Work in progress : 7
GEM OF A NATION
A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF DR RAJENDRA PRASAD
By Dr BSM Murty
Extract from Part VI, Chapter 1
Independence had come to India and after a long and arduous struggle for freedom Congress had arrived at a crossroads. It had achieved its goal : power, but lost its political cohesion. Gandhi had been cast away from the centre to the periphery, soon to be done away with. His radical vision of the transformation of Congress into a social reform movement had no takers in the now ruling party. It was a twilight scenario of an euphoria of independence with a darkening horizon of a scramble for power, increasing communal antagonism and rapid dissipation of patriotic idealism…
Congress at crossroads
Independence had come and the new government was rapidly accommodating itself to the myriad complicated issues of internal governance including the continuing problems thrown up by the partition. One of the major emergent problems was the growing rift between the Congress party and the post-independence government; a developing conflict between those within the hallowed circle and those without it. One immediate fallout of this schism was Kriplani’s resignation as Congress President. “Acharya Kripalani [writes Prasad],…was dissatisfied with Government, for he felt that he was not able to pull as much weight with the Cabinet as he thought he should be able to”. In that uneasy situation, remarks Durga Das, “Nehru suggested that Prasad become President of the Congress Party. Prasad objected strongly to what appeared to him an attempt to push him out of the Cabinet and Presidentship of the Constituent Assembly.” Prasad’s own version of this unfortunate imbroglio, however, is rather different as he writes about it at some length in his book At the Feet of Mahatma Gandhi.
Already saddled with two burdensome responsibilities of overseeing the wearisome task of ‘framing the Constitution’ as President of the Constituent Assembly, and grappling with the precarious situation on the twin fronts of food and agriculture, particularly in the aftermath of the War and the countrywide near-famine conditions, Prasad was undertstandably reluctant to take up the Presidentship of the Congress already in the throws of disintegration. “I felt [he writes]…that the additional responsibility of becoming President of the Congress would prove too much for me. Accordingly, I told Pandit Nehru and Sardar Patel that if I accepted their suggestion, I should be relieved of my office as Minister in charge of Food and Agriculture, and that perhaps I might also want to be relieved of the responsibility of presiding over the Constituent Assembly, particularly as guiding the Congress, in which internal differences had already become manifest, would be a difficult enough task. [Patel and Nehru], however, felt that I must take the place of Kripalaniji. I could not refuse, for the inference would have naturally been that I was not prepared to give up my place in the Cabinet.”
Gandhi was not in favour of Prasad’s being relieved from his responsibilities as Minister of Food and Agriculture as the latter was working very hard to cope with the grim food situation in the country and there had been a remarkable all-round improvement in the situation even during his short tenure. Also both these departments were directly concerned with the uplift of the rural population, an area close to Prasad’s experience and disposition as well as among Gandhi’s top priorities. Besides, Gandhi was already quite unhappy about the tussle developing between the Congress party and the new government. “Gandhiji was of the opinion”, writes Prasad, “that either Shri Jai Prakash Narain or Acharya Narendra Deo, both leaders of the Socialist Party, should be offered the presidentship. When, however, he realized that the Working Committee was not prepared to accept that proposal and that some of the members were very much opposed to it, he kept quiet…” Obviously Gandhi had come to realize that the section of Congress leadership on board the new government now wanted the party only as a compliant appendage. With his enormous influence among the newly elected legislators, Prasad knew that both Patel and Nehru wanted him to be away from the helm of affairs. Prasad could not justifiably be accused of any ‘lure of power’. He had been drawn away from his organizational key position in the party to the centre of power mainly because of his long political experience, his proven integrity and his sterling capabilities. But now in the new government of an independent India both Patel and Nehru seemingly had their own axes to grind, and Prasad for them as a cabinet colleague would now only be an inconvenience and embarrassment as later developments amply showed. Even at the cusp of independence serious differences had already started emerging between Patel and Nehru, something that had added to Gandhi’s darkening despair.
Under such conflicting circumstances, however, Prasad had to accept the presidentship of the Congress, though on condition that ‘I would give up my place in the Cabinet and would take charge of the Congress work only after I was relieved of that office.’ [AFM318] As stipulated, Prasad was finally relieved of his Cabinet position on 14 January, 1948, and ‘formally took over as President of the Congress’. The ‘lured by power’ observation, attributed to Gandhi in Das’s journalistic reporting, is thus soundly nullified both by Prasad’s own testimony and by the familiar course of events. Unfortunately it’s quite common in journalism, on occasions, to find trivial and insignificant details or observations overly magnified for special effect. In fact, only a few pages earlier in his book, Das uses acclamatory phrases for the great leaders. Nehru is ‘the darling of the nation’ and ‘the refuge of the minorities’; Patel, ‘The Iron Man [who] inspired trust in those days of uncertainty’, and Rajendra Prasad is ‘the embodiment of Gandhian humility and the spirit of selfless service’. [DD261]. Even Louis Fischer, Gandhi’s celebrated hagiographer, had paid high tributes to Prasad when he had taken over as Congress President from Kripalani in January, 1948. “ He was”, wrote Fischer, “ a gentle, modest, compliant, retiring, well-intentioned, high-minded person more inclined to serve than to lead.”
It is relevant here to remember that towards the end of both his Autobiography and At the Feet, Prasad discusses in minute details the challenges and the attainments of the projected goals during his sixteen-month long tenure as Minister of Food and Agriculture. The year-long first part of this tenure fell under the Interim government with all the tumult and strife of the partition. During this pre-partition phase, he had also to preside over the Constituent Assembly, besides discharging his onerous duties as a member of the Partition Committee. With characteristic modesty he admits: “Somehow I managed to carry on all these responsibilities with the blessings of Bapuji. I had, moreover, no reason to be dissatisfied with myself as regards the work which was entrusted to me.”
Prasad had little administrative experience to help him in managing two of the most difficult Central ministries assigned to him when he was invited to join the problematic Interim coalition Cabinet. After the ravages of the War and the consequent widespread famine conditions in the country, later compounded by the massive influx of refugees caused by the partition, Prasad had been saddled with the most exhausting load of work, particularly in view of his fragile health. He had justifiably expressed his preference for the presidentship of the Constituent Assembly, but was equally determined to grapple with the grass-root level problems of food and agriculture that were virtually in a shambles. In fact, among all his other colleagues in the government, if there was one person absolutely free from any ‘lure of power’, it was Rajendra Prasad and none else. Patel had tenaciously clung to the Home ministry for obvious reasons, and even though he had a majority mandate of the PCCs for the Congress presidentship, he wanted that contentious responsibility to be shouldered by Prasad. The same was true of Nehru who was right from the start keen on Foreign Affairs which most suited his propensities and for which he was also, perhaps, the most capable. As a matter of fact, since its Tripuri session the Congress presidentship had practically become something like a loose-fitting mantle which could be conveniently put on or off as the situation demanded. Maulana Azad, Congress President for six terms during the War (1940-’46), had to give place to Nehru for just a short while when the Congress President had to join the Interim government as the leader of the coalition team. And only a couple of months later the mantle was draped over Kripalani’s shoulders at Meerut in November, 1946. But Kripalani was smart enough to realize that the mantle had lost most of its authority and its relevance and he preferred to lay it off even before the completion of his term in 1947.
By then it had become quite obvious that the mantle of Congress presidentship had become sufficiently torn and discoloured. All the glory and relevance of the Congress as a political party that had successfully led a unique non-violent national revolution to the ultimate freedom for India – even though a freedom tragically divided - lay faded and diminished. Indeed the organization had become so superfluous and disorganized, thought Nehru and Patel, that only Prasad, perhaps, could put it back into shape. Virtually abandoned by Gandhi, its patriarch ‘Bapu’, it had now become almost an orphan, a nobody’s baby. Pds:291113
Lok Sevak Sangh
It might be useful in this context to remember that as early as 1917, during his Champaran satyagraha, Gandhi had scrupulously kept the farmers’ movement disassociated with the name of the Congress. He made an intuitive distinction between a grass-root level revolution of a social and moral character, essentially non-political and basically experimental, and a manifestly political movement with the primary objective of getting freedom from imperial rule. It is important to see the fundamental difference between the two approaches. Gandhi had given practical demonstrations of the first kind of transformational revolution in Champaran, in Kheda, Bardoli and Dandi. Those were all models of a social revolution that could bring about change at the grass-root level; a revolution meant to change the rural face of India.
It was only when Congress agreed to adopt his unique principles of transparency (Truth) and peaceful moral resistance (Ahimsa) that Gandhi consented to lead the political movement of the Congress for the ouster of the British Raj. In fact, had the Congress refrained from haste and continued with Gandhi’s unique political strategy with a little more patience and sagacity, and unity of purpose, it could well have attained an undivided freedom for India. Right from the beginning, Gandhi always realized and emphasized the value of communal harmony and eradication of social inequalties, along with a ‘constructive programme’ that was ideally suited to bring about a grass-root level transformation of the national polity. For him the two movements were parallel and complementary, the ‘grass-root’ one having a long-term objective, and the ‘freedom’-oriented one with a short term political goal of national independence.
It remains a historical fact that since the Civil Disobedience movement of the thirties, Congress had lost its political focus and thrust leading to Gandhi’s withdrawal from the active leadership of the party. Already a parting of ways was discernible between his own perceptions of the political situation and its necessary strategies and those of his very closest and most loyal followers. Gandhi’s branching off into a countrywide parallel movement of a ‘constructive programme’ and creating a cadre of dedicated Congressmen for its effective implementation was a decisive step he took in that direction. This disjunction between the two approaches started getting more and more pronounced as the political movement became more strident and focused on ‘power transfer’. That is, a divided and limited ‘dominion’ variety of freedom rather than the purna swaraj unequivocally envisaged in the Lahore (1929) session of the Congress.
This was clearly a minimalization of the Congress’ political objectives to suit the interests of some individuals, including Jinnah and Mountbatten, rather than to serve the broader political objectives in the national interest and in the interest of the people. Obviously for Gandhi such minimalization of the broader objectives in the interest of political expediency was unacceptable. Also, perhaps, Prasad was being compelled to be a party to this expedient policy in order to neutralize Gandhi’s principled opposition. To make Prasad accept Congress presidentship and relinquish his responsibility midway as Food and Agriculture Minister (both actions disapproved by Gandhi) was a calculated move to distance him from Gandhi and compromise his moral credibility. It’s appropriate in this context to recall Fischer’s words ‘gentle, modest, compliant’, etc describing Prasad’s personality. At the same time the ‘lure of power’ remark about Prasad attributed to Gandhi must be seen in the context of these circumstances deliberately created to bring about a misunderstanding between the mentor and his loyal disciple.
Contrasting Prasad with Patel, Michael Brecher, Nehru’s biographer, finds Patel ‘cold’ with ‘almost icy reserve about him, a pronounced aloofness and stern composure’ whereas Prasad he describes as ‘a kindly, gentle-looking man… a devout believer in pure non-violence…among all of Gandhi’s leading political disciples, the most spiritually akin to the Mahatma…[one who] has been loyal to his mentor throughout his public life’. In fact, when Gandhi had wanted one of the senior Congress leaders to stay out of the government, he had actually meant Patel rather than Prasad. “Though coming together”, writes Rajmohan Gandhi, “to defeat some of Gandhi’s solutions, Nehru and Patel were often in conflict. At the end of September  Gandhi had thought that for cohesion one or the other should leave the government.” As Nehru was his preferred choice and had become almost indispensable as leader of the governing team, Gandhi obviously meant Patel as the one ‘to stay out of the government’. Gandhi knew that the equilibrium between the Congress party which had ultimately secured the ‘transfer of power’ after decades of struggle and sacrifice and its top leadership now holding the reins of the government had now reached almost a breaking point. As Durga Das says, Gandhi was now fully convinced that Congress should ‘cease to be a political party’ as the intra-party conflicts scenario was getting quite dismal after independence.
Already, the element of durbar was creeping in….The politicians I tapped for their views were of three categories. The giants were loyal to Gandhi to a man, but they felt a growing estrangement from the Mahatma in that the business of government had made them abandon their Gandhian ideals both under political and administrative compulsions as well as their own personal craving to wield power as the British had done and to live like the ‘White Sahibs’. They could not resolve this conflict, and the more Gandhi spelled out his views at his daily prayer meetings on how they should conduct themselves the more they shrank from his commandments. In fact, they charged him in private with attempting to exercise power without responsibility. Those in the second rank openly exhibited their itch for power and pelf, and those at the bottom rungs of the political hierarchy also saw in the advent of freedom the long-awaited opportunity to cash in on their sacrifices for the cause.
Conflict of interest between the party and the government was inevitable. As Fischer points out: “ [Gandhi] realized that a one-party system could actually be a no-party system, for when the Government and party are one, the party is a rubber stamp and leads only a fictitious existence…. The election of a puppet who obeyed the government would signalize the elimination of effective political opposition." The rejection by both Nehru and Patel of Gandhi’s suggestion that either Jayaprakash or Narendra Dev be elected Congress president, only meant to keep Congress in a submissive status quo mode. That is precisely why they had insisted on Prasad’s taking over as Congress president from Kripalani. Gandhi, soon after that AICC session, had said:
I am convinced that no patchwork treatment can save the Congress. It will only prolong the agony. The best thing for the Congres would be to dissolve itself before the rot sets in further. Its voluntary liquidation will brace up and purify the political climate of the country. But I can see that I can carry nobody with me in this.
The agony could not have been more intense for Gandhi who had returned in early September from Calcutta to a riot-torn Delhi where the Muslims were now being subjected to horrific violence following the large-scale influx of embittered refugees from divided Punjab. To add to the agony, there were ugly squabbles now between Nehru and Patel over the post-partition problems both in the government and the party. Notwithstanding his ill-health, Prasad as usual was overburdened with multiple responsibilities, one of them being
[the] amendment of the Congress Constitution, which had been under discussion for some time and for which a Committee had been appointed….[Only] a few hours before his assassination, he put down in writing his views in regard to the amendment of the Congress Constitution. He was of the opinion that the Congress should cease to be a political organization, in which capacity it had been taking part in political activity and had been controlling the Ministries that had been functioning, and that it should work as a body of social workers and influence government through social work. This view, however, did not find favour with prominent Congressmen. The Congress Constitution, therefore, as amended, did not provide that the Congress should develop into a Lok Sevak Sangh… The [other] task… was Gandhiji’s constructive programme, to which he attached as much importance as he did to Hindu-Muslim unity.
Prasad had just been relieved of his responsibility as Food and Agriculture Minister and been elected Congress President. But he had also been actively engaged in the drafting of the new Constitution as President of the Constituent Assembly, besides being a member of the Partition Committee. In spite of being overworked, Prasad had been meeting Gandhi almost every day for urgent consultations and acquainting him with the developments on all fronts.
Meanwhile, the situation in Delhi was very tense. Even the top leaders in the Congress, including Patel, were unhappy with Gandhi’s alleged partiality towards Muslims, particularly after his last fast over the delay in the transfer of money to Pakistan. Serious differences over policy matters between Patel and Nehru had become Gandhi’s greatest worry. Accusations were being made that there were no proper security arrangements at the prayer meetings in spite of Patel being the Home Minister. A bomb incident had already taken place in one of Gandhi’s daily evening prayer meetings at Birla House, just ten days before his tragic assassination. In fact, on the very day of the assassination, till only a few hours before, Gandhi had been drafting the new constitution for the Congress in its new avatar as the Lok Sevak Sangh conceptualised as a purely non-political organization focused on the ongoing constructive programme. But, perhaps, destiny was scripting another pitiless narrative for that evening and beyond in history. In keeping with the tragic irony, Prasad had left Delhi the same morning as he narrates the whole sequence of events.
This matter [the Sevagram conference] had been under [Gandhiji’s] consideration for some time, and it had been decided that a conference of constructive workers should be called at Sevagram. A date had been fixed for it in the first week of February. Mahatmaji had decided to attend it and was anxious to go to Wardha for this purpose…. Early on the morning of January 30, 1948, I left for Wardha by plane. Before that, however,… I saw Gandhiji….He said that he would leave for Wardha in a day or two to attend the conference….I left Delhi in the hope that I would see Bapuji at Wardha within the next few days, and that the constructive programme, which was the very basis of the strength of the Congress, would receive a new impetus….I arrived at Wardha about half-past two in the afternoon. By that time, because of the cold and the exhaustion consequent on the journey, I had started a temperature. A doctor came to see me at about five o’clock in the evening. While I was talking to him, a boy came running and told us that Mahatmaji was dead….[The] announcement had come on radio.
As I reproduce these lines, I am struck by a personal flashback of that terrible radio announcement. I was just about ten years old. We lived in Chhapra (in Bihar) where my father was a college professor. It was around six in the evening. I was playing on the street with other boys. Across the street lived our landlord, the only person in the locality who owned a big radiogram in his drawing room. The news of Gandhiji’s murder came in a special announcement: some Hindu fanatic had just shot Mahatma Gandhi as he was proceeding to his prayer meeting in Birla House. The news stunned everyone. I immediately ran into my house to convey this terrifying news to my father. He looked paralysed by the news.
That night he recorded in his diary. 30 January, 1948: “Right at nightfall, heard that at New Delhi’s Birla Bhawan, a youth named Nathuram Vinayak, around five in the evening, fired three shots at Mahatma Gandhi, killing him instantly. But God was merciful to Muslims. Had the killer been a Muslim, the entire Indian Muslim community would have been annihilated in a day. Even in his death Gandhiji protected the Muslims. Mother India became sonless today.”
Prasad recollects: “I could not sleep that night”. Though early next morning he was able to get a lift in a flight from Nagpur to Delhi with Gandhi’s son Ramdas and just made it to the last darshan and the funeral. The Sevagram Constructive Workers’ Conference was put off and met in March when it ‘decided to establish the Sarvodaya Samaj’.
Soon after that announcement of Gandhi’s assassination, Nehru’s voice had come on the radio: “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere…” It was a voice soaked in tears and anguish. “Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the Father of the Nation, is no more…” The brief speech was followed by Patel’s: “My heart is aching. What shall I say to you?...Perhaps God wanted Gandhiji’s mission to fulfil and prosper through his death.” Though it all sounded so bizarre as only a few hours before Gandhi had been trying to reconcile the increasing differences between these two great disciples. Prasad, ironically at that tragic moment, was away in Wardha on his master’s bidding for the Constructive Workers’ Conference.
The Lok Sevak Sangh draft that Gandhi had been working on, and which he had finished hours before his death, contained the blueprint of a new organization that was to supplant the Congress which Gandhi had wished to dissolve itself after it had fulfilled its purpose of attaining freedom for India. Apparently, Gandhi was thinking of the future political system for an independent India that would be truly democratic and secular with the seven million villages as its base. The colonial system of parliamentary democracy which India had inherited in its imperialist form needed a fundamental change to suit the Indian polity and its social fabric. He wanted Congress ‘to dissolve itself before the rot sets in further’. He knew it could not save itself by any ‘patchwork treatment’. A complete overhaul was the need of the hour. As Fischer had indicated, Gandhi realized that ‘a one-party system could actually be a no-party system’. Congress could not rule and put curbs on itself at the same time. A single party dominance would ultimately lead to authoritarianism. It must discard its colonial legacies and develop a new dispensation, a new, village-oriented democratic system that could turn the ‘freedom of India’ into a ‘freedom in India’. [LF/603] A Congress that had led a nation-wide freedom movement for decades, suddenly converting itself from a mighty pluralist political force into a monolithic political party inheriting a century-old colonial system of governance was, in Gandhi’s view, something of an awkward transformation. Unfortunately, however, that ‘sacred’ document penned by ‘Bapu’ in the final hours of his life, perhaps as a warning to his loyal disciples to read the writing on the wall, was casually thrown into time’s dustbin. “Never did it make its way”, writes Lelyveld, “onto the agenda of any meeting of the Indian National Congress as a subject for serious discussion.” And it now finds a place in history only as the ‘Last Will and Testament’ of Gandhi.
© Dr BSM Murty
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