A brief (alternative) history of India — Nehru re-elected
Previously… with his ambitious reform agenda stalled in a legislative quagmire, and Vice President Maolana Azad assassinated amidst communal violence, Nehru declared the 1953 elections to be a referendum on universal suffrage.
Note the plurals in the ‘1953 elections’. Not only did Jawaharlal Nehru — Joe to his friends, bhai to followers — seek re-election early that year, the parliament was also up for election then.
Recall that the first parliament was elected in 1935. Its seven year term ended in 1942. But since India was engulfed in World War II, the second parliament was not elected until late 1945. The third parliamentary election was thus due in the winter of 1952-53, coinciding with the presidential election.
Seeing his agenda stalled in the second parliament, Nehru wanted create a political momentum for universal suffrage in the third parliament. He expected an easy victory — after all, unlike in 1949, there wasn’t any question about the Congress nomination.
But things heated up in the summer. First, the anti-suffragists of Bengal, led by the charismatic Subhas Bose, broke with Congress and allied with Hindu revivalists to challenge Congress candidates across the country. Then Rajaji was persuaded to stand as an independent — swatantra — candidate to the presidency. Thus, a decade and half after independence, Congress’ grip on power seemed to be in question as 1952 neared its end.
Of course Nehru and Congress won the election handily, thanks to the support extended to Nehru from two opposing quarters.
The support of the left was expected. After all, Nehru was campaigning for progressive reforms, though his platform fell short of those of the communists and socialists — who became a vocal political force during the 1940s. The assassination of President Das was followed by a general suppression of the communists. But by 1952, pro-Nehru state premiers were, however, generally accommodating the communists and fellow travellers into the public life. The left generally returned the favour by not only endorsing Nehru, but in many areas formally campaigning for him and the official Congress candidates.
Rather more unexpected was the support Nehru received from the right. When Bose and Rajaji broke with Congress, there was intense speculation that they would be joined by the Home Minister Ballav Patel. Patel was considered to be a stalwart of the ‘traditionalist’ faction of Congress. He also had strong connection with the fledgling Desi capitalists. Had Patel joined Rajaji, Nehru’s re-election or a Congress victory in parliament would have been in serious trouble. And there were intense speculation throughout 1952 about Patel joining the opposition. In the event, not only did Patel support Nehru, he also personally selected reformist but non-radical candidates in marginal seats.
The result was a thumping victory for Nehru and Congress, though Patel didn’t live to see it, succumbing to a heart attack in December 1952.