landlord interests were alienating workers and peasants, the initial zeal for welfare programmes and mass contact campaigns soon petered out, and the tough stance on law and order was leading to a rapid disillusionment and a further leftward shift of the genuine pro-people forces within the movement. Finally, corruption and privilege-seeking spread like anything. Gandhi and Nehru, visibly perturbed over all this[5], were looking for a honourable way out, and that was provided by the world war which broke out in September 1939. The CWC requested Viceroy Linlithgow to clarify Britain’s war aims relating to India and to immediately establish full democracy in India as a pre-condition for the Indian people’s support to the war efforts of the allied powers. But the Viceroy promised nothing more than a consultative committee. This was construed, and rightly so, as a national humiliation and in protest, the CWC on October 23 asked the Congress ministries to resign. Many of those in office were not prepared for this, but sensing the people’s mood they too fell in line. All the Congress ministries quitted office without delay.

The curtain was thus brought down on a historical dress rehearsal: for the Congress, to emerge as India’s ‘natural and legitimate’ rulers and for the British, to effect a smooth transition to neo-colonialism; the actual show would commence in a decade. But was the people of India mere spectators?

Far from it. During the period (1935-39) when the Congress was busy entering councils and making ministries, they forged ahead on all fronts of anti-imperialist movement — in many cases under the leadership, or at least influence, of a reinvigorated Communist Party of India.

Note :

5 Nehru wrote to Gandhi in April 1938, i.e., even before the completion of a year in office : “… the Congress ministries are working inefficiently. … They are adapting themselves far too much to the old order and trying to justify it. … What is far worse is that we are losing the high position that we have built up, with so much labour, in the hearts of people. We are sinking to the level of ordinary politicians who have no principles to stand by and whose work is governed by a day to day opportunism. …” About a year later, Gandhi told the Gandhi Seva Sangh workers : “I would go to the length of giving the whole Congress organisation a decent burial, rather than put up with the corruption that is rampant.” (Cited in India’s Struggle For Independence, Ed. by Bipan Chandra, op. cit., p 339)