After the first flush of Independence, the Indian National Congress plunged into an intense but decisive battle for control of the party – and India’s future.
Battle lines were drawn in August 1950, when Purushottam Das Tandon was elected Congress President. The message of his election was loud and clear. The liberal and secular ideas represented by Prime Minister and senior Congress leader Jawaharlal Nehru had been defeated. The conservative, right-wing groups with Hindu nationalist leanings had triumphed.
Nehru was deeply disturbed over these developments. Tandon’s victory, in his view, meant that his dream of making India a place where people of diverse beliefs and identities would cohabit and prosper would not be realised. He felt he couldn’t deliver as Prime Minister if the party and the government disagreed on the basic principles of secularism.
The rise of the right wing and conservatives worried Nehru for another reason. The first Lok Sabha elections were round the corner. Tandon’s presidency implied that right-wingers could have a major say in the selection of Lok Sabha candidates. This would mean, in Nehru’s opinion, “communal and obscurantist” forces influencing government policies.
Nehru decided to fight the conservatives to reclaim the freedom movement’s legacy of the Congress, and the principles laid down in the newly adopted Constitution of India. He exhorted the party to fight the “obscurantist and revivalist” forces, and even threatened to resign. The party rallied behind him.
Thirteen months later, Tandon saw the writing on the wall and resigned.
Tandon’s election was the culmination of a series of developments that unfolded after freedom came to India. The Partition riots, the influx of refugees and the horror stories of atrocities against the Hindu community in Pakistan had fired public opinion.
Congress right-wing leaders felt the government must deal firmly with Pakistan and the Muslim minority in India, to stop the violence against Hindus in Pakistan. They demanded that Muslims prove their loyalty to India at a time when Hindus were under attack in Pakistan.
A 1948 speech of Sardar Patel sums up the mood of the conservatives. Speaking in Calcutta, Patel remonstrated with Muslims:
"The Muslims who are still in India, many of them helped in the creation of Pakistan. Fine, if they did, but then how come in one night, their hearts changed? I do not understand that. They say why their loyalty is being questioned. That is not something for us to answer. We just say that alright you created Pakistan, good for you, we will not interfere. If things go bad then do not call us. Then they say Pakistan and India should become one, I plead with them to not say that. That will be a loss for us, let them stay there. Let them create Pakistan."
Dr Rajendra Prasad, K M Munshi, N V Gadgil, Seth Govind Das and D P Mishra were among prominent conservative leaders in the Congress, who looked to Patel for leadership. Nehru had fundamental differences with conservatives including Patel on the matter. Nehru opposed the test of loyalty for Muslims. He argued that India’s commitment to protect its minority was not linked to how Pakistan treated its Hindu minority. India had adopted a Constitution, which promised security to all, regardless of their religious beliefs.
Still, Nehru was startled when Tandon decided to contest the party election for the post of President. Tandon’s candidature was a well-thought out move by right-wingers to take control of the Congress in a communally surcharged atmosphere.
During the freedom movement, the Congress was a broad coalition of people representing ideologies of all hues. Rightists, leftists, socialists, liberals – all came together under the Congress umbrella to fight for the country’s freedom.
However, after Independence, many Congress leaders on the right and left flanks of the party separated in the quest for their own political identity. Socialist stalwarts such as Jayaprakash Narayan and Dr Ram Manohar Lohia quit the Congress in 1948 to form the Socialist Party. The communists had parted ways much earlier. It had weakened the left flank of the Congress.
Right-wing forces saw an opportunity to grab the initiative and assert themselves against Nehru’s socialist inclinations.
Nehru, Tandon Clash
Nehru knew Tandon from their young days in Allahabad. A man with a long, flowing, grey beard, Tandon was a conservative, orthodox leader, who was deeply rooted in Hindu beliefs and traditions. He was popularly known as ‘Rajarshi’ (King of Saints), perhaps for his look and Spartan habits.
In the Constituent Assembly debates, he spoke against religious conversions. He demanded strong measures for cow protection and campaigned for Hindi to be given the status of the national language.
In Nehru’s view, his erstwhile Allahabadi friend was “communal, obscurantist and revivalist”.
Nehru tried to dissuade Tandon from contesting the party President’s election. But when he refused, Nehru realised Tandon had the backing of Patel.
On 8th August 1950, Nehru wrote a letter to Tandon. He said:
“You have become to a large number of people in India some kind of a symbol of this communal and revivalist outlook and the question arises in my mind: Is the Congress going that way too? If so, where do I come into the picture?”
He also wrote to Patel, stating the reasons he couldn’t support Tandon. Patel suggested that the matter be discussed at the party’s Nashik plenary session, scheduled for August 1950, after the President’s election.
For Nehru, the election itself was critical. He wrote to Patel that the “election was becoming a clash between varying policies and Tandon became a symbol of one that was being supported by Hindu Mahasabha and RSS elements.”
In July 1950, a month before the election, Tandon presided over the All-India Refugee Conference in Delhi, where he squarely blamed the “Islamic state” of Pakistan for the riots against Hindus. He called for “revenge” against Pakistan.
The matter was further aggravated when in the winter of 1949-50, riots broke out in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) with Hindu refugees streaming into India. Tandon and Hindu hardliners blamed Nehru for soft-pedalling the problem and refusing to take action against Pakistan.
Nehru felt he must stop Tandon from becoming party President to safeguard the Congress’s legacy and India’s future.
A Worthy Challenger
The search for a formidable candidate to oppose Tandon started. Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, a Cabinet minister who was close to Nehru and Tandon’s rival in UP’s politics, led the charge from the Nehru camp. Kidwai approached Pattabhi Sitaramayya, a Congress stalwart from Andhra Pradesh, to contest. Sitaramayya had defeated Tandon in the 1948 election. But he refused.
Kidwai proposed Nehru’s name as a candidate. But Nehru realised his relations with Patel would deteriorate further if he contested the election.
Finally, Kidwai and Nehru’s supporters fielded J B Kripalani against Tandon. Ironically, Acharya Kripalani had to quit the Congress presidency in 1947 following his differences with Nehru on the role of the party President vis-a-vis the Prime Minister and the government. Putting the past controversies and bitterness behind, Nehru adopted Kripalani as his candidate.
Kripalani lost the election. He polled 1,092 votes against Tandon’s 1,306. Maharashtra’s Shankerrao Deo, a third candidate, received 202 votes.
– It was a defeat for Nehru. Tandon’s victory once again proved that Patel was in control of the Congress organisation although Nehru was its unquestioned mass leader.
Journalist and author Inder Malhotra narrates a telling incident to bring out what he called the “flavour of the bitter battle between two sides”. When Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, then a minister in the Assam government and later President of India, told Patel “that the Assam Congress would vote as Pandit ji wants”, Patel lost his temper.
“Fakhuruddin, do exactly what you like. But remember that Jawaharlal can never help a friend nor ever harm an enemy. I never forget a friend and never forgive an enemy,” Sardar Patel thundered.
Nehru watched in despair and anger as Tandon’s victory was celebrated by what he called “communalists”. Openly accusing party conservatives of colluding with such forces, he said the Congress had been penetrated by reactionaries and revivalists.
The crisis didn’t end with the election. Nehru at first refused to join the Congress Working Committee (CWC), the party’s apex decision-making body, under Tandon. He later relented and attended the Nashik session in September 1950.
Time magazine, in its issue dated 2nd October 1950, in a story on the Congress session titled India A Dock for Rajrishi, painted a beautiful picture of two contrasting world views, of Nehru and Tandon. It wrote:
“Last week, visitors to Gandhinagar (the venue of the session) got a glimpse of both Tandon’s traditional past and Nehru’s wondrous future. Sitting in a specially built, galvanized iron-sheeted dining hall, they ate Tandon’s strict orthodox menu: rice, wheat pancakes, lentils, sweets, vegetables, buttermilk.
“Shuffling around the village exhibition, they gaped at tractors, bulldozers and an improved oil seed crusher. They gasped at a lecture on artificial insemination (illustrated with plaster models) and were dazzled by shimmering neon advertisements.
“They saw posters on the evils of drink; noted the stall which sold cottage-made, unrefined palm juice sugar, and listened when Tandon declared that “Cow protection is part of Indian culture and as such... the cow should be afforded full protection even if it leads to the collapse of the country’s economy.”
‘If you don’t want me, I shall go’
Nehru had lost the battle for party presidency but he went full throttle in setting the agenda of the Nashik Congress. He made 13 speeches holding the party leaders and workers in thrall. All the resolutions drafted by him were adopted by the party.
On the question of persecution of Hindus in Pakistan, and voices demanding to give tit-for-tat treatment to Muslims in India, Nehru launched a frontal attack on Tandon and the other conservatives. He said:
– “If injustice is done to minorities in Pakistan, is it a valid reason to adopt a similar attitude here? If that is called democracy, then I say, hell with such democracy. True that people’s passions had been aroused by events in Pakistan, but democratic principles couldn’t be thrown to winds because of that… We have not only to treat our minorities with full justice and fairness, but should make them feel that they are so treated.”
What followed stunned the Congress leaders attending the session. Choking with emotion, Nehru said, “I am ashamed at the way this question has been looked at by Congressmen... If you do not want me to remain Prime Minister, you tell me and I shall go.”
His emotional speech rallied the party around him but the storm brewing in the party didn’t die. Tandon didn’t implement the resolutions passed at the session. On 15th December 1950, Patel died. Tandon lost his powerful backer but he remained defiant in his approach.
Nehru was shocked when Tandon packed the new CWC with his favourite provincial leaders and dropped those who had opposed him during the party election. Conservatives S K Patil, Seth Govind Das and D P Mishra were appointed to the CWC while Nehru’s favourite Kidwai was kept out.
A crisis arose when Kidwai resigned from the Congress to join a Kripalani-led group of dissidents (who later split from the Congress to form the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party) but didn’t resign from the Cabinet. Tandon insisted on his resignation, arguing that his position had become untenable. Kidwai duly submitted his resignation to Nehru, which was a personal setback for him.
Having failed to rein in Tandon, Nehru resigned from the CWC in August 1951, sending shockwaves through the party. “I’m convinced that I don’t fit into the Working Committee and I’m not in tune with it,” he wrote to Tandon, on 6th August.
Attempts were made to work out a compromise formula which stipulated that Nehru would reconstitute the CWC with Tandon remaining party President. Nehru rejected the formula. “Which viewpoint and outlook would prevail in the party? Tandon’s or mine?” Nehru posed the question to the party.
A meeting of the Congress Parliamentary Party was called, which expressed full faith in his leadership. The Nehru camp got the entire CWC to resign to forestall a further crisis. The party authorised Nehru to reconstitute the Working Committee.
Sensing the mood in the party and with no room to manoeuvre, Tandon resigned in September 1951.
Nehru took over the Congress presidency. Putting his concerns to rest, the Congress won a landslide of 364 out of 489 seats in the first Lok Sabha elections.
The result was a resounding affirmation of Nehru’s vision, a defeat of the conservatives and Hindu nationalists in the Congress.
India’s first Prime Minister had fought for the values he and the Congress led by Mahatma Gandhi had cherished. For Nehru the battle to ensure that the principles envisioned in the Constitution of India were upheld and that every Indian, irrespective of creed felt safe, was worth fighting for, even if he had to take on his own party colleagues.
Nehru made his point but was also magnanimous. In 1961, Rajarshi Purushottam Das Tandon was honoured with the Bharat Ratna on the recommendation of the Nehru government, for his contribution to the freedom movement and public affairs.
This article is part of our special series the ‘Making of Modern India’ through which we are focussing on the period between 1900-2000. This century saw the birth and transformation of India. This series aims to chronicle India’s exciting journey and is a special feature brought to you by LHI Foundation.