“Freedom comes to India, not to the Congress.” This is what Mahatma Gandhi said to India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru when India was standing at one of the most defining crossroads. Freedom was India’s at last, but after her heady tryst with destiny, a sobering reality was beginning to set in for all those who were at the helm.
The new India was a nation deeply wounded; there were many colossal challenges ahead. Torn apart by Partition, scorched by a communal firestorm, wrestling with food shortages and a refugee crisis, and struggling to secure the loyalty of the princely states, what India needed in 1947 was a healing touch. And this was the driving force as Jawaharlal Nehru put in place his first Cabinet.
In today’s India, where politics has been mostly reduced to a play for power, and principles are often sacrificed at the altar of greed, it is important to look at how the best minds of the time were brought together for free India’s first Cabinet. These were leaders who represented different points of view - but shared a common purpose.
What made this ‘experiment’ even more fascinating is that it wasn’t because of a lack of choice. Nehru had a rich pool of talent to draw upon from within the Congress, which had a massive 82-per cent majority in the Constituent Assembly. In piecing together independent India’s first Cabinet, Nehru was guided by Gandhi’s words. He opted for a ‘national government’, not just a ‘Congress government’.
However, within years, and before the term of the first Cabinet ended, this experiment of a ‘National Government’ would fail. What happened? And how did it fall apart? We take you back to the heady days at the start.
Nehru’s List: The Chosen Ones
In the run-up to the birth of the new nation at the midnight hour on 14-15th August 1947, the proceedings for the transfer of power were set in motion. Historian Ramachandra Guha says in his book India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy (2007) that the stroke of midnight was apparently determined by astrologers, who had warned that 15th August was inauspicious. The official formalities, therefore, began on the 14th night. The Constituent Assembly sat till late that night, when Nehru delivered his famous ‘Tryst With Destiny’ speech.
From there, Nehru drove straight to the Viceroy’s House (which was named ‘Government House’ on 15th August and later became Rashtrapati Bhavan) to hand over the list of Cabinet ministers who were to be sworn in the next day. Interestingly, what Nehru didn’t realise is that he had handed over an empty envelope to Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, who was now designated as the Governor-General. Thankfully, the envelope that contained the actual list was found before the swearing-in ceremony began at 8 am. It contained 14 names.
Leading the list, of course, was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, but what surprised many was the list of the other 12. For of these, at least five ministers had no affiliations with the Congress; three were bitter critics of the party. And it was diverse. As many as five religious denominations – Hindu, Muslim, Christians, Sikhs and a Parsi – were represented; one was a woman and two ministers belonged to the Scheduled Castes.
Among the non-Congress members, there were Syama Prasad Mookerjee, who was president of the Hindu Mahasabha at the time, and B R Ambedkar, who had been a bitter critic of the Congress for several years. The other non-Congress members who took oath as ministers were R K Shanmukham Chetty (earlier with the Justice Party), Sardar Baldev Singh of the Akali Dal, C H Bhabha, a businessman and a bureaucrat, and N Gopalaswami Ayyangar, who was a minister without a portfolio.
Assembling such a politically and ideologically diverse government was a very risky proposition but Nehru had little choice. He was compelled to present a truly national government.
It was India’s first and only one, to date.
This is what Nehru’s first Cabinet looked like:
N V Gadgil, in his memoir Government FromInside (1968), describes what the ministers wore at the glittering swearing-in ceremony. Nehru, Mookerjee, Jagjivan Ram and Baldev Singh chose formal “North Indian” attire. Sardar Patel, Dr Rajendra Prasad and Gadgil wore “everyday dress” (kurta and dhoti, it seems), Chetty, Ambedkar, Matthai and Bhaba dressed in Western-style suits. And Rajkumari Amrit Kaur was “decked like a bridesmaid”, according to Gadgil. Sardar Patel had arranged a car loaned by the Birlas to drive Gadgil to Government House for the swearing-in ceremony.
On 15th August, the atmosphere outside Government House was electric. Thousands of people crowded the streets, waving the tricolour, and the sense of national pride was almost palpable. But behind the excitement and bonhomie, one man knew that when the exhilaration subsided, he would face one of his biggest-ever challenges – making his Cabinet members work as a team.
It was not meant to be.
The Coming Apart
Despite Nehru’s brilliance and broad outlook, and Sardar Patel’s iron political will and mastery over realpolitik, the Cabinet soon began to collapse under the weight of the political contradictions inherent in its composition. A year later, Chetty resigned as Finance Minister and six others quit before India’s first government could complete its term in 1952.
The ministers who resigned after Chetty were:
Vallabhbhai Patel died in 1950, and Dr Rajendra Prasad quit the Cabinet to become the first President of India, also in 1950.
Before we examine the rash of resignations, let us address the most recent of the controversies that always seem to swirl around Nehru-Patel relations. In her book, V P Menon: The Architect of Modern India (2020), historian Narayani Basu claims that Nehru didn’t want to include Patel in his first Cabinet.
She writes, “In the first week of August, Nehru submitted his official list of the people he wanted to serve in independent India’s first Cabinet. The list should have been headed by Sardar Patel. It wasn’t.” V P Menon was a civil servant who worked with Patel and played a significant role in getting the princely states, some recalcitrant and some rebellious, to sign on the dotted line and merge with the Indian union.
Historians Guha and Srinath Raghavan emphatically refute Basu’s claims. Raghavan insists that Nehru had, in fact, kept Patel informed of discussions he had held with probable ministers. On 1st August 1947, according to Raghavan, Nehru wrote to Patel, saying: “As formalities have to be observed to some extent, I am writing to invite you to join the new Cabinet. This writing is somewhat superfluous because you are the strongest pillar of the Cabinet.”
In his reply on 3rd August, Patel said, “Our attachment and affection for each other and our comradeship for an unbroken period of nearly 30 years admit of no formalities. My services will be at your disposal, I hope, for the rest of my life and you will have unquestioned loyalty and devotion from me in the cause for which no man in India has sacrificed as much as you have done. Our combination is unbreakable and therein lies our strength.”
Hopefully, this will set to rest the debate over Nehru’s alleged attempt to keep Patel out of the sanctum free India’s first government, its Cabinet.
With Patel’s inclusion a given, Nehru began searching for other talents to be inducted into his first ministry, as soon as the British Parliament passed the India Independence Act on 5th July 1947. We get an idea of his earnest quest from a letter he wrote to Patel:
My Dear Vallabhbhai,
“I have spoken to Ambedkar and he has agreed. He said Law would not give him enough work. I told him he need not worry about that. There would be plenty of work of many kinds to do. I have also spoken to Rafi (Rafi Ahmad Kidwai) and he has agreed. Now you have to approach Syama Prasad and Rajaji and Shanmukham (Chetty). I have still to speak to N.V. and Amrit Kaur.”
Chetty wasn’t a member of the Congress, he wasn’t a member of the Constituent Assembly. So why was Nehru keen to induct him?
It is believed that Chetty’s name had been suggested by Gandhi, who felt that India needed a man of sharp business acumen to head the Finance Ministry. A businessman from Madras, Chetty had dabbled in the Justice Party and had been the Diwan of the princely state of Cochin from 1935 to 1941. As an advisor to the Chamber of Princes, he had close links with the British and wasn’t afraid to express pro-Raj opinions in public
A year later, Chetty quit the Cabinet under embarrassing circumstances. A commission enquiring into tax evasion by influential businessmen had found that the Finance Minister had omitted the names of some industrialists from the list of evaders. Chetty was held responsible and resigned from the government on the advice of Rajagopalachari.
K C Neogi from West Bengal, who was associated with the Hindu Mahasabha, stepped into Chetty’s shoes as Finance Minister. He held office for barely 35 days as he, along with Syama Prasad Mookerjee, resigned from office. Interestingly, Neogi in 1950 and later H N Bahuguna in 1979-80, are the only two Finance Ministers who never presented a Budget.
Syama Prasad Mookerjee’s resignation was a stormy affair, as was his mere presence in the Cabinet. Nehru and Mookerjee often clashed when issues relating to Pakistan, treatment of Muslims in independent India and Hindus in Pakistan and the refugee crisis and Kashmir came up for discussion in the Cabinet. Mookerjee had been a member of the Bengal Legislative Council in 1929, and later a member of the Constituent Assembly. He was elected president of the Hindu Mahasabha in 1944 and a founding member of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh.
His inclusion in the first Cabinet as Industries Minister proved that Nehru had carried out Gandhi’s suggestion in letter and in spirit. For Nehru, – with his staunch and rigid stand on secularism – and Mookerjee – with his uncompromising stance on what he believed was the protection of Hindu interests – stood at two ideologically opposite poles.
The flashpoint came in April 1950, just two days before the Nehru-Liaquat Pact was signed. Also called the Delhi Pact, this was a bilateral agreement that provided a framework for the treatment of minorities in India and Pakistan against the backdrop of minorities – Hindu and Sikhs in Pakistan and Muslims in India – fleeing the other to escape rioting. Of immediate concern to India was the massive influx of Hindu refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). It was signed by Nehru and Pakistani Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in New Delhi.
According to the pact, India and Pakistan agreed to allow the safe return of refugees and the disposal of their property; return of abducted women and looted property; and full protection of minority rights. The two countries also agreed to stop forced religious conversions.
Mookerjee opposed the agreement, arguing that while the Nehru government had gone out of its way to protect Muslims in India, Pakistan had not kept to its side of the agreement. He resigned on 8th April 1950, in protest.
A year and a half later, in October 1951, Law Minister Dr B R Ambedkar stepped down. Ambedkar had long been a bitter critic of the Congress and Gandhi. He was unhappy with the government on a range of issues, the most important one being the treatment of Scheduled Castes. But the immediate provocation for his resignation was an impasse over the Hindu Code Bill.
As Law Minister, Ambedkar had drafted the Bill but opposition to it from within the Congress and vehement protests by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other Hindu organisations had forced Nehru to go slow. Nehru also faced opposition to the bill from Dr Rajendra Prasad, who had quit as Food & Agriculture Minister to become the first President of India in 1950.
Ambedkar piloted the Bill in the Constituent Assembly but it stalled, facing a spate of amendments and objections. The progress of the Bill was so slow that it took nearly a year to barely discuss and pass four of its clauses. The term of the Constituent Assembly was about to end and India was awaiting her first General Election. The Bill lapsed as the tenure of the Provisional Parliament – the Constituent Assembly had become India’s Provisional Parliament pending the first General Election – ended. Ambedkar felt frustrated, defeated and angry.
– On 11th October 1951, Ambedkar wrote a 4,000-word letter of resignation and left the government.
In his letter, Ambedkar listed the issues that had rankled within him. He blamed Nehru for not fully supporting him on the Hindu Code Bill. He also accused Nehru of keeping him out of important discussions on the economy even though he had a Doctorate in Economics from the London School of Economics.
C H Bhabha, Commerce Minister, quit the Cabinet in 1948. He had been appointed to the ministry as a representative of the Parsi community. Bhabha had considerable business interests and his appointment to the Cabinet was getting in the way.
India’s first Railway Minister resigned over differences with Nehru on his economic policies. An economist by training, Dr John Matthai was appointed as Finance Minister after Chetty’s resignation followed by Neogi’s 35-day stint. Nehru relieved Matthai from the Cabinet in 1950 although he had resigned a year earlier.
Education Minister in the Interim Government (predecessor to Nehru’s first Cabinet), C Rajagopalachari, popularly known as ‘Rajaji’, was to continue in free India’s new government. But Nehru sent him off as Governor to West Bengal, where the communal situation had turned grim. After a brief stint there, Rajagopalachari succeeded Lord Mountbatten as Governor-General of India in 1948.
Nehru wanted to see Rajaji as the first President of India but after Dr Rajendra Prasad was elected as President, Rajaji joined the Cabinet as a minister without a portfolio. It wasn’t long before he succeeded Vallabhbhai Patel as Home minister on the Sardar’s death in December 1950.
– Rajagopalachari wasn’t a minister for long. He resigned in 1951 following differences with Nehru on several issues.
He didn’t agree with Nehru’s socialist vision for India and his Soviet model of development. He also disagreed with Nehru’s Tibet policy.
There was one more resignation, that of Communications Minister Rafi Ahmad Kidwai. But it had little to do with Nehru and more to do with political intrigue. In 1951, Kidwai quit the Congress over differences with party President Purushottam Das Tandon and joined a dissident group led by J B Kripalani. But on Nehru’s persuasion, he continued in the Cabinet. Under pressure from the Congress to leave the government, Kidwai eventually did step down. Nehru didn’t accept his resignation and Kidwai returned to the Congress.
What Went Wrong?
The composition of India’s first Cabinet suggests that Nehru and Patel were able to rise above political partisanship to rope in talents who could handle the complex and gigantic challenges that the newly independent country faced. But the clash of personalities, the drama and the dramatic resignations of ministers that followed proves that the experiment had failed.
In hindsight, did it fail because of the broad spectrum of political ideologies and opinions the leaders represented? Not quite. There were glaring omissions. For instance, socialist leaders Jayaprakash Narayan (JP) and Ram Manohar Lohia had rejected Nehru’s offer to join the government. JP and Lohia were then members of the Congress Socialist Party, a fringe group within the Congress.
Likewise, the Communist Party of India (CPI) was not represented even though it was a major Opposition force. But its policy of cooperation with the British during the 1942 Quit India Movement had alienated it from the Congress.
– Apart from ideological differences, there was another reason so many Cabinet ministers quit in quick succession, and that was Nehru’s mercurial temperament.
His imperious ways didn’t bode well for a team whose decisions were meant to be guided by democratic principles. Even ministers close to Nehru, such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Rafi Ahmad Kidwai, were very disapproving.
Azad was intellectually aligned with Nehru but, towards the end of his life, he revised his opinion. In his autobiography, India Wins Freedom (1959), Azad says he was unfair to Patel and that Patel would have made a better Prime Minister. He adds that Nehru was “a man of principle but is also amenable to personal influences”.
Azad’s opinion was shared by Kidwai, who was a Nehru loyalist but felt that Nehru was led by “professors and experts who pander to his whims and fancies”. Journalist and political analyst Durga Das quotes Kidwai in his book India From Curzon To Nehru And After (1969) as saying, “I don’t know where we are going. The country needs a man like Patel.”
On the flipside, were there any lessons learnt?
Nehru tightened his grip on the government when he constituted his second Cabinet in 1952, after Independent India’s first General Election (1951-52). By that time, he had also begun taking control of the Congress. The departure of Patel had left him peerless and without competition. Azad and Kidwai were the only two ministers who continued in the second government. Kidwai died in 1954, followed by Azad in 1956. Nehru had lost most of his peers.
It is tempting to speculate that a government with such diverse talents as India’s first Cabinet is worth emulating, even though managing personal and ideological contradictions in such a set-up can trip up even the most competent team or its great captain. But this is an experiment that hasn’t been seen in India ever since.
Thankfully at least the idea of drafting ‘the best man for the job’ while transcending party politics is not dead in the water. In 1991, Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao brought in Dr Manmohan Singh, an economist and a senior bureaucrat, to help resolve a national crisis. Dr Singh, who had no political affiliations then, was appointed Finance Minister when India was teetering on the verge of default. The rest, as they say, is history.
That same decade saw the idea of forming a national government being floated by political analysts and other experts more than once. It was a time when coalition governments were ridden with instability. These were the early 1990s and two governments, headed by V P Singh and Chandrashekhar, fell in quick succession in 1990-91.
P V Narasimha led a minority but relatively stable government from 1991-96. But his defeat was followed by another period of tectonic shifts at the Centre. Between May 1996 and March 1998, three governments – headed by Atal Behari Vajpayee, H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujaral – collapsed in quick succession like a house of cards.
During this time, several political commentators believed that a national government could provide stability at the Centre. They suggested that political parties – the Congress, BJP, centrist parties such as the Janata Dal, regional parties and the communists – set aside their differences and form a government and quickly return to the task of governance. But neither of the two major parties – the Congress nor the BJP – warmed up to the idea.
Is there any point re-examining Nehru’s experiment of free India’s first government? To choose merit over mediocrity and put principles ahead of politics? Political parties today are way too fractured and their leaders unable to set aside personal and party gains for the greater good.
If it didn’t succeed then, it is unlikely to succeed now.
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.