Indian women wait in line to register their vote in New Delhi, January 1952.  
Photo Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India

THE two general elections held in India under the 1950 federal Constitution enable us to reach at least tentative conclusions as to how far our democratic institutions may be considered a success and the likely grouping of political forces in the near future. These conclusions are strengthened by what occurred in the state-wide elections in Kerala in February of this year, following the dismissal of the Communist Ministry there last summer after 28 months in office.

The framers of the Indian Constitution were inspired by principles of social equality and political justice to introduce adult suffrage immediately--a big step forward, since it expanded the electorate fivefold over what had been provided for under the 1935 Constitution. More than 170,000,000 voters, men and women, were brought onto the electoral rolls. They had their first taste of a general election in January 1952 for the lower House of the Federal Parliament and the State Legislative Assemblies. Though they lacked experience and the majority of them were illiterate, the vast electorate responded well. In the second general elections, held in 1957, approximately 121,000,000 out of a total of about 193,000,000 voters recorded their votes--not counting the two or three million whose votes were rejected on technical grounds. This works out at a poll of 63 percent. Even more remarkable was the result last winter in Kerala, where the voting was much heavier, with over 8,000,000 (roughly 83 percent) exercising their right to vote.

The conduct of a general election in India, through all the steps from the preparation of the electoral rolls to the final declaration of the results, is a major ordeal. The administration has faced it with encouraging efficiency and impartiality. But a statistical analysis can prove deceptive by concealing some of the deeper trends; and the Indian elections are no exception.

India has prided herself since independence on being a secular state with no bias in favor of or against any religious class or community. Mr. Nehru has vigorously and sincerely condemned any show of preference on grounds of caste or religion. In actual practice, however, almost every party, not excluding the Congress, often takes into account the caste (or subcaste) of candidates at the time of their nomination. Voting also is influenced by caste considerations in many rural constituencies. The evil of casteism, as Mr. Nehru has described it, flourishes with impunity in some States under Congress ministries, where the only effective check comes from the State High Courts and the Supreme Court when some provision of the Constitution is flouted. As the electorate gathers experience, economic and political issues may come to loom more prominently than they do at present; and one may reasonably hope that with greater maturity the spell of caste and religion will gradually weaken. But as long as social tradition retains its present rigidity, democratic institutions will find it difficult to strike deep roots.

Statistics can be misleading for another reason. In the general elections of 1957, Congress candidates for the lower House of Parliament secured 58,000,000 out of a total of 121,000,000 votes. The Praja Socialists followed with 13,000,000, the Communists with 11,000,000 and the Jana Sangh with 7,000,000. Independent candidates, not belonging to any recognized party, obtained 32,000,000 votes. It would be a mistake to imagine that the Communist vote is limited to the official figure of 11,000,000. The Communist Party's practice has been to set up its own candidate or a fellow-traveler as an independent in constituencies where success depends on securing the support of voters uncommitted to any political party. How many of the 32,000,000 "independent" votes belong to the Communists cannot be said precisely; but their general position in the Punjab, West Bengal and Bombay justifies us in assuming that in these three States especially many "independent" votes were in support of Communists or fellow-travelers.

The disproportion between a party's voting strength and its strength in the legislatures has been a puzzling feature of the democratic experiment in India. The Congress Party, with a little less than half the total votes to its credit, emerged as the largest group in the federal lower House, with a strength of about 75 percent of the membership (374 out of 505). In striking contrast, the other parties failed to be represented in the measure of their voting strength. For its 13,000,000 votes, the Praja Socialist Party, the next largest group, secured only 19 seats, while the Communists with 11,000,000 votes were comparatively better represented, with 31 seats.

The elections in Kerala brought out the caprices of the ballot box even more glaringly. In the general elections of 1957, the Congress Party with a vote of 2,200,000 (of a total of 5,800,000) obtained 43 seats in a House of 126. The Communists, who followed close behind with 2,100,000 votes, fared far better, capturing 60 seats. The position was radically reversed (to the disadvantage of the Communists) by the elections in Kerala last February. This aspect of the Kerala elections needs mention because of the wrong impression otherwise likely to be created by the large drop in Communist strength in the State Legislature from 60 seats to 27. This result was possible primarily because the various anti-Communist groups reached an understanding at the beginning of the campaign to avoid triangular contests. Actually, the voting strength of the Communists increased by over a million votes.

Another factor which will continue to retard the growth of democratic institutions in India is the widespread tendency, not confined to any single party, to resort to Mr. Gandhi's technique of mass civil disobedience as a remedy for unresolved difficulties. This hangover from the days of British rule ignores the fundamental change brought about by independence and adult suffrage. Even in Kerala, the manner in which the Communist ministry was dismissed could hardly be described as democratic and constitutional. Mr. Nehru's Cabinet intervened only when such a step became unavoidable in order to prevent a mass rising against the Communist administration.


In the first general elections under the permanent Constitution held early in 1952, the Congress Party's candidates enjoyed an enormous advantage over their rivals. They basked in the reflected glory of the freedom movement led and inspired for at least 30 years by Mr. Gandhi. His chief lieutenants--Mr. Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Dr. Rajendra Prasad and C. Rajagopalachari (to mention only the top leaders)--had run the transitional Government in the stormy period following independence with commendable efficiency.

No government called upon to assume the burden of office in a new state could have had a combination of more baffling problems to tackle--the general insecurity of life (underlined by the Mahatma's assassination early in 1948), the rehabilitation of millions of refugees from Pakistan, the grave deficiency in food supply and the integration of the Princely States with India, complicated by troubles in Hyderabad and Kashmir. These and other administrative problems were handled with restraint, confidence and courage. Sardar Patel's tact and statesmanship brought into the All-India Federation hundreds of the Princely States in a spirit of goodwill and mutual accommodation. The Constitution was completed in less than three years by a Constituent Assembly which functioned without interruption and for a time after independence played a secondary role as a provisional Parliament. These achievements enabled India to settle down to a long-term program of economic and social progress.

In a period of such acute economic strain it was inevitable that Mr. Nehru should have given first priority to a comprehensive plan for raising the living standards of the masses. The establishment of the Planning Commission was not, in the circumstances, a matter of controversy. For at least 20 years before independence, Mr. Nehru had thought in terms of national planning to stimulate India's all-round progress. It was widely agreed, when the opportunity presented itself, that an advisory body of experts attached to the Cabinet could be of considerable assistance in evolving plans of reconstruction, unhampered by administrative routine and red-tapism.

In the field of international relations, a policy of neutralism (non-alignment, as it has now come to be described) seemed both right and natural for a new state seeking its proper place in the world. The explanation of this policy in a spirit of judicial detachment by a jurist of the eminence of Sir Benegal Rau won prestige and respect for India in the United Nations, even if it failed on an issue like Kashmir to carry conviction with many member States.

It was on this record that the Congress Party faced the first elections in 1952. Pitted against it, the Communist Party had little hope of success except in isolated pockets in (former) Hyderabad, West Bengal and Kerala. The Communist Party also had to live down the fact that it had sided with the British in the latter half of the Second World War while the Congress leaders were in prison for supporting Mr. Gandhi's "Quit India" movement. In these circumstances its electoral successes were not considerable. However, after the failure of Sir Stafford Cripps' mission in 1942, the strength of the Party had been built up with active British encouragement in many of India's industrial centers and in feudal regions like Telengana, and it could not be dissipated by failure in a single general election.

A new spirit which crept into the administration during the five-year term of the Congress Government following the 1952 elections did not tend to strengthen democratic principles. Mr. Nehru's personal stature and influence, both within the Government and in the country, grew to such heights that even without seeking it, he came to exercise overwhelming authority. He was almost the only Congress leader after Mr. Gandhi with a phenomenal mass appeal. Of the colleagues who were more or less his equals during Mr. Gandhi's lifetime, death had removed Sardar Patel, easily the strongest restraining influence on the Prime Minister in the early years of independence; Dr. Rajendra Prasad had been elevated to the post of President, an office of dignity but with little real authority; Mr. Rajagopalachari had gone into retirement after being India's last Governor-General and, briefly, a Minister of Mr. Nehru's Cabinet.

Moreover, Mr. Nehru was not only India's Prime Minister; he became also the Chairman of the Planning Commission. In selecting colleagues for the Cabinet, he was at least restricted by certain parliamentary rules and observances. The Planning Commission, on the other hand, consisted of a body of nominated persons who owed their appointment entirely to him. Primarily for the sake of getting schemes and projects implemented more quickly, the Commission's powers and jurisdiction were enlarged, and by gradual stages it advanced from being an advisory body and became the Cabinet's equal. Members of the Cabinet, who were the Prime Minister's colleagues only in a formal sense, found themselves at a disadvantage in administering their respective departments. In important spheres of activity the initiative had passed to the Planning Commission for laying down the broad lines of policy and the targets to be achieved in a five-year period, and Ministers were assigned the modest role of justifying these decisions before Parliament. As a result the status of members of Mr. Nehru's Cabinet has been considerably lowered. The concentration of power and authority in the hands of a single individual, even one like Mr. Nehru, dedicated as he is to India's service, cannot augur well for the growth of democratic institutions.

Since the second general elections of 1957, the Congress Party has lost ground in several States more rapidly than in its first five-year term of office. The by-elections held in these three years do not indicate the real extent of the loss. Of 16 by-elections for the lower House of Parliament up to June 1960, the Congress Party retained 11 out of its 14 seats. In 112 elections for State Legislatures (excluding Kerala, which has been discussed separately) the Congress obtained 58 seats, or only two less than in the general elections. But in a number of constituencies the margin of victory has thinned down to such narrow proportions as to render the position of Congress candidates precarious in the elections due early in 1962.

In these three years Mr. Nehru and the Congress Governments, both at the Center and in the States, have been thrown increasingly on the defensive by the sharp criticisms of some aspects of their domestic policies coming from leaders like Mr. Rajagopalachari. The points on which they have proved most vulnerable to attack are the legislation setting a maximum limit on land-holdings; the policy of State trading, especially in foodgrains; the starting of agricultural coöperatives; and the large number of restrictions and controls on individuals through legislative or administrative actions. Mr. Rajagopalachari and the new party of which he is the founder (the Swatantra Party) have concentrated their attack on the growing tendency towards the regimentation of Indian life. Mr. Nehru has been charged with introducing "a creeping totalitarian tyranny of the Socialist pattern" which, according to Mr. Rajagopalachari, is "a more dangerous evil than the avowed totalitarianism of the Communists."

Until the spring of 1959, when the Dalai Lama and several thousands of Tibetan refugees escaped into India, Mr. Nehru's foreign policy was on the whole beyond controversy, even though misgivings were sometimes voiced both in Parliament and outside about the way in which Mr. Krishna Menon interpreted non-alignment from the platform of the United Nations--so obviously different from that of his predecessors.

But within the last 18 months, Communist China's blatant aggression in Tibet and Ladakh has brought about a radical change in the situation. Mr. Nehru, whose chief adviser in the sphere of foreign policy is Mr. Krishna Menon, has experienced the severest shock of his long public life. The publication last year of the correspondence between the Governments of India and China since 1954 only deepened the public's anxieties. Questions are being asked which reflect this apprehensive mood. First, why was China allowed to overrun Tibet in 1950 and why was her "sovereignty" over the region officially accepted, although the instructions to the Indian Ambassador in Peking at the time appear to have been limited to accepting China's "suzerainty," subject to China's recognition of Tibet's complete autonomy in internal administration? Second, why did Mr. Nehru's Government relinquish unconditionally all the extraterritorial rights and privileges that India had inherited from the British? Third, what were the grounds for keeping back from Parliament and the Indian public for five years the correspondence between the Governments of India and China on various disputes along the Himalayan borders?

Through all the 10 years of China's illegal occupation of Tibet, it is now realized, Mr. Nehru was outmanœuvred by Mr. Chouen-lai at every stage. The professions of "eternal friendship" for India and the signing of the Five Principles agreement (while the border disputes were actually in progress) are now dismissed in India as insincere gestures concealing China's aggressive and expansionist aims. Public feeling has hardened against China to such an extent that Mr. Nehru, always sensitive to public opinion, cannot compromise on the position which he has taken up in response to Chinese intransigence.

Since the deepening of the Sino-Indian crisis, the criticisms of Mr. Nehru's foreign policy have been crystalized by men like Mr. Rajagopalachari into some specific suggestions. This veteran statesman has demanded a complete reorientation of policy along the following lines: (1) the abandonment of non-alignment as being disastrous for a militarily weak power like India facing an aggressive power like China spread menacingly along 2,600 miles of the Himalayan border; (2) a settlement of all disputes with Pakistan so that India's resources may be mobilized to the maximum extent against China's aggression; (3) a joint understanding with neighbors like Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Burma and Malaya who share with India a common peril in greater or lesser degree; (4) acceptance, if necessary, of military aid from friendly countries like the United States.

On these points, Mr. Rajagopalachari has substantial support even outside the ranks of the Swatantra Party. Senior members of Parliament like Dr. Kunzru have in addition demanded the removal of Mr. Krishna Menon as Defense Minister because of his ambiguous statements on China. His abilities and drive in administration are not doubted; but frequently in the past he has given cause for suspicion that he leans toward appeasement of China. Significance is attached to the fact that his most ardent supporters are the Communists in Parliament and Communist (or pro-Communist) journals in the country.

So far, Mr. Nehru has shown no inclination toward any modification of his foreign policy. Non-alignment, he has reiterated with emphasis, will continue to be its sheet anchor. Acceptance of foreign military aid he regards as incompatible with national self-respect. The only alteration in policy acceptable to him is greater concentration on the expansion of heavy industry. Regarding Mr. Krishna Menon, Mr. Nehru is clear that the suggestion he be removed implies lack of confidence in his own judgment and constitutes, indirectly, criticism of his stewardship as Prime Minister.


In preparation for the next general elections, scheduled for early in 1962, a certain regrouping of existing political forces is almost certain to develop. The Congress Party will find its position challenged far more seriously than on the last two occasions, both on its domestic and its foreign policies. This is not a surprising phenomenon, nor one peculiar to India. A party long in office is bound to alienate sections of the people through implementing policies which generate hardship or cut into vested interests. After being the ruling party for an unbroken period of 13 years (except for a while in Kerala), the Congress inevitably has lost some of its influence. This has been reflected in the by-elections, as described above. More serious are the internal organizational problems which it faces. In practically every State the Congress Party is going through a phase of acute group and personal rivalries, each faction having its eye on the coming general elections.

Similar organizational cracks have appeared in the Communist Party. Since China's aggression in Tibet in the spring of 1959, the Indian Communists have been finding their position increasingly untenable. As open justification of Chinese expansionism would obviously be unwise, at least a section of the Party has been advocating unqualified support for Mr. Nehru's policy of seeking a friendly settlement of the border disputes, but without being seriously critical of China's aims and actions.

The varying tactics and policies pursued by the Indian Communists since this gospel first made its appearance in India in the early twenties indicates their likely course in the near future. From the beginning, they found that Mr. Gandhi's insistence on non-violence and truth was their foremost obstacle. They exploited Mr. Nehru's membership in the Executive of the League Against Imperialism in Brussels (from 1927 to 1931) and his uncompromising opposition to any form of association with Britain. They infiltrated into the Congress Party in numbers to support him in all his radical moves. Thus strengthened, Mr. Nehru succeeded in getting the Congress affiliated to the League and having its goal altered to complete independence of Britain. During the next few years, Mr. Nehru moved definitely to the left in spite of Mr. Gandhi's warnings. Nevertheless, on more than one critical occasion in his career, when he was faced with a choice between personal loyalty to Mr. Gandhi and an uncompromising line of action prompted by his own judgment, Mr. Nehru preferred the former course.

After the MacDonald Government's failure to reach a settlement with the Congress, political strife with the British was renewed in the thirties. This brought the Communists a fresh opportunity to infiltrate and work from within the Congress. Mr. Nehru's Socialist colleagues were keen on a coalition with all the left-wing elements, including the Communists, to prevent the older leaders from taking office under the 1935 Constitution, to which they were bitterly opposed. The coalition failed to materialize; but all the left-wing elements combined for the single purpose of pulling the Congress Ministers out of office shortly after the declaration of the Second World War.

A fundamental difference with the Communists developed after Russia's entry into the war in 1941. With their usual optimism, the Communists promptly declared that the war's character had now profoundly altered into a people's war. For Mr. Nehru it was a period of intense distress. His abhorrence of Hitlerism was so real and deep that he would probably have compromised with the British in 1942 (on the Cripps' offer) if there had not been opposition from Mr. Gandhi and some of his senior colleagues. Whatever the cause, the rupture between the Congress and the Communists was complete after the summer of 1942 and continued for several years.


Now that the third general elections are approaching, the different groups are already making preliminary moves. The Swatantra Party, which broadly corresponds to the British Conservative Party, is likely to set up its own candidates in States where it is strong and to support elsewhere those who are sympathetic to its program. One cannot say what are the prospects of success for a party which is barely a year old. But its nuisance value is likely to be considerable, especially in constituencies where the Congress Party's margin of power has become narrow.

To the left stand the Communists, so far the main opposition element in the federal Parliament and in some of the State Legislatures. Even before they were split by the Chinese aggression along the Himalayan border, they had been trying to adjust themselves to Indian conditions so as to become more acceptable to the people. They have committed themselves to the creed of non-violence. Mr. Namboodriped, their new General Secretary (and former Chief Minister of Kerala under Communist rule) has announced the Party's decision to adhere to constitutional techniques in opposing the Government. Their broad strategy for the next elections seems clear. In the last three years they have not hesitated to set up their candidates as "independents" or to take over locally-popular movements like the agitation for the breakup of Bombay State into two linguistic regions. Such tactics will continue. If expedient they also will infiltrate into the Congress Party as they did in the earlier stages of the freedom movement. In fact, for more than a year their leader in the federal lower House, Mr. S. A. Dange, has urged his fellow members to support "the progressive section" of the Congress Party led by Mr. Nehru and Mr. Krishna Menon to "safeguard democracy" from "the reactionary, right-wing elements." With the Congress Party riddled with factiousness, infiltration will present no serious difficulty.

Congress leaders in general have no illusions left about the Communists. The present President of the Party, Mr. Sanjiva Reddy, like his predecessor Mrs. Indira Gandhi (the Prime Minister's daughter), has denounced them as a party seeking its guidance from outside India. However attractively they may clothe their offer of support to Mr. Nehru, he is too seasoned a politician not to see through their moves. Open association with the Congress Party being ruled out, they can only seek to influence it from within, with the aid of some sympathetic elements. How far India will be steered clear of entanglement with the Communist creed or its policies will depend on how vigilantly the Congress leaders deal with risk of infiltration to which the party organization now stands exposed.

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  • B. SHIVA RAO, New Delhi correspondent of the Hindu of Madras; Indian correspondent of the Manchester Guardian; author of "The Industrial Worker in India" and other works.
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