Origins of India’s Constitutional Politics: Bengal 1913

This is a 1913 photograph of the Indian members of the  first Bengal Legislative Council elected (in 1912)  after the 1909 Morley-Minto reforms; the members apparently were being greeted by gentlemen of the sub-urban areas south of Calcutta.  The Englishman sitting at the centre  seems to be Sir Henry Cotton (1845-1915), the 1904 President of the Indian National Congress and a  great political friend of India.   To his right sits Surendranath Roy, who may have been the Council’s first President.

 

Academic studies include notably those by JH Broomfield, “The Vote and the Transfer of Power: A Study of the Bengal Election 1912-1913” Journal of Asian Studies, Feb 1962, his book Elite Conflict in a   Plural Society: 20th Century Bengal (Berkeley 1968); and Rajat Kanta Ray, Social Conflict and Political Unrest in Bengal 1875-1927 (Oxford 1984).  Professor Ray writes about the 1912 election: “Only  a few candidates of the “Popular Party” — Surendranath Banerjea, Abul Kasim, Byomkesh Chakravarti and Surendranath Ray — scraped through…. (A) sympathetic moderate wrote in 1919: ‘The Popular Party is a bundle of disjoined units which cannot resist the slightest pressure from without.’  This charge was eventually disproved by the stand taken by (the Popular Party) in the Bengal Legislative Council.  It showed no sign of wilting under the pressure exerted by the European group…”

 

Other studies of the period include John R McLane, Indian Nationalism and the Early Congress (Princeton 1977), Anil Seal, The Emergence of Indian Nationalism (Cambridge 1971),  Gordon Johnson, Provincial Politics and Indian Nationalism (Cambridge 1973) etc.

By way of incidental reference, the young Jawaharlal Nehru had returned from his studies in England in 1912; MK Gandhi was still in South Africa and would not be returning until 1915.  The Tilak-Gokhale clash though had been in full swing since 1907.

 

 

Subroto Roy

Nota Bene: The text and photograph in this post may be considered in the public domain and may be freely used for purposes of a Wikipedia article or any other publication in the common interest.

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Leadership vacuum

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, June 7 2008, http://www.thestatesman.net

Leadership vacuum

Time & Tide Wait For No One In Politics: India Trails Pakistan & Nepal!

Subroto Roy

The Karnataka legislative elections, as well as to lesser extent the Bengal panchayat polls, have revealed the vacuum that exists across the leadership of India’s national-level politics today.

To start with the BJP: had India been a normal democratic country on the Western pattern, Mr Arun Jaitley would have rocketed to the top of his party’s leadership by now. Besides being articulate in both Hindi and English and in his fifties (the age-group of most leaders in democratic countries), Mr Jaitley’s political acumen and organisational skills have been acknowledged even by his Congress adversaries after the Karnataka result. He himself has been frank and expansive about his formula for winning in Karnataka, which was simply to focus on real issues, especially state-specific ones, as well as to project a single credible leader. Had the BJP been a normal political party in a normal country, Mr Jaitley would have been given the task of leading it to victory in the next General Election and, assuming he won a Lok Sabha seat, to become its prime ministerial candidate.

Dadagiri

Instead, the BJP chooses to remain backward, backward, backward in the majority of its thought-processes and behaviour-patterns ~ from its kneejerk anti-Muslim psychology via its hyperinflationary macroeconomics and protectionist trade to its embrace of astrology and bovine exclusiveness. The idea of uniting behind someone relatively modern-minded in his politics like Mr Jaitley would be simply unacceptable not merely to people in the party within his own age-cohort (including the present party president) but even more so to those in age-cohorts decades older (including the party’s present prime ministerial candidate).

The opposition of the first group would arise from, in a word, jealousy. The opposition of the second group would arise from, in a word, dadagiri, i.e. the gerontocratic idea that merely because one is older, one is owed respect, authority and the plums of office in precedence over someone who is younger. Jealousy is a universal emotion not something specific to Indian politics, but dadagiri and the lack of meritocracy in our political culture is one reason India remains an abnormal polity in the modern democratic world.

LK Advani, driven by his unfulfilled personal ambition, will likely lead the BJP in the next election and do so with Mr Jaitley’s explicit support; Mr Advani may lead it into defeat or even to a victory in which he, given his age, is not as successful a PM as a Jaitley might have been. Yet our sclerotic political culture is such that neither Mr Advani nor Mr Rajnath Singh will simply stand aside now and hand over the reins to a newer, more competent and progressive leadership.

The same idea of dadagiri pervades what passes for the official “Left” in India as exemplified by the CPI-M. Mr Jyoti Basu has in a recent letter to Harkishen Singh Surjeet reminisced of their times together, and in doing so remarked that he remained the Chief Minister of West Bengal for as many years as he did because the Party had instructed him to do so, and when he handed over power to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, he did so with the Party’s agreement.

Those who believe in India’s parliamentary democracy might have thought that what our system requires is for a Chief Minister to hold the confidence of the legislative assembly from the bottom up but clearly that is not so because what a CM or PM seems to need are Party instructions from the top down. When Mr Bhattacharjee was anointed the new CM, the present author had remarked to the then Editor of The Statesman that the transition seemed to take place even without a formal vote of confidence in the Assembly. Does anyone in fact recall the last confidence vote debated and passed in the West Bengal Assembly? Democratic legislatures the world over routinely begin their new sessions with a debate and vote of no confidence being brought by the Opposition against the Government-of-the-day.

Does that happen with us, purportedly the world’s largest democracy? Let aside State legislatures, even our Parliament sees only the rare vote of confidence, and LK Advani specifically as Leader of the Opposition seems to have introduced none. Oppositions that do not wish to properly oppose are of course complicit in a government’s misdeeds.

It is the dadagiri culture shared by the official Communists that has caused the generational handover of power from Mr Basu and Mr Surjeet to the JNU coterie of the Karats and Mr Sitaram Yechuri. The “Left” like the “Right” and everyone else in Indian politics, can only handle cherubic “known” faces at the top ~ genuine grassroots activists like Binayak Sen or Medha Patkar must languish in jail or starve on hunger-strike in seeking to represent the politically and economically powerless in India while the entrenched dadas of Indian politics continue with their dissimulation.

Puppet-masters

In case of the Congress, it is an even deeper aspect of the Indian joint family system than dadagiri that has dominated its political culture, namely, the question who is the karta of the family and, if the karta is or seems too young or naïve or inexperienced, who will act as Regent on the karta’s behalf? Indira Gandhi was successfully guided in international politics for several years by a coterie led by PN Haksar. Rajiv Gandhi was attempted to be guided by several different competing coteries of senior party dadas ~ one of whom first brought up the name of Manmohan Singh in Indian politics on 22 March 1991 in a challenge addressed to the present author on liberalisation plans that Rajiv had authorised.

It is almost true to say that Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have been in recent years played by puppet-masters of whose personal interests and intrigues they remain clueless. As has been said before by this author, the most salubrious thing Sonia Gandhi could have done for the Congress Party was to remain steadfast in her decision to stay out of Indian politics, and to have organised a fair, tough intra-party contest among its putative senior leaders based on differences of political and economic ideology.

Instead there is now paralysis in decision-making induced by Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh each mistakenly relying upon the other’s purported economic wisdom and political acumen. This confusion came to be most clearly illustrated in the choice of Head of State last year though that was something politically costless ~ the failures of which Karnataka is the current example may lead the Congress to lose what it, like other Indian parties, loves most of all, namely political power in Lutyens’ Delhi.

Indians should make no mistake: our good neighbours in Pakistan and Nepal (Muslim in Pakistan, Hindu and Buddhist and communist in Nepal) have been through healthy cathartic political experiences in recent months and years of a kind we have not. There continues to remain a dangerous intellectual vacuum around the throne of Delhi.