A brief history of India — the son also rises
In previous instalments of the series, we saw the birth of the Commonwealth of India, and the administrations of her first two presidents: MA Jinnah and CR Das. In this post, we see the rise to power of Jawaharlal Nehru, Pundit Matilal Nehru’s son. The title of the post is taken from a caustic remark made by Subhas Bose, Joe Nehru’s arch rival.
President Das was assassinated outside his office on 30 January 1948. Remarkably, no one was actually punished for the first of India’s many political assassinations. According to the official White Paper, the assassination involved a radical wing of the Communist Party of India. Maj Gen Akbar Khan, head of the Inter Services Intelligence (India’s major spy agency), was implicated. As was Bhagat Singh, a veteran of the anti-british radicalism of the 1920s. Both were acquitted because of a lack of evidence.
And thanks to the hit 1999 movie Jantar Mantar, a generation of young people think that a gang of power hungry politicians, led by Jawaharlal Nehru, brilliantly if inaccurately played by Rashed Suhrawardy, killed a saintly president. While this is pure conspiracy nonsense, one can see why it was such a hit –– Nehru the younger was obviously the biggest beneficiary of the changed political circumstances.
It is said that Nehru was about to resign from the cabinet when Das was killed –– although in the movie Nehru is shown to be waiting by the window, accepting the news of the assassination with the word ‘excellent’. Nehru was definitely losing the policy battle inside the administration –– Das preferred the non-interventionist status quo attitude of the pre-war years, while Ghulam Mohammed (GM) and C Rajagopalachari (CR) opposed most if not all of Nehru’s reformist views. Meanwhile, after the swift military victory in Hyderabad and a successful post-war demobilisation, the charismatic defence minister Subhas Bose became the darling of the media.
The political setting changed with the assassination.
GM was sworn in as president, and he chose CR as his vice president. Bose was moved to foreign ministry, while defence was given to Iskander Mirza, a retired general. Ballabhvai Patel continued as the home ministry, as did Nehru in economy, at least for a while. While the conservative press, still with a lot of British stake, editorialised about India being at risk of an 18th century style succession war, the constitutional order prevailed.
Nehru appeared to be just as much in minority in the new cabinet as in the old. But instead of accepting political defeat, Nehru threw down the gauntlet. Addressing the Youth Congress (a misnomer even then –– most of the ‘youth’ leaders were in their 40s!) meeting in March 1948, Nehru blamed the government for ‘making brother’s hand uncleaned in fraternal blood’ warning that ‘if not with reform, the payment will be in the currency of revolution’. Ten days later, the president told the nation that he had asked Nehru to step down as the economy minister (he was replaced by Rajendra Prasad, a relatively unknown legislator).
Nehru retaliated by announcing his candidacy for the Congress nomination for presidency in the upcoming election (scheduled for January 1949).
While in theory the Congress nominee was to be chosen by the party’s biennial conventions, both Jinnah and Das were chosen by consensus among the party powerbrokers (indeed this would also be the case for most elections since). GM-CR assumed that they had enough control over the party machinery to easily beat Nehru when the party convened in the Gujerati village of Haripura in the autumn of that year. And the media bemoaned the political suicide of young Nehru.
But this changed over the summer.
First, Nehru drew half million strong crowds in meeting after meeting in Calcutta, Bombay, Lahore, Delhi, Madras and Lucknow in June. These mass meetings were completely unprecedented, and continue even in today’s electronic age. Organised by Jaya Prakash Narayan, the leader of the ‘left faction’ of Congress, these showed Nehru’s command over the party rank and file.
Then in August, Patel and Mirza told the president that if Nehru leaves Congress, a large number of MPs might join him.
Finally, in September, when Jinnah wrote a letter to the major newspapers arguing for a ‘generational change’ –– a curious statement as CR was only 11 years older than Nehru and outlived the latter by nearly a decade –– both the president and the vice-president announced that they would not seek re-election.
In October, Nehru was nominated as the Congress candidate for presidency. As with Jinnah and Das, he was elected unopposed. Jinnah died of tuberculosis before Nehru’s inauguration. While Nehru publicly said ‘the light has gone out of our lives’, the reality was that he saw this as a new dawn.
And what would Nehru do in this new era?
That’s for future installments.