A brief history of Free India — the era of President Jinnah
Last month, I started a series on ‘what if partition hadn’t happened’. The first instalment is here, noting the path to freedom, the constitution of Free India, and Jinnah’s unopposed election to the presidency. This post continues the series with a description of the Jinnah administration.
Recall how the constitution delegated most powers to the states, and the centre had responsibility for only defence and foreign affairs? Now that was the theory, in practice, indian voters (10% of the population that could vote) mostly returned Congress nominees everywhere, and Free India started of as a de facto one party state.
But Congress was hardly a monolithic body. There were a number of factions. There were those, led by CR and Vallabh Patel of Gujerat, who favoured social and political stability above all else. There were the Hindu revivalists, led by Shyama Mookherji of Bengal and Rajendra Prasad of Bihar. There were a motley crew of radicals ranging from anti-modernist Gandhians to closet communists — with Jawaharlal Nehru, Motilal’s son, as their champion. Then there were those who had no particular political ideology except a desire to end the Raj. And finally there were many motivated by nothing more than the halwa-roti that came with winning office.
But head and shoulder above this behemoth stood the trinity of Jinnah-Nehru-Das, with Jinnah as the primus inter pares assumed the presidency. The constitution called for the president to appoint a vice president from the National Assembly. Motilal Nehru was supposed to be the first vice president, but he died suddenly a few weeks before independence. Chitta Ranjan Das became the vice president. Das became the driving force of the government’s legislative agenda. While the constitution doesn’t require it, most vice presidents have led the government in the legislature — making the vice presidency a sort of de facto prime ministership.
The constitution called for the president to appoint a cabinet. Jinnah appointed Patel as the Home Minister. Home ministry in theory was supposed to be just a central government co-ordination agency. But Patel was Das’s deputy as the Congress’s organisation supremo. In practice, Patel turned home ministry into a powerful body from where leaders of state governments — all Congress-run — were ‘appropriately guided’.
For the ministry of economy, Jinnah appointed CR. He quickly became a darling of the country’s business class. National Security ministry went to Gholam Mohammed, a career bureaucrat from Punjab commonly called GM.
Right then, what was the focus of the jinnah presidency?
In 1937, in a rather bland and forgettable inauguration speech, Jinnah identified stability and Indianisation as his priorities. Hagiographers of the subsequent decades paint Jinnah — now idolised as Baba-e-Desh — as a radical reformer who was thwarted by the circumstances (World War 2 broke out merely two and half years after independence). But this is nonsense. Jinnah wasn’t a radical. In fact, in many respects, he was just as conservative as CR or Patel. To him, ensuring Free India’s survival was of paramount importance, and that survival in his judgement dependent crucially on stability.
But jinnah was a nationalist too. He wanted Desi officers to take over the services, Desi teachers to head the schools, and Desi doctors to run hospitals. In his first term, all facets of the society saw Indianisation (albeit some more than others) — white sahibs were out, brown sahibs were in. And in the absence of any form of social policy, rapid Indianisation resulted in some communities (not to mention castes) dominate others economically. Thus some Gujerati castes became dominant in major trading ports, Thakurs dominated in the Hindustani heartland, and upper caste Bengali Hindus dominated everywhere. This was to have serious consequences in the coming years.
Halfway through Jinnah’s first term, war broke out in Europe. The Commonwealth of India was treaty bound to declare war on Germany, and foreign minister Nehru was keen on India sending troops to fight the Nazis. India itself was threatened when Japan entered the war in December 1941.
Before that, Jinnah was returned to office for a second term. He reshuffled the cabinet, giving the security portfolio to Patel, home to CR and economy to GM, reflecting the changed priorities.
In 1942, Indian troops were fighting Rommel’s Afrika Corp in Libya, and the Japanese in Burma. But india was more than a source of jawans as was the case in the Great War. Free India was an important ally for the western powers, not the least because of her mercurial foreign minister.
Nehru was a former socialist firebrand with Bolshevik connections. Like jinnah, he spent much of the 1920s in exile. But unlike the president, Nehru didn’t spend his time in the legal profession. Instead he travelled widely in Eurasia and the Americas, and wrote volumes. And in the 1930s, as Congress negotiated freedom with the Raj, Nehru travelled the length and breadth of Desh.
While Stalinist excesses put him off communism, he still maintained links with Indian communists and their Soviet masters. This was of utmost importance to the western powers. Because of his good office, Simla played host to the first Stalin-Roosevelt-Churchill summit in 1943. Indian soldiers were greeted as liberators in Rangoon, Singapore and Saigon in 1945. And became a permanent member of the UN security council.
In December 1944, Jinnah announced that he wouldn’t seek a third term. Congress nominated Das for presidency. The Das administration was short but eventful. But that’s for another day.