What’s happening in TN is not new, we set the wrong precedent in 1952

The very first election had resulted in a coalition government, set in place by engineered defections and horse-trading, a government that also had more than 30 members supporting it from outside.
What’s happening in TN is not new, we set the wrong precedent in 1952
What’s happening in TN is not new, we set the wrong precedent in 1952
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Constitutional crisis. Numbers game. An un-elected Chief Ministerial nominee. Constitutional impropriety and worse, violation. Gubernatorial chicanery. Horse-trading.  

All these were scripted first in Tamil Nadu as early as in 1952, in the aftermath of the very first general elections under the Constitution adopted two years earlier. The state was at that time called Madras and included what are now parts of Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

As the last of the votes polled in the elections to the Legislative Assembly of the then Madras State, had been counted, the ignominy of the Congress was clear. The party had been booted out of power, and reduced to a minority, managing to win just 152 of the 375 seats. Adding insult to injury was the fact that the incumbent Chief Minister and provincial Congress Committee President Kamaraj’s own man, Kumaraswami Raja, and some of his ministers including M Bhaktavatsalam, Madhava Menon, and Bezwada Gopala Reddy, had been defeated.

The performance of the party was uniformly bad across the different linguistic areas, with the best performance coming only in the Kannada speaking areas, where it won nine of the 11 seats. In the Tamil speaking areas it had managed only 96 of the 190 seats. The impact of the Communists and the Congress breakaways, and the movement for separate Andhra state was very much in evidence in the Telugu speaking areas, where the Congress could muster only 43 of the 143. But the rout in the Malabar region was almost total - just 4 of the 29 seats. Its only consolation was that it was still the single largest party, and that its nearest contender CPI had won only 62. The party position in the newly elected Legislative Assembly was:

Indian National Congress                            152

Communist Party of India                              62

Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party                           35

Tamil Nadu Toilers Party                               19

Krishikar Lok Party                                         15

Socialist Party                                                 13

Commonweal Party                                         5

Madras State Muslim League                        5

Forward Bloc (Marxist Group)                        3

All India Scheduled Caste Federation          2

Justice Party                                                       1

Independents                                                   62

And thus, the very first general elections that Independent India had conducted had thrown up a hung assembly in Madras State. And as was to become a practice in the later decades, the drama started now.

Governor Maharaja Krishna Kumarsinhji of Bhavnagar now had an unviable Constitutional question on hand - should he invite the single largest party, the Congress to form the government or not? The other alternative was equally unappetizing — imposing Governor’s rule citing a Constitutional crisis, as no party had majority.

There were some leaders, even within the Congress, who advocated the second option. Accepting that would have meant that Kumarsihji would have gone down in the history as the first to impose Governor’s rule.

What followed was a protracted political exercise spread over nearly three months, with several twists and turns, the kind that would be seen in other parts of the country much later. Some of the developments in Madras set the precedent for future political shenanigans, including dubious role played by Governors of some states.

The Governor’s task was complicated further when the Communists, led by Nagi Reddi and P Ramamurthi, took the extraordinary step of forging a post-poll alliance with KMPP, led by T Prakasam, a clutch of smaller and anti-Congress parties, and also a varied bunch of independents.

Initially, Communist stalwart P Ramamurthi was tipped to lead this coalition. But Prakasam had been nursing a serious grudge against the Congress, and Kamaraj in particular, for the manner in which he was ousted from Chief Ministership a few years earlier. He insisted that he should be the Chief Ministerial nominee, though he had lost this election. The Communists finally gave in to this demand to save the coalition.

The leaders of these parties met in Madras and with anti-Congressism binding them, formed themselves into a United Democratic Front (UDF) and drafted a common minimum programme. UDF claimed to comprise 166 MLAs: CPI and CPI backed independents - 70, KMPP - 36, Tamil Nadu Toilers Party - 19, Commonweal party - 6, FBL (MG) - 3, SCF - 1, JUSP -1 and Independents - 30. Though the Communists constituted the single largest party within the UDF, senior CPI leaders like Ramamurthi agreed to accept Prakasam as their leader of this post-poll alliance. Prakasam, it was proposed, would get himself elected either to the Assembly or the Upper House, the Legislative Council, as provided under the new Constitution.

As the leader of the single largest political formation in the Assembly, Prakasam staked his claim to form the government. The stage seemed all set for the first ever coalition government, and that too one with Communists as major constituents.

Prakasam’s move set off alarm bells in the Congress high command. More than the loss in the elections, the very possibility of the Communists coming to power, even if only as a coalition partner, had them in jitters. Panic buttons were being pressed.

Kumarsinhji, whose tenure as Governor was due to come to an end soon, decided to play it safe and referred the matter to President Rajendra Prasad. Under the Constitution, Rajen Babu, however, could not take a decision on his own and was bound to act only on the advice of Prime Minister Nehru and his Council of Ministers.  Nehru sought the advice of the Congress High Command, which despite two rounds of meetings in February and March that year, could not take a decision. With the party remaining indecisive, Nehru too could not offer any advice to the President. And in turn the President could not give his decision on the reference made by the Governor of Madras.

With the Congress nowhere near majority, Kamaraj was in favour of the Governor accepting the claim put forward by the United Democratic Front and inviting T Prakasam to form the government.

Kamaraj was confident that the coalition would collapse within a short period, under the weight of its contradictions. And then a spell of Governor’s rule would ensue, during which some political realignment could be tried, failing which there could be another election. 

But not all were in agreement with Kamaraj. A group within the Congress, which included not just local leaders but also people in the High Command, was appalled at the idea of the Communists seizing power in any state, even as a coalition partner. It was very evident that though Prakasam was the one who led the UDF, it would only be the Communists who would call the shots. They were also apprehensive of the long-term consequences of a dissolved Assembly and fresh elections.

Some members of this group, led by C Subramaniam and Ramnath Goenka had other ideas. Fired by their antipathy towards Communists, and also to some extent their animosity towards Kamaraj, they looked to the one person who firmly believed that the Communists were the greatest threat to the fledgling democratic republic of India - Rajaji.

Rajaji with Nehru and Rajendra Prasad. Image source

Rajaji was by then 73 and in retirement. He had been the last Governor General and had then been a part of Jawaharlal Nehru’s interim government. As the Home Minister in the interim government, he had ordered the crackdown on the Communists in Hyderabad-Andhra region, much to the chagrin of Nehru. With Nehru often interfering with the crackdown, even overturning Rajaji’s orders on a few occasions, Rajaji had quit in a huff and gone back into retirement.

What happened next is best described in the words of Rajaji’s own grandson Rajmohan Gandhi in Rajaji Story—1937-72 (published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan):

“The truth was that he (Rajaji) was terribly torn. The proposition was more than appealing; it was exciting. The wound of his rejection by Madras six years earlier had been healed by the sunlight surrounding him thereafter, but, present in memory, it could not but add a sweet irony to the appeals he was now receiving ... (But) Acceptance would seem undignified … he would be acutely embarrassed if he showed willingness but Nehru was cool. So far Jawaharlal had not said a word in support of the move to draft him. Almost equally important was Kamaraj’s attitude…”

Kamaraj was acutely aware of the impact that Rajaji becoming the Chief Minister would have on the socio-political scene in Madras. He had, with great difficulty, tried to consolidate the non-Brahmins within the Congress in an attempt to overcome the party’s image as a Brahmin-dominated party to counter the growth of the DK, and also to prevent its progeny DMK to gain any ground politically. Rajaji’s re-entry, he felt, and rightly so, would be a major setback to his attempts to prevent the backward classes from being weaned away by the Dravidian movement. (DMK, founded in 1949, did not contest this election, but supported the Vanniyar community parties - Tamil Nadu Toilers Party and Commonweal Party; and Periyar EV Ramaswami and his DK supported the Communists)

Back in Delhi, Nehru too was lukewarm to the idea of bringing Rajaji back into active politics, but did not actively oppose it. When a delegation of Congressmen met him to get his consent, he merely “expressed his ‘no objection’ rather than keenness”, as Rajmohan Gandhi put it. This was the final nudge that Rajaji needed to accept the Subramaniam-Goenka-Kumarasamy Raja troika’s proposal.

The interim Chief Minister Kumarasamy Raja had also got a missive from Nehru, which besides expressing his reluctant acceptance of Rajaji’s name, had suggested early steps be taken to ensure election of Rajaji to the state Assembly.

But then Rajaji bowled a googly. He made it plain that he would, under no circumstance, contest an election. Rajaji believed that after having been the Governor General of the country, it was beneath his stature to contest elections to a state Assembly. Now even his own supporters were appalled, and had to run back to the drawing board. It was C Subramaniam who came up with a solution.

The Constitution, it was pointed out, insisted that a Chief Minister or a Minister should be a member of either Houses of the Legislature, and that in case he/she was not already a member, he should become one within six months of his/her being sworn in to the post. The Constitution also provided for the Governor of a state to nominate as members to the upper house - Legislative Council - persons who had ‘special knowledge or practical experience in such matters as literature, science, art and social service.’ Rajaji definitely qualified under two counts - literature and social service - and, it was argued that there would be nothing wrong in nominating him to the Legislative Council.

With the only chance of a Congress government threatening to slip away, the pro-Rajaji group proceeded to operationalise their plan. In the interim Chief Minister Kumarasamy Raja, and the new governor Sri Prakasa, they had more than willing collaborators. Their roles were crucial to the plan as, under the Constitution, the Governor made the nominations to the Upper House only on the recommendations of the Chief Minister. Raja duly made the recommendation, and Sri Prakasa promptly accepted it, and nominated Rajaji to the Legislative Council.

Such was the haste with which it was done that even Nehru was not kept in the loop. The Prime Minister had specifically suggested that Rajaji be elected to the Assembly, and what the Madras mafia had done ran counter to Nehru’s wishes.

As Rajmohan Gandhi observed, “The clause was not really conceived for accommodating a Chief Minister-to-be who thought poorly of elections. The spirit of democracy had been violated.”

Ironically, Sri Prakasa, who had by then succeeded Krishna Kumarsinhji as the state Governor, invited Rajaji to form the government on April 1 (Fools’ Day) and 10 days later he was sworn in as the first Chief Minister of Madras State under the new Constitution.

And the Rajaji government was asked to prove its majority on the floor of the newly elected Legislative Assembly. Yet another precedent, of a minority government being sworn-in and asked to prove its majority, was set in Madras. And along with it also came the political horse-trading that would become a part of the Indian polity later.

With only 152 members in the 375-member Assembly, the Congress government was nowhere near the half-way mark and had to cobble together a majority. And this it proceeded to do by engineering defections from the UDF and enticing the support of some of the smaller parties which had stayed out of UDF, and some independents. Among the prime targets for the horse-trading were the two Vanniyar parties—Commonweal Party led by Manickavel Naicker, which had six members, and the Tamil Nadu Toilers Party of Ramaswamy Padayachi, with 19 members. Commonweal Party was rewarded for this by being included in the ministry, but Ramasamy Padayachi preferred to lend only outside support to the Government. Outside support also came from the Madras State Muslim League led by Qaid-e-Millat, who was as keen as Rajaji to prevent the Communists from coming to power, even as a coalition partner.

Thirteen independent members were lured into joining the Congress, taking the party strength to 165 by May that year (two more would join later to take the strength to 167). Congress also managed to split NG Ranga’s Krishikar Lok Party, which was part of the UDF, by engineering the defection of three of its MLAs.

Another precedent had been set. The very first election had resulted in a coalition government, set in place by engineered defections and horse-trading, a government that also had more than 30 members supporting it from outside.

And on July 3, more than three months after he was invited to form the government, Rajaji proved his government’s majority in the Assembly with the support of 200 members.

Postscript: Communist Party leader P Ramamurthi, who had missed out on the chance of becoming the first ever elected Communist chief minister in history, challenged Rajaji’s nomination to the Legislative Council and thus becoming Chief Minister, this was aimed at defeating the election results. But the Madras High court bench comprising Chief Justice PV Rajamannar and Justice Venkatarama Aiyar rejected PR's public intererst petition holding that the court cannot enforce constitutional convention or decide political issues.

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