Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Work in Progress: 8
A Political biography of Dr Rajendra Prasad

By Dr BSM Murty

It’s a first full-scale biography of Dr Rajendra Prasad who was known as the ‘Gem of a Nation’, an appellation given him by the people during India’s freedom movement. He was among the most respected national leaders in the country. The book is divided into seven parts. Part I covers the first 30 years of Rajendra Prasad’s life from early childhood till completion of education and beginning of his law practice at Patna. With Part II begins his political life with Gandhi’s Champaran Satyagraha. Part III takes the story upto the Lahore Congress (1929) where ‘Poorna Swaraj’ was declared as the ultimate objective of the freedom movement. Part IV covers the ‘Strife and Tumult’ of the 30s. Part V takes the story through the Second World War till the tragedy of India’s partition. Part VI brings the narrative from independence right upto 1952 when the first General elections were held. The last Part VII deals with the decade-long period of Rajendra Prasad’s two consecutive presidencies, his post-retirement life and death at Sadaqat Ashram in Patna.

The extract given here is from Part VII, Chapter 3 narrates the inside story of Dr Rajendra Prasad’s  election for a second term of Presidency (1955-1960) and the controversy surrounding it.

Since his elevation to the presidency, Dr Prasad had already become largely detached from the affairs of the party. And yet surprisingly, the majority groups in the party both at the national and the provincial levels were reverently beholden to him for his sterling qualities of dedication to the Gandhian ideals and his innate sense of justice and moral values. Among the leaders at the top who were staunch supporters of Dr Prasad was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, another Gandhi loyalist. He was one person who would not mince words whenever he had to confront Nehru on critical issues. It was Azad who had played a key role – more assertive even than Patel’s - in Dr Prasad’s election as interim President. And he played an equally crucial role once again when the issue of Dr Prasad’s re-nomination for a second term as President came to the fore.

Election for Second Term

Prasad always believed in principled demeanour in life - whether personal or public. He was now past seventy. He had subscribed to those sterling moral principles of unity of thought, speech and action throughout his life. Like his mentor, Gandhi, he also always tried to follow the bidding of his ‘inner voice’ whenever he was faced with a moral perplexity. During the past decade of his serving in the pre- or post-independence government positions where, in every case, he had joined in only on peer-pressure and never on his own volition,his experiences had not been particularly gratifying or congenial to his fragile health. But he had borne all the vicissitudes with humility and grace. The memories of his elections as President of the Constituent Assembly, or as interim President had not been quite happy. And his two-year tenure as interim President, in particular, had had its somber moments. As a result, almost midway in his first full term as President, in January 1955, he had started thinking in terms of retirement on the constitutional plea of having virtually completed the ordained five-year term for a serving President. As he wrote in his diary on 24 July, 1956:

Last year when I had completed five years as the interim President and just a little less than three years after my election in 1952, I felt that the spirit of the Constitution required that a President’s term should be five years and although interms of the Constitution I had not completed five years, I felt my turn should be over according to the spirit of the Constitution. I decided, therefore, to send my resignation which I did after due deliberation. The Prime Minister and others whom I consulted did not like it and so I had to keep quiet. [POPI/131]

There must have been some inexplicable personal reason behind this unusual decision to quit midway by a person who never shied away from his obligations. In his biography of Radhakrishnan, Sarvapalli Gopal writes about Nehru’s apparent ambivalence on the issue: “Perhaps Nehru was concerned that relinquishment of office by the president in mid term would be endowed with political overtones…” For Nehru, it would surely have been an embarrassment, and all kinds of misgivings would have been generated by such a sudden step by a person of Dr Prasad’s tranquil and sagacious temperament. But Nehru chose to interpret it as signifying Dr Prasad’s strong desire to demit office after completion of his full term, and not as indicative of any latent discontent in Dr Prasad’s mind over the prevailing state of affairs. It only guaranteed for Nehru that there would be no hitch in his having a person of his choice as the second President in 1957. Also a relinquishment by Prasad in the mid-term would have had unpropitious implications. Indeed, all these days as 1956 drew to its close and the second presidency loomed large on the political horizon, Dr Prasad was faced with recurrent queries from friends and visitors about the possibility or otherwise of his renomination as th second President. Meanwhile, a lot of speculative reports were being published in the newspapers which were obfuscating the issue all the more.Dr Prasad, in the same diary entry, had more to say defending his non-committal stand in the matter.

Up to this time I have never stood as a candidate for any position of power or honour but have been put in almost all the highest positions by the free and unsolicited support of those entitled to vote at such elections. Indeed, on some occasions in the Congress organization, I have been asked to take up positions of responsibility and honour but requiring unpleasant duties to be performed. I have not shirked or avoided such positions also. With this background I can hardly be expected to seek election at the end of my career. I may find it difficult to refuse an offer, if it is made, although my own private inclination may be otherwise. As reagrds my private inclinations,… I feel like retiring from active political life, so that I may live my own life unhampered by limitations and restrictions of office and without the burden of office hanging heavy on my mind. How I wish I could go wherever I liked and with or without whomsoever I chose and without being accompanied…by half a dozen eyes…gazing at me and watching me;…[Again a month later, as the elections drew near, he would dwell on the same point.]It is against my nature [he wrote] to seek office or honour by election or otherwise and I have never up to now stood as a candidate for any office or honour. But it is true that both honour and office have come to me inabundance on account of the kindness of friends and admirers. It is also true that I have not refused any office even if it involved unpleasant duties. …[If] I were left to myself I would prefer to take leave of office and to devote what little of strength and life is left to me to something which suits my temperament and my age….There are, apart from age and its concomitant weaknesses, also other reasons which would induce me to get out of the present surroundings, but once again I must say I have no choice in the matter. If my services are required I cannot say no to any proposal. [133-134] [23.8.56]

In this context, Sarvapalli Gopal’s remarks that Nehru wanted Dr Prasad to go ‘whom he had found  “stuffy and slow-going, [and] in Bagehot’s phrase a “consecrated obstruction”’, or that‘Prasad was disinclined to leave Rashtrapati Bhawan’, seem neither fair to Nehru nor gracious to Dr Prasad. [287, 287]We have already seen that Prasad never felt comfortable in that fortress like prison nor ever showed any inclination to live in it for long. Nor could he ever accept the illogical constitutional position of the President on exact par with the British royalty. If he stayed on in that position for more than a decade, it was not because of his personal preference or inclination, but the prevailing political situation and the desire of the people reflected in the overwhelming majority of the electoral college votes. If he had ever sensed that the popular mandate in the electoral college was not overwhelmingly in his favour, he would never have stuck to that high position even for a moment.Nehru may have had his own reasoning for preferring Radhakrishnan over Prasad for the second presidency in 1957, as he had shown for Rajagopalachari for the first presidency in 1952.But it certainly led to a repugnant controversy on both occasions which weakened Nehru’s political position and led to unnecessary embarrassment. R.L. Handa, the President’s Press Secretary, narrates the inside story of how this unseemly controversy rose to a fever-pitch as the Second General elections in 1957 drew near. “In the first week of December 1956”, writes Handa, “Maulana Azad came to Rashtrapati Bhawan…[and] asked Rajendra Prasad frankly if he would agree to run a second term in case the Congress Parliamentary Board renominated him.” [67] Dr Prasad told him that ‘mentally he had not taken any stand, positive or negative’. But when Azad bluntly asked him ‘whether he would stand by the decision of the Congress High Command if it renominated him, the President committed himself to accepting the said decision whatever it was’.

Meanwhile, the second general election began on 24 February, 1957 and continued for about three weeks. Michel Brecher gives his observations on this second election in his biography of Nehru.

The largest democratic pollin history, there were 193 million electors, 20 million more than in 1952, and some 3,400 seats at stake.  This time, however, the number of ‘national parties’ was reduced to four as a result of a ruling by the Election Commission: the Indian National Congress; the Praja Socialist Party; the Bharatiya Jana Sangh; and the Communist Party of India. Seven other groups were designated ‘state parties’….Except for a few remote constituencies the poll was completed in three weeks, instead of two months as in 1952. Perhaps the most encouraging feature was that over 60 per cent of the electorate actually voted – this in a population of which more than 80 per cent are illiterate. [179-80]

Except for CPI, the two other major parties fared rather poorly in almost every State. Yet Congress ‘won a very large majority of seats at the Centre and was returned topower in all but one of the thirteen State Assemblies’.Only in Kerala, the CPI had ‘won a major prestige victory’. It had also emerged ‘as the leading opposition party’ at the Centre. As in 1952, the Congress sweep remained ‘impressive’ winning ‘75 per cent of the seats in the Parliament and 65 per cent of all seats in the State Assemblies’; the reasons being the same - its legacy of the freedom struggle, ‘a nation-wide political machine rooted in the village’, ‘ample campaign funds’, the charisma of  Gandhi’s and Nehru’s name, and the ‘disunity among the opposition parties’. And yet the overall vote share – though slightly higher than in 1952 – was yet around 47 per cent only. This general decline could, of course, be attributed to ‘the gap between promise and fulfillment, and the lengthy tenure of power by the Congress’. The trend clearly showed the rise of the Left, the all-round dilution of the socialist creed, and the general erosion of credibility in the Congress.

In terms of the presidential election this meant an obviously large majority of the Congress votes even in the electoral college. If this could be seen as indicative of a probable preference for Dr Prasad for a second term, Nehru was once again on shaky ground in championing the cause of the elevation of Radhakrishnan to the presidency. But there were many twists and turns in this highly charged drama of the President’s election for the second term: 1957-’62. Wild speculations had been made in the press about the probability of Dr Prasad retirement after completing his first full term, particularly after his Independence day speech in Madras. But as Handa says, the general opinion in the press in South was that Dr Prasad should continue for the second term in view of his sustained efforts to ‘reconcile the South and assuage the feelings of South Indians during the last eight years or so’. [64-65] His ‘voluntary retirement at this juncture’ would have been seen as ‘something unpatriotic’. Also as a national leader, he was seen as ‘a symbol of the Indian nation’. Nehru, on the other hand, in the context of the states’ reorganization, had lost some popularity in the South. As against Nehru, according to Handa, ‘Dr Rajendra Prasad was surely the one man who inspired universal respect and… [represented]the feeling of unity in every part of the country’.

The controversy got stoked up again, after Nehru’s return from the US, with a circular letter he issued ‘to all Central Ministers, Chief Ministers of States and even to the President’s Secretary’. The letter reiterated that ‘the question of President’s election was an open one’, and that there was a general feeling ‘that someone from the South should be elected and that it was not desirable to have the same person over and over again for that high office’. This was surely a faux pas on the part of the Prime Minister who had utterly failed to gauge the general mood of the MPs, ‘including some from the South’.[69] There was a lot of hue and cry over the matter, but Dr Prasad remained unruffled as ever, and it was left to be finally decided in a meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Board.

Handa gives an inside account of the proceedings in that CPB meeting attended by Nehru, Pant, Dhebar, Jagjivan Ram and Maulana Azad. Surprisingly, the meeting was over within half an hour and the CPB had finally nominated Dr Prasad for the second term. The real story, as Handa could gather later from Dr Prasad himself, was that the meeting began with Pant putting forth arguments in line with Nehru’s circular letter. Pant made the same points – that it must be someone this time from the South, that a healthy convention must be set ‘in favour of one term for the incumbent of the high office’, this being particularly necessary ‘in view of Rajendra Prasad’s ill health’, and so forth. As Handa continues:

Nehru, who must have known what Pant had to say, preferred to keep quiet and wait for the reaction of the Maulana who obliged him too readily. The first point Azad made was that it was wrong to believe Rajendra Prasad was unwilling to be renominated. He said he (Azad) had met him and talked to him at length on the subject. A noble and selfless man like him, Azad added, could not be expected to make his candidature known or to betray any anxiety for any honour. Just for this reason, which the Maulana said was on the credit side, his claim to continuance in that office could not be ignored… Next the Maulana touched on the regional question. Though Pant had not mentioned Radhakrishnan by name, Azad did. He asked them point-blank if they had any other man from the South in view. On a clear denial from Pant and Nehru, Azad looked into their eyes and said, “I would ask you in all earnestness if there is any comparison between Prasad and Radhakrishnan so far as eligibility for this high office is concerned. Look into their past, their service to the nation and their respective images as national leaders.”[72]

Pant had nothing more to say and Nehru feebly tried to repeat the same arguments of ‘one-man-one-term convention’ or ‘ill health’, and plead for Radhakrishnan’s‘standing as a scholar and philosopher of international fame’. But Azad countered the ‘ill health’ argument as totally incongruous because all of them were sailing in the same frail and aged boat. As for the‘one-man-one-term convention’, it should properly be applicable to all high offices, including that of the Prime Minister himself. “Would it not be more convincing”, asked Azad, “ if the tenure of these [high] offices were also limited to convention?” [73] Facing Nehru directly Azad said: “Jawaharlal,it is manifestly unfair to ignore Rajendra Prasad just because he is too much of a gentlemen and being the President thinks it below the dignity of his high office either to press his claim or even to make his wishes known to anyone.” A few moments of silence ensued; then ‘abruptly Nehru said, if that was the view, the Board should renominate Rajendra Prasad for Presidentship and Dr Radhakrishnan for Vice Presidentship’. And that clinched the issue of both Dr Prasad and Dr Radhakrishnan being renominated for a second term. Soon thereafter both Dr Prasad and Dr Radhakrishnan were formally elected for the second term - Dr Prasad elected President with over 99 % votes cast in his favour and Dr Radhakrishan elected Vice President unopposed, almost a fortnight earlier.

Sarvapalli Gopal’s account of the controversy vis a vis this elctioncomes up with subtle innuendoes about the interelationships between Dr Prasad and Nehru on the one hand and Dr Radhakrishnan and Azad on the other. Yet it remains a fact that inspite of deep divergences with Dr Prasad. Nehru also had great regard for the sagacity and nobility of demeanour of the former. Similarly both Dr Radhakrishnan and Azad were outstanding scholars and great human beings as individuals in spite of their temperamental angularities. Azad’s soft feelings for Prasad were essentially due to their long political companionship and the latter’s incomparable sacrifices during the freedom struggle, besides being Gandhi’s alter ego.At the CPB meeting Azad had bluntly said to Nehru : “I would ask you in all earnestness if there is any comparison between Prasad and Radhakrishnan so far as eligibility for this high post is concerned. Look into their past, their services to the nation and their respective images as national leaders.” He even hinted that the brouhaha in the northern press about the north and south divide over the issue had been carefully raisedonly from a particular corner. [Handa/68]

Gopal’s biased opinion of Dr Prasad becomes still more apparent when he says that ‘Prasad had clealrly not given up hopes of a third term even after twelve years in office’.[304]This seems so unjust, firstly, because Dr Prasad had never expressed his desire for any covetable position in his life either in the party or the government. And secondly, he had accepted even a second term, rather unwillingly, only on popular demand and in the larger interest of Nehru’s own credibility in the party. Handa tells us that on completion of his first full term he had already packed his things to exit from Rashtrapati Bhawan at short notice. In the ultimate analysis,for sure, Dr Prasad, a man of great eminence and dignity who served the nation three times as President, appears a tragic figure like Lear – ‘more sinned against than sinning’.

Dr Prasad’s relations with Dr Radhakrishnan also remained very cordial and mutually deferential throughout their decade-long close association. It was Nehru who was responsible for the temporary disaffection between them on the eve of the second term of the presidency. And though even during that controversy the others fished in the troubled waters, they themselves never stooped to personal bickerings. In fact, during their first term in the presidency, they evinced the best of mutual respect and conviviality. After his return from the USSR as ambassador, he was elected as the first Vice President in 1952. When he met the President, Dr Prasad, he said he was now ready to serve ‘at [his] command’ as ‘deputy to the President’; that he was ‘willing to work as [Dr Prasad] desired’. Dr Prasad told him that ‘it was kind of him to feel that way and it was a pleasure [for Dr Prasad] to have a counselor of his eminence’. They had a long pleasant chat over several matters of state policy. Dr Radhakrishnan said that while serving as ambassador in the Soviet Union he had frankly told Stalin that unlike their communist ideology promoting violence, India had brought about a socio-political revolution through non-violence (ahimsa).“We were making a colossal experiment with democracy,” he said, “and couldn’t desert that either. So we could not adopt communism as long as it had differences on these basic issues”. [CSD/15.255] With his reverence for the ancient Indian religious and philosophical values and traditions, Dr Radhakrishnan, in that sense, was closer to Dr Prasad than to Nehru’s westernized values and beliefs. In fact, he had the best of the East and the West conjoined in his fundamental beliefs.With Dr Prasad he fixed up a weekly meeting on Saturdays to which he stuck routinely. One day when Dr Prasad invited him to tea he said to him that ‘we ought to keep ourselves in touch with what went on in the Government’. Since then they met regularly and discussed various issues of dayto day government policy and, as occasion demanded, shared it with Nehru and his Cabinet colleagues.

The impression that we get from Sarvapalli Gopal’s account of the controversy regarding the election for the second presidency is of a vitiation of a relationships among the major players in that unfortunate drama, particularly between Dr Prasad and Dr Radhakrishnan, or between Nehru and Dr Prasad, or Azad and Nehru. Gopal also throws clear hints of unsavoury relationship between Azad and Dr Radhakrishnan. But notwithstanding the exigencies of the crucial situation, all of them did also realize the momentous implications of that historic event. For instance, Nehru had as high regard for Dr Prasad as Azad himself. He may have misjudged the political equations prevailing at the time, and may have had his own perception about Dr Prasad’s continuing on an extra-long innings with his frail and precarious health. (Dr Prasad was already seventy-three, an advanced age in those days. And Nehru himself being sixty-seven survived Dr Prasad only by one year, with both Azad and Pant pre-deceasing them soon after that event.)

They were all men with great souls and prodigious intellects, men who were not only highly learned and highly regarded, but men who had an enviable background of making great contributions in their own fields, be it national service or scholarship. And when we look at their inter-relationships after that litmus test of their integrity was over, we find them as amiable and genial as ever, which in itself  is ample proof of their greatness. Both with Nehru and Dr Radhakrishnan, Dr Prasad remained as convivial and comfortable throughout as they had been during his last presidency. In a long diary entry for 8 May, 1952, Dr Prasad had written:‘Dr Radhakrishnan came to see me’. They first discussed various issues of common interest. And then they turned to high intellectual discourse in the lighter vein of a ‘casual chat’.

Then we moved to a casual chat. He said he was translating the Upanishads. He had already translated the Gita, and when he is free from the Upanishads he would move to another translation. The more he studies the ancient texts, he remarked, the more is his revernce or the seers of India.  What the philosophers of the West have told us or are telling us today, we find it already enshrined in the Upanishads. Our ancient sages have expressed them in almost identical words. As an example, Dr Radhakrishnan referred to Spinoza and Hegel whose phiolosophical postulates may be found expressed in similar terms in Chhandogyopanishad. The findings of the great physicist Dr Einstein are in tune with the views of our philosophers which we can feel and experience in our physical world. Consder, for instance, the terms ‘sansar’ and ‘jagat’ (both standing for world), etymologically derived from a root which means ‘to move’. The Western philosophers too emphasise the relationship between ‘motion; and ‘matter’. We don’t see these correspondences between Indian and Western systems and therefore have scant respect for our heritage. If we value our heritage we shall have found solutions to all our problems there….While leaving he presented me a copy of an anthology of some select texts from his writings compiled by a British editor. .[CSD/15.283]

With Nehru, of course, Dr Prasad would not engage in  such high philosophical discourses, and would generally discuss more mundane matters of government policies and actions. But with Dr Radhakrishnan their level of discussions was, by and large, on a higher plane of spiritualism. And this spirit of conviviality and mutual respect between the two great men continued in spite of the second  prsidential election controversy, till the very end ofDr Prasad’s last term as President.

When Dr Prasad’s second term of presidency was drawing to a close, he seemed to have grown rather more sullen and frustrated about the way things were being run both in the government and the party. “He had long ceased bothering the Prime Minister”, writes Handa, “with his suggestions and advice. About the future of the country he could not help thinking, but most of the thoughts he preferred to keep to himself. With sorrow he recollected the advice he had tendered on various occasions to the Prime Minister.” [164] No doubt, all along the presidential decade, the official relationship between the President and the Prime Minister had seldom been on an even keel. But his relationship with Dr Radhakrishnan even till the very end had remained as pleasant and genial as ever. As Handa recalls in his memoirs,

Radhakrishnan and Rajendra Prasad had never been so close to each other as now; they had always been good friends, though.Whatever misunderstanding there might have cropped up immediately before the 1957 Presidential election was now cleared. The intiative in making a clean breast of everything, it must be said, was taken by Radhakrishnan himself. He pooh-poohed the idea of anyone suggesting a change in 1957 on the plea of placating the South. “To think of it, Rajen Babu, is as unfair to you as to the South”, he said. Referring to Nehru in that context, Radhakrishnan pleaded that with all his experience of men and matters, the Prime Minister was too much of an innocent who lent his ears to others too readily. Both of them laughed and looked into each other’s eyes. [165]

Sarvapalli Gopal’s innuendoes in his biography of Dr Radhakrishnan about Dr Prasad’s keenness for his presidential tenures, or his alleged lure for them, therefore, seem rather indecorous and unfair. For instance, it seems patently scurrilous when, commenting on Dr Prasad’s unconvincing‘desire to retire from office’, he brashly observes: “But it was thought that, even if he had to go, he would have preferred someone other than Radhakrishnan to succeed him.” [305]Indeed, it is difficult to see how Radhakrishnan himself would have reacted to such an improper and unsubstantiated insinuation! True, great men, too, have their frailties, their moments of vulnerability, and quite often they commit historical errors – sometimes even ‘Himalyan blunders’ –but history always venerates them for their great deeds. And inperpetuating their  memories in reminiscences and solemnizing their lives in biographies we must be as objective and unbiased as possible, both in respect of theirpetty flaws and their sterling virtues.

(C) Dr BSM Murty
No part of the extract an be used in any way so as to infringe pre-publication rights.

More extracts can be read on this Blog from the book GEM OF A NATON
Please click on the Archive year and scroll down to the extract.

2011: May 28 : The Indigo Story; July 8: The Butcher of Amritsar; July 17: A Planter’s Murder
2014: Sep 14 : The Seven Martyrs; Dec 3 : Early childhood in Jeeradei
2015: Jun 30: Congress in disarray; Aug 27: Clash of Convictions; Oct 8: Presidential Itineraries;             
             Dec 20: Congress at crossroads