Choosing the First Prime Minister of India
Dr Makkhan Lal, Distinguished Fellow, VIF (2015 - 2017)

Talking about the death of party democracy and High Command culture has become far too common now a days. There is an impression that this High Command culture began in the Congress with Mrs. Indira Gandhi and since then it has spread in other parties as well.

We blame today’s spineless/selfish leaders to not opening their mouth even when unjust decisions are imposed on the party. Presidential Election is round the corner and rather than electorates talking about electing a President all are talking about the wishes of the Congress High Command regarding the matter.

I have recently been re-reading Maulana Azad’s “India Wins Freedom” which has all those withheld portions that Maulana had desired to be published 30 years after his demise. We all know the kind of drama that was played in Courts’ galleries to stop its publication. Thankfully, the Courts did not interfere with the publication of withheld portions and after its publication heavens have not fallen. Maulana Azad’s India Wins Freedom, K.M. Munishi’s Pilgrimage to Freedom, N.V. Gadgil’s Government From Inside, D.P. Mishra’s Living an Era(in three volumes) and above all Sardar Patel’s Correspondence (Edited by Durga Das in 12 Vols.) throw light on how the process of all powerful High Command and the death of internal party democracy began in the Congress during the pre-Independence days itself in the Congress. Three episodes – namely choosing the First Prime Minister, Electing the First President of India and Ousting the Elected President of the Congress (Purushottam Das Tandon) – throw ample light on it. Here in this article I shall briefly deal with the appointment of the First Prime Minister of India in 1946. For the other two episodes all I can do is to recommend Chapter titled “Death of Party Democracy and Discipline” (pp. 251-333) of my book Secular Politics Communal Agenda besides the above referred books.

After losing general elections in 1937 Muslim League had gone virtually on war-path against the Congress in particular and Hindus in general and polarized the population on religious lines. To defuse the situation, at from the Congress’ side, Gandhi ji very wisely chose Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as the Congress President in 1940, just a couple of months before the Lahore resolution for the creation of Pakistan. Because of various factors like World War II, Quit India Movement and most of the Congress leaders in jails, the annual elections for the post of Congress President could not be held until April 1946. Maulana Azad continued to be the Congress President and represented the Congress in various negotiations with the then Government and visiting Missions. As the War was coming to an end, it was becoming clear that India’s freedom is not very far. It was also very clear that it will be the Congress President (due to the number of seats Congress had won in 1946 elections), who shall be invited to form the Interim Government at the Centre. Thus, suddenly the position of the President of the Congress Party became a matter of great interest.

Once the election for the post of Congress President was announced, Maulana Azad expressed his desire for the re-election. This fact has been accepted by Azad himself, but in a very twisted way. In his autobiography he writes:

“The question normally arose that there should be fresh Congress elections and a new President chosen. As soon as this was mooted in the Press, a general demand arose that I should be selected President for another term…. There was a general feeling in Congress that since I had conducted the negotiations till now, I should be charged with the task of bringing them to a successful close and implementing them.”1

Maulana’s this move “agonized Azad’s close friend and colleague Jawaharlal who had his own expectations.”2 However, Gandhiji had made his choice known in the favour of Jawaharlal Nehru on 20th April, 1946. This was not the first time that Gandhiji spoke about his choice of Nehru; even before the process of election was set in motion. He had been speaking about it from the last several years. But Maulana’s desire for re-election and various newspaper reports about it upset Gandhiji and on 20.04.1946 he wrote to Maulana Azad, who had already been President of Congress for the last six years:

“Please go through the enclosed cuttings.… I have not spoken to anyone of my opinion. When one or two Working Committee members asked me, I said that it would not be right for the same President to continue…. If you are of the same opinion, it may be proper for you to issue a statement about the cuttings [the news item Gandhiji had sent him] and say that you have no intention to become the President again…. In today’s circumstances I would, if asked, prefer Jawaharlal. I have many reasons for this. Why go into them?”3

However, despite Gandhiji’s open support for Jawaharlal Nehru, the Congress Party overwhelmingly wanted Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as the Congress President and consequently the first Prime Minister of India, because it considered Patel as ‘a great executive, organizer and leader”4 with his feet firmly the on the ground.5

The last date for the nominations for the post of the President of Congress, and thereby the first Prime Minister of India, was April 29, 1946. Let us not forget that by this time Gandhiji had already made his choice widely known. Still 12 out of 15 Pradesh Congress Committees, the only legal bodies having power to nominate and elect President of the Party, nominated Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. The remaining three may not have nominated Patel but then they did not nominate anyone else also including Jawaharlal Nehru. Thus, no Pradesh Congress Committee proposed the name of Jawaharlal Nehru even on the last day of filing the nominations i.e. April 29, 1946. J.B Kripalani took the lead in finding the proposers and seconders for Nehru’s candidacy, in deference to Gandhi’s wishes, during the Working Committee meeting on 29.04.1946 in New Delhi. Kripalani succeeded in getting a few Working Committee members and local members of AICC to propose Nehru’s name for the post.6 Though, Gandhiji knew Jawaharlal’s nomination almost missed the April 29 deadline, and also even he could not get at least one Pradesh Congress Committee, the only legitimate body entitled to elect the President of the Congress, to nominate Jawaharlal.7

However once Nehru was formally proposed by a few Working Committee members, efforts began to persuade Sardar Patel to withdraw his nomination in favour of Jawaharlal. Patel sought Gandhiji’s advice who in turn asked him to do so and “Vallabhbhai did so at once.”8 But it must be mentioned that before advising Patel to withdraw Gandhiji had given enough hint to Nehru to allow the legitimate nomination of Sardar Patel to go through the process. Gandhiji said to Nehru:

“No PCC has put forward your name…only [a few members of] the Working Committee has.”9

This remark of Gandhiji was met by Jawaharlal with “complete silence”. Only after Gandhiji was informed that “Jawaharlal will not take the second place” he asked Patel to withdraw. Dr. Rajendra Prasad lamented that Gandhiji “had once again sacrificed his trusted lieutenant for the sake of the ‘glamorous Nehru’ and further feared that “Nehru would follow the British ways.”10

When Rajendra Prasad was using the phrase “once again” he indeed was referring to the denial of Presidentship of the Congress party to Patel in the years 1929, 1937 and 1946 in preference to Nehru. Let it also be mentioned that Prasad was not the only person to complain about Gandhiji “sacrificing his trusted lieutenant for the sake of the glamorous Nehru.” There were many others as well. But Gandhiji took the decision because he was convinced that “Jawaharlal will not take a second place but by giving Jawaharlal the first place India would not be deprived of Patel’s services and the both will be like two oxen yoked to the Governmental cart. One will need other and both will pull together”.11

Sardar Patel was close to 71 when all this drama was unfolding. Patel knew that this was the only chance he could get to lead the country. Nehru, then 56 only, still had age with him. Despite all this Patel accepted to take a second position because of two reasons: firstly, for Patel post or position was immaterial. Service to the motherland was more important; and secondly, Nehru was keen that “either he would take the number one spot in the Government or stay out. Vallabhbhai also reckoned that whereas office was likely to moderate Nehru, rejection would drive him into opposition. Patel shrank from precipitating such an outcome, which would bitterly divide India.”12

However, Jawaharlal Nehru’s so called unopposed elevation to the office of the President of the Congress did not automatically lead him to assume the office of the Prime Minister of India. Another drama was unfolding. Even after Nehru’s election as President of the Congress had become a foregone conclusion and results announced in the first week of May 1946, Maulana (the friend of Nehru) had already announced on April 29 that despite this fresh election for the President, he shall continue to hold office of the Congress President until November 1946.13 It was again Gandhiji who came to the rescue of Nehru and thwarted Maulana’s scheme. Gandhiji immediately wrote to him that Maulana’s “announcement does not seem proper.”14 Maulana, seeing that his game has been exposed by Gandhiji, took a very strange stand. He wrote to Gandhiji “I did not expect that you would think that Congress is not safe in my hands.”15

The very same Maulana Azad, who had always been considered a great friend and confidante of Jawaharlal and who had issued a statement on 26th April 1946 to elect Nehru as Congress President, wrote in his autobiography, published posthumously in 1959:

“After weighting the pros and cans I came to the conclusion that the election of Sardar Patel would not be desirable in the existing circumstances. Taking all facts into consideration it seemed to me that Jawaharlal should be the new President….

“I acted according to my best judgment but the way things have shaped since then has made to realize that this was perhaps the greatest blunder of my political life. I have regretted no action of mine so much as the decision to withdraw form the Presidentship of the Congress at this junction. It was a mistake which I can describe in Gandhi’s words as the one of Himalayan dimension.

“My second mistake was that when I decided not to stand myself, I did not support Sardar Patel. We differed on many issues but I am convinced that if he had succeeded me as Congress President he would have seen that the Cabinet Mission Plan was successfully implemented. He would have never committed the mistake of Jawaharlal which gave Mr. Jinnah an opportunity of sabotaging the Plan. I can never forgive myself when I think that if I had not committed these mistakes, perhaps the history of the last ten years would have been different.”16

Looking back to all those tumultuous years Rajagopalachari, who had all the reasons to be angry, unhappy and uncharitable to Sardar Patel because it was Patel who deprived Rajaji the first Presidentship of India, wrote almost 22 years after Patel’s death:

“When the independence of India was coming close upon us and Gandhiji was the silent master of our affairs, he had come to the decision that Jawaharlal, who among the Congress leaders was the most familiar with foreign affairs, should be the Prime Minister of India, although he knew Vallabhbhai would be the best administrator among them all…

“Undoubtedly it would have been better if Nehru had been asked to be the Foreign Minister and Patel made the Prime Minister. I too fell into the error of believing that Jawaharlal was the more enlightened person of the two… A myth had grown about Patel that he would be harsh towards Muslims. This was a wrong notion but it was the prevailing prejudice.” 17

Before we close this chapter let us have a look at what one of the most sympathetic biographer of Nehru, who has not hesitated to distort even the well known facts in favour of Nehru, has to say on the issue of Nehru’s elevation to the Presidentship of the Congress and the Prime Ministership of free India:

“In accordance with the time-honored practice of rotating the Presidency, Patel was in line for the post. Fifteen years had elapsed since he presided over the Karachi session where as Nehru had presided at Lucknow and Ferozpur in 1936 and 1937. Moreover, Patel was the overwhelming choice of the Provincial Congress Committees…. Nehru’s ‘election’ was due to Gandhi’s intervention. Patel was persuaded to step down.

“One month after the election the Viceroy invited Nehru, as Congress President, to form an Interim Government. If Gandhi had not intervened, Patel would have been the first de facto Premier of India, in 1946-7. Gandhi certainly knew of the impending creation of Interim Government. One must infer, therefore, that he preferred Nehru as the first Prime Minister of free India. The Sardar was ‘robbed of the prize’ and it rankled deeply. He was then seventy-one while Nehru was fifty-six; in traditionalist Indian terms the elder statesman should have been the first primer and Patel knew that because of his advanced age another opportunity would probably not arise.

“There is striking parallel with Congress election of 1929; on both occasions Gandhi threw his weight behind Nehru at the expense of Patel.”18

Notes and References:

  1. Maulan Abul Kalam Azad, 1957 India Win Freedom,p. 161.
  2. Rajmohan Gandhi, 1991, Patel: A Life, Ahmedabad, p. 369.
  3. Ibid. p. 370
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Ibid. p. 371
  9. Ibid
  10. Durgadas, 1969, India from Curzon to Nehru and After, New Delhi, p. 230.
  11. Rajmohan Gandhi, 1991, Patel: A Life, Ahmedabad, p. 370.
  12. Ibid. p.371.
  13. Ibid.
  14. As quoted in Rajmohan Gandhi, 1991, Patel: A Life, Ahmedabad, p. 372
  15. Ibid p. 372
  16. Maulan Abul Kalam Azad, India Win Freedom, p. 162. The last two paragraphs of the quotation were withheld from the publication. As per the will of Azad many of the paragraphs, including these two, were published thirty years after his death.
  17. Swarajya, 27.11.1971; also quoted in Rajmohan Gandhi, Rajaji: A Life, p. 443, Penguin.
  18. M. Brecher, Nehru: A Political Biography, pp. 314-15, Oxford.

Published Date: 5th June 2012

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