Dr. Susmit Kumar, Ph.D.

Gandhi anointed Jawaharlal Nehru as his heir in 1941. In 1946, despite Nehru not getting even a single vote in the 1946 Congress Presidential election, Gandhi made him the Congress President asking the winner, Sardar Patel, who had received 12 out of maximum possible 15 votes to nominate Nehru as the President. Nehru went on to become India’s First Prime Minister as the Viceroy was going to invite the then Congress President to take the oath as the India’s First Prime Minister.


There were two factors behind Gandhi’s choice of Jawaharlal as his heir. Firstly, Gandhi has a soft corner for the Nehru family as it was Motilal Nehru’s volt face during the Subjects Committee vote in the 1920 Special Congress Committee Meeting in Calcutta which saved Gandhi’s Non-Cooperation proposal. It is worth noting that Gandhi's motion was carried by a small majority of only twelve votes, 144 voting for and 132 against in the Subjects Committee. Only after a proposal cleared the Subjects Committee it would go to the General Voting. Motilal Nehru's defection may well have swung the UP delegation in favor of Gandhi. To a large extent, Nehru depended upon Muslim political support, and was widely known for his pro-Muslim sympathies. As an Urdu-speaking Kashmiri Brahmin, he had voted with the Muslims for the UP Municipalities Bill in 1916 and he had kept clear of the agitation against it which the Hindu Sabha and the Provincial Congress launched. When Nehru saw how strongly Muslims supported non-cooperation in 1920, he may have been persuaded to tolerate the movement against his better judgement. But his decision rested, ultimately, upon more rational considerations than his wish to curry Muslim favor.[i]


In late 1920s, the Left-Wing group within the Congress party had emerged very powerful with Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose as its leaders. It was the same group which voted Subhas Chandra Bose for the President over the Gandhi’s nominee Pattabhi Sitaramayya in the 1939 Congress Presidential election. After the failure of his Non-Cooperation Movement in 1922, Gandhi took sanyas from politics for six years. When he again joined active politics in 1928, he nearly faced defeat at the 1928 Annual Congress Committee Meeting in Calcutta and after this incident, he decided to “adopt” Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the co-leaders of the group, and even made him President unprecedented three times (1930, 1936 and 1937) in a span of just 7 years, despite him being so young and on the other hand, Gandhi asked Bose not to run for the president in 1939, for the second term, after being president in 1938, and Sardar Patel was Congress President only once in 1931.


In his 1935 book Indian Struggle Part I (1920-34), Subhas Chandra Bose wrote how Gandhi was nearly forced out of Congress in the 1928 Annual Congress Meeting in Calcutta: [ii]


Within the Congress there were two groups — the older group who would be content if they had a Dominion form of Government and who were therefore in favour of accepting the Nehru Report in toto, and the Left Wing who adhered to the resolution of independence passed at the Madras Congress and wanted to accept the Nehru Report only on the basis of complete national independence. At a meeting of the All-India Congress Committee held in Delhi in November, a compromise had been arrived at between the two groups, at the instance of Pandit Motilal Nehru. At the Calcutta session of the Congress, however, the Mahatma refused to accept the Delhi formula on the ground that it was self-contradictory and the breach between the two groups was thus opened once again. Attempts for a compromise were made by the Mahatma and Pandit Motilal Nehru, but the maximum concession which they could make fell short of the minimum demand of the Left Wingers. Though the Left-Wing leaders were inclined to avoid an open split, the rank and file of the Left Wing would not think of a compromise. Thus, the main resolution of the Congress moved by Mahatma Gandhi was opposed by the entire Left Wing, who supported the amendment moved by [Bose]. The Mahatma's resolution stated that 'subject to the exigencies of the political situation, the Congress will adopt the Nehru constitution in its entirety, if it is accepted by the British Parliament on or before December 31st, 1929; but in the event of its non-acceptance by that date, or its earlier rejection, the Congress will organise non-violent non-co-operation by advising the country to refuse taxation 'and in such other manner as may be decided upon'. An amendment to the effect that the Congress would be content with nothing short of independence, which implied severance of the British connection, was moved by [Bose] and was supported, among others, by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru [in fact, Jawaharlal voted against his own father’s proposal]. The amendment was lost by 978 votes to 1350 — but the vote could hardly be called a free one, as the followers of the Mahatma made it a question of confidence and gave out that if the Mahatma was defeated, he would retire from the Congress. Many people therefore voted for his resolution not out of conviction, but because they did not want to be a party to forcing the Mahatma out of the Congress. Nevertheless, the voting showed that the Left Wing was strong and influential.


Subhas Chandra Bose further wrote how Gandhi tried to retain his leadership of Congress by claiming to go for independence which he actually did not want:


He began this propaganda soon after the Calcutta Congress by stating publicly that if by December 31st, 1929, the Government did not concede Dominion Status to India," he would become an 'Independence wallah' on January 1st, 1930. This time-limit of one year was reminiscent of his promise of Swaraj within one year in 1921. [iii]


The net result of the Calcutta Congress, as we have seen, was to put the clock back. But a far-sighted politician like the Mahatma could read the signs of the times. The Left-Wing opposition at the Calcutta Congress had indeed been formidable and if his leadership was to be retained, he would have to deal with the opposition in a diplomatic manner. The tactics employed by the Mahatma during the next twelve months were indeed superb. As we shall presently see, he took the wind out of the sails of the Extremists, by himself advocating independence at the next Congress and divided the ranks of the opposition by winning over some of the Left-Wing leaders. The Left-Wing opposition had become a menace to all sections among the older leaders, to the Swarajists as much as to the 'No-Changers', and the Calcutta Congress had found the Swarajist Pandit Motilal Nehru standing side by side with the 'No-Changer' Mahatma Gandhi, in order to fight the common danger. This temporary alliance was further strengthened during the ensuing months and with the help of a section of the Left-Wing leaders, it became possible for the Mahatma to regain his hold on the Congress machinery and his prestige in the country, which had been badly shaken by the proceedings of the Calcutta Congress. No one can seriously maintain that a shrewd politician like the Mahatma really expected the Government to climb down and to concede Dominion Home Rule without a fight, merely as a result of a written ultimatum delivered by the Congress. Therefore, one would be entitled to hold that at the Calcutta Congress the Mahatma was merely playing for time, because he was personally unprepared to launch a fight in the immediate future. As a matter of fact, even at the Lahore Congress in December 1929, the Mahatma had no plans for launching an anti-Government campaign of any sort — though he moved the resolution on independence, which was unanimously adopted by the Congress. [iv]


The Mahatma had further compromised himself by making statements to the effect that if there was no response from the Government by December 31st, 1929, he would be an 'independence wallah' on January 1st, 1930. His orthodox followers like himself, had all along been advocates of Dominion Home Rule and they did not like to depart from that attitude. But the Mahatma felt that in the atmosphere then prevailing in the country, a resolution on independence would be carried in spite of his opposition and it was therefore much better for him to move it. [v]


It was now clear that the Congress session at Lahore would be crucial. The provincial committees had recommended Gandhi and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for the presidentship of the Congress. Gandhi, who had resumed the party’s active leadership at the previous session, was expected to welcome the nomination of the hero of Bardoli, his most trusted lieutenant. When Gandhi announced his preference for Jawaharlal, the general body of the Congressmen, especially the senior leaders who felt they had been superseded, were astonished. For one thing, it was considered odd that a son should succeed his father to the Congress throne, and for another there was regret that Sardar Patel’s outstanding services had been overlooked. [vi]


Bose further wrote:


On behalf of the Left Wing, a resolution was moved by him to the effect that the Congress should aim at setting up a parallel Government in the country and to that end, should take in hand the task of organizing the workers, peasants and youths. This resolution was also defeated, with the result that though the Congress accepted the goal of complete independence as its objective, no plan was laid down for reaching that goal — nor was any programme of work adopted for the coming year. When the time came for electing the Working Committee for the coming year the Mahatma came forward with a list of fifteen names, from which the names of Mr. Srinivasa Iyengar, myself [Bose], and other Left Wingers had been deliberately omitted. He said openly that he wanted a committee that would be completely of one mind and he wanted his list to be passed in its entirety. Altogether the Lahore Congress was a great victory for the Mahatma. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, one of the most prominent spokesmen of the Left Wing, was won over by him and the others were excluded from the Working Committee. The Mahatma could henceforward proceed with his own plans without fear of opposition within his cabinet, and whenever any opposition was raised outside his Cabinet, he could always coerce the pubic by threatening to retire from the Congress or to fast unto death. From his personal point of view, it was the cleverest move. With a subservient Cabinet, it was possible for him to conclude the pact with Lord Irwin in March 1931, to have himself appointed as the sole representative to the Round Table Conference, to conclude the Poona Agreement in September 1932 — and do other acts which have done considerable disservice to the public cause. [vii]


As per historian R.C. Majumdar:


The backing up of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru for the Presidentship of the next [1930] Congress was … important maneuver on the part of Gandhi. Jawaharlal had been a devoted follower of Gandhi, but since his return from Europe in December 1927, he called himself a socialist and joined the Left Wing. … he and Subhash Bose led this wing, maintained the Independent League and openly opposed Gandhi in the Calcutta Congress. But somehow or other Gandhi won him over, and after he accepted the Presidentship of the Congress he became a consistent and unfailing supporter of Gandhi. Thus, Subhas Bose and Nehru parted company and the former remained the sole leader of the younger section and the Left Wing of the Congress. [viii]


Gandhi had seriously set upon his task of dominating the Congress. By winning over Jawaharlal he had deliberately weakened the Left Wing of the Congress which alone dared raise its voice against him. A further step in the same direction was taken by him when he deliberately excluded all the Left Wingers, including Srinivasa Iyengar and Subhas Bose, from the new Working Committee. There was a strong feeling in the All India Congress Committee that at least these two should be retained, but Gandhi proved adamant. He declared that he wanted a Committee that would be completely of one mind, i.e. his mind. However desirable this ideal might be in an Executive Body like the Cabinet, it was hardly appropriate to a deliberative body, at least to the extent to which Gandhi carried it. The hands of the All India Congress Committee was forced as Gandhi wanted that his list should be voted as a whole. He practically made a question of confidence, and as the All-India Congress Committee was unwilling or unable to sacrifice his leadership it had to accept his demand. [ix]

[i] Non-cooperation and Council Entry, 1919 to 1920, Richard Gordon, Modern Asian Studies, Volume 7 Issue 3, pp. 443-73 (pp 465-6) and references therein.

[ii] Indian Struggle Part I (1920-34), Subhas Chandra Bose, January, 2012 (First published in 1935), www.subhaschandrabose.org, pp 140-1.

[iii] Indian Struggle Part I (1920-34), Subhas Chandra Bose, January, 2012 (First published in 1935), www.subhaschandrabose.org, p 143.

[iv] Indian Struggle Part I (1920-34), Subhas Chandra Bose, January, 2012 (First published in 1935), www.subhaschandrabose.org, p 143.

[v] Indian Struggle Part I (1920-34), Subhas Chandra Bose, January, 2012 (First published in 1935), www.subhaschandrabose.org, p 156.

[vi] India from Curzon to Nehru and After, Durga Das, Rupa Publications, India, 1981, p 134.

[vii] Indian Struggle Part I (1920-34), Subhas Chandra Bose, January, 2012 (First published in 1935), www.subhaschandrabose.org, p 157.

[viii] History of Freedom Movements in India, Volume III, R C Majumdar, Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta, 1962, p. 321.

[ix] History of Freedom Movements in India, Volume III, R C Majumdar, Firma K.L. Mukhopadhyay, Calcutta, 1962, p. 330.