Work in Progress: 4
GEM OF A NATION
Political Biography of Dr Rajendra Prasad
By Dr BSM Murty
Extract from Part VI, Chapter 2
Congress in disarray
The Indian Constitution was very nearly old wine in an old bottle sadly bereft of the spirit of Gandhi, and Prasad was not unaware of the flaws. It was not for nothing that he called it a ‘lifeless machine’, an un-Gandhian document adorned with all the finest legalese and constitutional finesse of western import, but as remote from the ‘quintessential India’ as it could be. Yet it was not the only document that would have disillusioned the ‘Father of the Nation’. A similar botch-up had been done with the constitution of the Congress that had been in the making over the past few years. The first Congress constitution had been drafted by Gandhi as early as 1919, and he again redrafted it with radical modifications in 1946 when the Congress was faced with new political challenges with independence peeking at the door. [V10:281-83] Sadly, with the political situation in a deep flux in the post-war scenario, that draft remained unaddressed and ignored, and even after independence it lay in abeyance for months. Finally, a note entitled ‘The Future Role of the Congress’ for an independent India was prepared by Shri Shankar Rao Deo, a CWC member, for consideration by the PCCs and the rank and file in Congress. The note was based on Gandhi’s premise of a complete overhaul of the organizational structure of the Congress redefining its new role in independent India as an a-political institution of social change on a countrywide scale. The Congress had formed a Constitution Committee for finalizing a new constitution for its organizational revamping, and Deo’s draft was to be sieved by it before its final approval at the Jaipur AICC session. But the apathy and skepticism persisted.
These proposals meant a clean sweep of the past. Gandhiji’s absence precluded any attempt at further clarification or modification of the proposals. Unable to contemplate the idea of dissolving an institution which was the only organizational body which could run the administration of the country and tackle the manifold problems that political freedom brought in its wake, the Working Committee with great regret dissented from Gandhi’s basic approach and made their own recommendations regarding the fundamental principles that should govern the new constitution. It accepted as many suggestions of Gandhiji’s as it could conveniently do and for the rest drew from the original proposals of the Constitution Committee. [V10/263]
This new Congress constitution was finally approved in the Jaipur session of the AICC (18-19 December, 1948), presided over by the new Congress president, Pattabhi Sitaramayya. Prasad, the outgoing president, had been unable to attend the Jaipur session, or any of the CWC meetings preceding it, due to his ill-health and his strenuous involvement in the Constituent Assembly sessions. In the new constitution, rather than dissolving or purifying it on Gandhian lines, the Congress organization had been made merely an appendage of the government. With all the democratic procedurality woven into it, the Congress constitution was restructured only to play ‘second fiddle’ to the Nehru government. As Lelyveld puts it: ‘Under Nehru, the Congress [was] effectively now the government of India….He also confessed that he hadn’t bothered to keep track of his master’s cherished “constructive” programs, didn’t “know much about them in any detail”, and didn’t understand how Gandhi could have proposed to take the Indian National Congress out of politics now that it was responsible for running things. “Congress has now to govern, not to oppose government”, the prime minister said firmly. “So it will have to function in a new way, staying within politics”’. [343/347] Obviously, Nehru’s perspective was quite contrary to Gandhi’s radical vision.
Only a few months before Prasad finally lay down the uneasy crown of Congress presidentship, Nehru in a letter had complained to him about Congressmen interfering in the affairs of the government and Prasad had assured him that necessary disciplinary directives had been issued to the PCC presidents in this regard. [V10, L2.8.48] Clearly from now on, the nationalist, patriotic ideals, with the underpinning of struggle and sacrifice sustaining them, were thrown to the winds and forgotten, and ‘Congress had become an election-winning and power-using mechanism.’ [Desai/297] There was also a renewed scramble among Congressmen to extract as much advantage as they could for their jail-terms and other sacrifices. They now constituted a new privileged class of ‘freedom-fighters’ who wanted their own piece of the plum cake to savour!
Over the past decades, Congress had been carefully constructed into a massive nationalist organization with its roots firmly planted in the rural soil of India. But the inherent dichotomy had always remained between the Gandhian path of the integral transformation of the national polity and the expedient shorter route to political independence in the guise of ‘transfer of power’. Nehru and even Patel, a little later, had conveniently abandoned the master’s path as they neared the goal of independence. Prasad, one of the strongest pillars in the Congress, however, remained steadfast to the Gandhian ideals till the very end. Even during the presidency period, Prasad’s occasional conflicts with Nehru arose from these fundamental divergences.
Both Prasad and Patel were basically grassroot-level leaders, unlike Nehru who had more of a westernized, elitist, iconic persona of an idealogue, notwithstanding his unmatchable sacrifices to the organization. They were all three closely attached to Gandhi, but in their own several ways. If Nehru’s ties with Gandhi were somewhat silken and sophisticated, Patel’s were always rugged and pragmatic. Prasad, however, was tied to the master all along, as if, with pure self-spun khadi yarn. Whereas Nehru represented the liberal, westernized international face of the Congress, Patel and Prasad looked alike in their mundane, down to earth, pro-rural convictions. This reflected an abiding cleavage in the organization right from the top down to the rank and file. With Nehru chosen by Gandhi to head the new dispensation with his sterling qualities of statesmanship and his unenviable experience of democratic governance, Patel, Prasad and all others in the top leadership fell into a subsidiary group in the power game. This inevitably created two power centres both in the government and the party.
Differences in political perspectives had always been there in the Congress but the trajectories diverged significantly in the post-independence era. There were frequent unseemly spats between Patel and Nehru, in particular, and Prasad also was involved willy-nilly on occasions. Prasad always tried his utmost to opt out of conflicts and controversies, following a path of reconciliation and least resistance, and his preference of the Constituent Assembly presidentship to a Cabinet position was only an instance of this. Even his reluctance to continue as Congress president was due to the increasing factionalism down the line in the party resulting from the duality of power centres manifest now both in the party and the government. “There were party factions”, writes Ramchandra Guha, “at the district level, as well as at the provincial level. However, the most portentous of the cleavages was between the two biggest stalwarts, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. These two men, prime minister and deputy prime minister respectively, had major differences in the first months following independence.” [Guha/127] Guha also quotes a comment by the Time magazine that the Congress after independence ‘found itself without a unifying purpose…[grown] fat and lazy…[harboring] many time-serving office-holders [and] not a few black-marketeers’.[Ib] There were not only frequent power-sharing hassles, but still worse, a general decline in discipline and morality in the party.
Gandhi was gone - dusted and shelved - and Prasad had discreetly stepped aside from the real power centre, devoting himself mainly to the job of Constitution-making which was then of the highest priority, as also to giving moral support to the largely sidelined Gandhian ‘constructive programme’ which Nehru hardly ‘bothered to keep track of’. Consolidation and sharing of the newly gained power at the Centre was of prime importance both for Nehru and Patel. All others in the power circle, including those at its periphery, either in the government or the party, were supposed to fall in line with the policies of these two great pillars of power. Prasad, however, as a staunch Gandhian, always remained closer to Patel and the other hard-liners in the party, rather than to Nehru. And as later developments evinced, Prasad had several wrangles with Nehru over important constitutional issues, including frequent frictions in the party.
This unfortunate cleavage had created a near vertical split in the party down to the lowest rung affecting the morale and cohesion in the entire organization. The consequential ramifications of this disunity between those, rather lesser in number, still subscribing to the Gandhian ideals and those others who clung tenaciously to the nucleus of power became manifest as the years of the Nehruvian era rolled on. It was, as if, a paradigm shift had occurred in the political discourse in the post-independence era from an idealistic freedom-driven ideology to a power-driven political culture. Rather than making independence a means to bringing freedom to the people’s doorstep, independence for the Congress had become a means to holding on to power; something of an end in itself. In fact, long before independence arrived, Gandhi had already surmised that ‘the social order of our dreams cannot come through the Congress party of today…there is so much corruption today that it frightens me. Everybody wants to carry so many votes in his pocket, because votes give power’. Kripalani’s diagnosis of the malaise was more specific: ‘red-tapism, jobbery, corruption, bribery, black-marketing and profiteering’. [LF/607]
These were serious issues in a government still not firm on its feet. And for the party that had clearly parted company with Gandhian ideals, it was worse; nearly catastrophic. For Prasad who was rather equidistant, though not unconnected, from both, the situation was especially agonizing. Almost for three decades since 1917, living in Bihar, he had played a pivotal role in the Congress. All these years he had been among the most highly regarded leaders in the party, especially because of his pure Gandhian propensities and his personal qualities of moral rectitude. But since moving to Delhi just before independence, debilitated all the more by his chronic ailment, he had become rather overwrought and distracted. Even a cursory glance over his voluminous correspondence of these crucial years (1947-’50) [Note] shows how these worrisome developments both in the government and the party were sapping his strength. Often during these years he would move to Pilani or Wardha for respite and recuperation. But political developments even back home in Bihar during these transitional years would always keep him perturbed.
Despite all its assertions of secularism, the Congress government in Bihar had failed miserably in controlling the pre-partition riots in Bihar in which large numbers of Muslims had suffered. For efficient management of relief and rehabilitation of the refugees, both Azad and Prasad had advised Dr S.K. Sinha, the Bihar Premier, to entrust the work to Dr Syed Mahmud, but the advice had gone totally unheeded. “Dr Mahmud felt very sore about it and hardly attended the Cabinet meetings thereafter.” [Hist/607] This had irked both Gandhi and Nehru. Also, several instances of rank corruption had surfaced both in the government and the party including the scandals over ‘molasses’ and the shady ‘Bettiah land settlements’. Always concerned about probity, Prasad was deeply disturbed by such embarrassing developments in his home province. Expressing utter disgust over such developments after his Patna visit, even Patel had written to Prasad on 28 January, 1948: “As regards the Ministry as a whole and the local Congress I am afraid I have returned full of misgiving and disappointment. The Ministry and the Provincial Congress are at loggerheads and the Ministry itself is not united. It was a most sickening thing to enter into those unseemly bickerings…. [and] unless things are dealt with resolutely and discipline is restored with the least possible delay, it might be too late to resuscitate the Congress organization in this province.”[Hist/611]
Election of interim President
In 1948, Prasad was still Congress President and the squabbles within the party and the government were a matter of constant worry. The draft constitution was in the process of making and, as President of the Constituent Assembly, Prasad was constantly monitoring its progress as many of these letters reveal. Rajagopalachari had substituted Mountbatten as the interim Governor General of the new dominion which was soon to become a Republic with an elected President in accordance with the provisions of the new Constitution. All in all, it was a period of transition beset with myriad complicated problems both in the party and the government. One of the contentious issues was the election of the President of the Republic itself. ‘Nehru thought’, writes Guha, ‘that when the governor generalship became a presidency, the incumbent C. Rajagopalachari, should retain the job. “Rajaji” was an urbane scholar with whom the prime minister then got along very well. Patel, however, preferred Rajendra Prasad, who was close to him but who also had wider acceptance within the Congress party. Nehru had assured Rajaji that he would be president, but much to his annoyance, and embarrassment, Patel got the Congress rank and file to put Prasad’s name forward instead.’ 
In June, 1949, a Bombay weekly had published a story about this controversy in the Congress party over the election of the President of the new Republic. The story projected a contest in the popular perception between Rajaji and Prasad. The weekly had also published several disparaging remarks about Rajaji political antecedents. Although on Patel’s advice Prasad had issued a press statement contradicting the existence of any such conflict, he had clarified to Patel that ‘there is nothing for me to contradict’ as there were ‘no allegations against me’ in the story. As he explained to Patel: ‘There are three parties against whom allegations are made. Firstly, the members of Constituent Assembly who are divided into two groups alleged to be canvassing in favour of the two contestants, secondly, you and Jawaharlalji who are said to be supporting one, and lastly one of the so-called contestants who is said to have done so many improper things. Therefore, although I have issued the statement it is not really and cannot be a contradiction of what is alleged….That contradiction, if any has to be made, can only come from the three parties concerned’.[Mrit 375]
It was indeed an unfortunate and sordid episode which involved four of the topmost names in the party and the government. A series of letters exchanged between Prasad, Nehru and Patel during the latter part of 1949, however, reveal the unseemly contours of this discomfiting issue. Relevant extracts, in some detail, from some of these letters would put things in clearer perspective. On 10 September, 1949, Nehru wrote to Prasad.
I have discussed this matter with Vallabhbhai and we felt that the safest and best course from a number of points of view was to allow present arrangements to continue, mutatis mutandis. That is that Rajaji might continue as President. That would involve the least change and the state machine would continue functionng as before….Vallabhbhai and I felt that Rajaji’s name should be put forward for unanimous election. I hope you agree. 
Prasad’s reply came the very next day, full of perplexity and anguish. Explaining his discontent, he wrote in that long letter to Nehru.
I have never been a candidate for any post or honour and when I issued the statement that there could be no question of any contest between Rajaji and myself, I did so without any mental reservation. I should have thought that you and Vallabhbhai would accept that statement as genuine and would not create a contest between Rajaji and myself and consider it necessary to reject me….As it is, I am required to accept and act upon a decision which has been taken without even the courtesy of consultation, although it concerned me intimately as my name had been dragged into it by you without my knowledge or authority….You say that my election would involve change and rearrangement and that it would be almost a condemnation of Rajaji’s work….There is no condemnation involved or implied if a man is not reappointed to a post….unless he is keen on being reappointed and is rejected. I have no reason to think that Rajaji has been keen on being reappointed, but you know better….I feel that on the same reasoning by making me a candidate and then rejecting me you and Vallabhbhai have condemned me and all that I have stood for and done during all these years in association with you. Perhaps it has been stupid of me to think that I have been one of your colleagues deserving your confidence. [153-54]
Chastened by the uncharacteristically strong language in the letter, Nehru sent an apologetic reply to Prasad the same day.
I have been distressed to read your letter… [Only for reasons of expediency] I thought Rajaji might as well continue….I never thought of this matter in terms of Rajaji or you. Partly I think this was so because I had hoped that you would be free to devote yourself to the vital task of running the Congress organization, to which I attach the greatest importance. Indeed I could see of no other person who could do this effectively. Rajaji of course could not, as he had lost touch with the Congress organization to a large extent some years ago….I am deeply sorry that I should have hurt you in any way or made you feel that I have been lacking in respect or consideration for you. [155-56]
Nehru had been rather disingenuous in the arguments that he made in his letter. Even Patel’s stand on the issue was rather ambivalent. He was convinced of the majority support to Prasad in the Constituent Assembly as well as in the party forum where Rajaji was rather unpopular because of his dereliction of Congress during the August ’42 revolution and his pro-Jinnah stand during the Cabinet Mission negotiations. But at the same time Patel was also reluctant to upset his political equations on this issue with Nehru who had his undisguised preference for Rajaji over Prasad for his own personal reasons.
In his memoirs, Prasad’s elder son, Mrityunjay Prasad, discusses this issue in great detail and at one point observes: ‘Nehruji never liked the idea of my father, Dr Rajendra Prasad’s becoming the President. And every time he would rather try that some other person of his choice should be President’. [M 167] He also refers in this context to a revealing incident narrated by Mahavir Tyagi, one of the firebrand opponents of Nehru. According to Tyagi, soon after his return from America, Nehru personally went to Prasad and made an earnest appeal to him to let Rajaji be elected President unopposed and also secured a written consent from him to that effect.[M 157] Nehru then convened a meeting of the party members at Patel’s house to contrive a consensus for Rajaji’s election. But during the heated discussions members vociferously opposed Rajaji’s nomination for presidentship of the new Republic as he had never even been elected Congress President. After the meeting, in private, Patel cautioned Nehru that if he insisted on Rajaji’s unanimous election (even in view of Prasad’s written consent to withdraw from the contest), a majority rejection of his proposal might entail his own resignation in the circumstances as per democratic norms.[M 161] Nehru then had no option but to agree to the unanimous election of Prasad as the interim President of the nascent Republic.
The whole question of Prasad’s involvement in the affairs of the party and the government acquires special significance in relation to the manner in which he was made to share responsibilities in various capacities, often against his own preference, and equally often to suit the interests of Nehru and Patel. He never himself opted for any position either in the party or in the government. More often than not he accepted such offered positions to suit others’ convenience or serve the interest of the party.
The exchange of letters in September, ’49 between Patel, Prasad and Nehru reveals the inner story not only of the interim President issue, but also of the complex interrelationships between the three of them. Both Nehru and Patel had obliquely suggested to Prasad that he should rather devote himself to ‘the vital task of running the Congress organization’ and clear the way for Rajaji to continue in the top position. In a letter to Patel, on 19 September, Prasad had again to express his exasperation over the developing situation.
I have felt not now but for a pretty long time that neither you nor Jawaharlalji ever think of consulting me even in matters of great public importance except formally when we met in the Working Committee, or when I was a member in the Cabinet….I complained on more than one occasion that we should This was be informed of important decisions, at least simultaneously with the Press, so that we might not be placed in a false position….For some reason or other the public associates the names of three of us in all matters and looks upon us as acting in all matters in unison….That strengthens the position of the party. But it also implies that I should at least be kept informed, if not consulted…and I should not be left to gather my information from newspapers or gossip. That has been the position for pretty long time.
This was an unambiguous remonstrance against the casual manner in which Prasad was often treated by these two closest colleagues. Meanwhile, not keeping well, Patel had moved to Bombay in the latter half of September and Nehru, too, was on a visit to the U.S. Prasad, however, was in Delhi busy as usual presiding over the final debates on the Draft Constitution as its third and final reading was to be taken up by mid-November. The consideration of the election of the new Republic’s President had been temporarily put on hold in Nehru’s absence but there was a lot of excitement among party members over the issue. Meanwhile, due to the severity of Delhi’s dry cold winter, Prasad had moved in early December to Wardha to get some relief from his chronic asthma. And it was there that he once again received a letter from Nehru dealing primarily with the affairs in the Congress, but also, indirectly, hinting at the impending issue of the President’s election. In the first part of that long letter (8.12.1949) sent to Wardha, Nehru expressed his deep distress ‘at many developments that are taking place’ in the Congress on the organizational level:
But what distresses me even more is the cracking up, with great rapidity, of the noble structure that Bapu built….This Congress is simply fading away before our eyes. Even a fading might have been tolerated, but something worse is happening. There is no discipline left, no sense of common efforts, no cooperation, no attempt at constructive effort (apart from a few), and our energies are concentrated in disruption and destruction….We have allowed this drift to continue too long and perhaps it is already too late to do anything. Still we must do our best. [VC11.186-87]
Clearly, Nehru insinuated that Prasad alone perhaps could set things right to any extent. But before he ended his letter, Nehru once more made a veiled suggestion for Prasad to withdraw from the contest for the Presidency. Such insensitive reiteration of an untenable request naturally ruffled Prasad’s even temper, and in great exasperation he replied to Nehru on 12 December, sending its copy also to Patel. First, he wrote about the malaise in Congress to which Nehru had referred.
It is really tragic that we should have to see the great institution which has been built up with the devoted service and sacrifice of so many of the best men and women of the country disintegrating before our eyes, and that so soon after the passing away of Bapu. But this disintegration also shows how skin-deep our attachment to the principles, which we have mouthed so loudly, and our loyalty to Bapu, whose name we are never tired of invoking, have been. [Ib.190-91]
He would now mince no words to assert how Congress had renounced all Gandhian principles in its hunger for power. And, as he ended his reply, he was very forthright in expressing his views about the Presidential election. From what he had gathered, he said, from ‘the considerable opinion among the members of the Assembly… it appears my not accepting the offer will be looked upon by them as a “betrayal”’.
They have used that expression [he continued] and told me that I should not ‘betray’ them or ‘let them down’. …I am not concerned with the right or wrong of the position. I am only expressing what has been communicated to me as their feeling….The inference that I draw from this is that the election of Rajaji will not be smooth even if I were to withdraw and propose his name…it may still further complicate the position and accelerate the disintegration which may affect even the centre which has… so far been comparatively immune….On the other hand I feel that any action which I take today which is not in consonance with the will of the Assembly will be regarded by many of its members as having been dictated by you and Sardar and all my protestations to the contrary will be disregarded, and this feeling, as I have said above, is likely to further complicate the position in the centre.
Prasad’s logic was clear as daylight. It showed where exactly Nehru stood in the midst of all that controversy mostly of his own creation. Even the crisis in the party had grown out of Nehru’s misguided separation from the Gandhian legacy, making the Congress more of a power-generating election-winning machine than the great institution of struggle and sacrifice it had been in the past. Durga Das quotes a very tart comment made about Nehru by Rafi Ahmad Kidwai in Allahabad after Prasad, Patel and Nehru had immersed Gandhi’s ashes at the triveni confluence of Ganga. ‘Jawaharlal has performed the last rites’, whispered Kidwai to Durga Das, ‘not only of Gandhi but of Gandhism as well”’. [DD279]
In these letters exchanged between Nehru and Prasad in December ’49, the tone and tenor had become sharper. Nehru’s references to Bapu in relation to the ‘disruption and destruction’ in Congress, in words like ‘the drift’,‘the cracking up of the noble structure that Bapu built’, the sad disappearance of all ‘constructive effort’, etc sounded hollow and sham in view of the outright rejection of Gandhi’s ideas for the ‘future of Congress’. To Prasad, this ‘disintegration’ of the Congress, ‘so soon after the passing away of Bapu’, only showed ‘how skin-deep our attachment to the principles, which we have mouthed so loudly, and our loyalty to Bapu, whose name we are never tired of invoking, have been’. There could have been no harsher disparagement of the betrayal of Gandhi ‘whose name we are never tired of invoking’, and of ‘the great institution which [had] been built up with the devoted service and sacrifice of so many of the best men and women of the country’. Nehru’s repeated invoking of Gandhi’s name in his memorable orations at the ‘tryst with destiny’ or at Gandhi’s assassination, or even during the Constituent Assembly speeches, together with his deep distress over the rapid ‘disintegration’ of the Congress, seemed all too disingenuous with the passage of time.
Prasad also felt particularly exasperated by Nehru’s repeated requests for withdrawal from the Presidential contest in favour of Rajaji. Although, in reality, the contest lay, perhaps, only in Nehru’s preference for Rajaji over Prasad and not otherwise. Prasad had already expressed his disinterest several times to Nehru and felt rather rattled by the reiteration of the unseemly issue. He had always been a loyal Gandhian and believed in self-abnegation. But in view of Nehru’s insistence on Rajaji’s continuation on the top post, and the general disapproval of this idea among the members in the Assembly who favoured only Prasad for this august position, he did not have much of an option either way. Also, even if he withdrew from the supposed contest against the wishes of the majority, Nehru’s forcing Rajaji’s election was likely to face a showdown, or as Prasad put it, ‘further complicate the position and accelerate the disintegration’; a situation of instability for the nascent Centre itself. Again, Prasad’s deliberate flouting of the wishes of the majority was most likely to be interpreted as his buckling under pressure from both Nehru and Patel, which again would have worsened matters beyond redemption. In short, Nehru’s persistent and unwise initiative would have caused irreparable damage both to the party and the government. Prasad’s letter to Nehru, thus, was more in the nature of a sound admonition than a warning to him. When Patel also explained the risks involved more clearly to Nehru, the latter was left with no option but to beat a reluctant retreat, reconciled to Prasad’s unanimous election as President of the new Republic.
© Dr BSM Murty
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