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Feb 26, 2022

How the Hindu Right Tried – And Failed – to Forge a Common Platform in India's First Elections

The result came as a rude awakening but also firmly established the Jana Sangh as the main Hindu party. The Hindu Mahasabha became a force which only mobilised Hindus on communal issues.
Jana Sangh supporters carrying the party's electoral symbol (a lamp) and campaigning ahead of the elections in 1952. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/  Photo Division, MIB, GoI.
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Independent India’s first elections were held from October 25, 1951 to February 21, 1952. To commemorate that monumental exercise, The Wire is publishing a series of articles exploring various aspects of the first ever general election in independent India. Read it here.

A little over two years after Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by Nathuram Godse, a foot soldier of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), it was business as usual for the Indian politics. There was talk of the Indian republic’s first election for the Lok Sabha and state assemblies.

In 1950, Jawaharlal Nehru was in conversation with Sardar Patel, who was mostly in Dehradun to escape Delhi’s extreme weather, about their “commitment” to hold the election before the “rains commenced”, and Jayaprakash Narayan, once a close ally of Nehru, was making moves to create a public opinion that the “party in power would not run the elections in an honest and fair manner”.  

Narayan was, at the time, in the Socialist Party and had reached out to everyone, including the Hindu Mahasabha and the newly-formed Jana Sangh, both with clear RSS roots, as well as the All India Scheduled Castes’ Federation, Depressed Classes League and Liberal Association, and a host of other small parties and intellectuals like R.P. Paranjape, India’s first wrangler from Cambridge.

On July 1-2, 1950, a meeting was held at Bombay’s Blavatsky Lodge Hall. This meeting was attended by a motley mix of people, including N.B. Khare and N.C. Chatterjee of the Hindu Mahasabha; P.N. Rajbhoj of the All India Scheduled Castes’ Federation; S.G. Vaze of the Servants of India Society; economist-advocate K.T. Shah and H.N. Kunzru of the National Liberal Federation; lawyer Naushir Bharucha; and many others.

There are at least two versions of the meeting. According to historian Craig Baxter, Khare, the Hindu Mahasabha president, put forward 12 points in the meeting, “…many of which must have shocked secularist JP (Narayan)”. As was the leitmotif of the Mahasabha, Khare talked of an akhand Bharat (indivisible India), giving primacy to the rights of Hindus in the new republic. 

However, all the parties unanimously resolved to put pressure on the government to ensure civil liberties for citizens, intense scrutiny of electoral rolls, the removal of fictitious names, publication of electoral rolls so that they could be verified, three-member constituencies, broadcasting facilities to all the parties, limits on election expenditure, use of indelible ink on voters’ thumbs and identity cards for voters.

The Bombay meeting was keenly watched. The Congress dubbed it a coming together of parties to form an anti-Congress electoral alliance; a charge which Narayan had to issue a statement to deny. 

Narayan was also in conversation with Nehru, whom he always addressed as bhai (brother), impressing upon him the need to have three-member constituencies with cumulative votes rather than a large number of single-member constituencies and few two-member constituencies for Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), with distributive votes. Narayan argued that distributive votes in multi-member constituencies “simply multiply, in an arithmetical manner, the strength of the majority party to the utter exclusion of all minorities”.

Jawaharlal Nehru with Jayaprakash Narayan. Photo: nehrumemorial.nic.in

Nehru held that if Narayan’s idea was to be implemented, then the question of cumulative voting would only apply to SC seats. “It might have some advantage but, on the whole, I think the disadvantages would outweigh the advantages… It would tend to keep up, in some way, the separation of SCs which we wish to avoid as far as possible,” Nehru argued.

He tried to allay Narayan’s fears by saying, “The election is on such a vast scale, with thousands of constituencies, that no one can predict the results… What we are up against are the failures of democracy when we enter into these large regions. Democracy, originally, was thought of in smaller terms and was, presumably, effective’.

Further, in a slightly cheeky tone and to the utter dislike of Narayan, Nehru told him, “You seem to think that elections are decided by arithmetic means or by some mathematical conclusions. Surely this does not happen, when there are numerous candidates pulling in different directions.”

Narayan could see the “note of irritation” in Nehru’s reply. He reiterated his arguments against the distributive system and asked the Prime Minister what, exactly, he meant by his “reference to the difficulties of democracy in a large country such as ours”.

“I hope that whatever else you might have had in your mind, it was not your intention to suggest that because of the vastness of the problem, any less care should be given to the rearing up of a sound democratic edifice in this country?” Narayan asked. Soon, the debate between the two – civil as it may have been – became rancorous. 

Also read: Past Continuous: How Jayaprakash Narayan Helped the RSS Overcome Its Stigmatic Past

Test for the Right

The nation’s collective shock and Nehru’s ex tempore ‘light has gone out of our lives’ speech after Gandhi’s killing did not perturb the Hindu Right much. Its leaders, be it RSS sarsanghchalak M.S. Golwalkar or the Hindu Mahasabha’s Veer Savarkar, were out of jail and their worst days were over. The 1951 election was their first shot at democracy, to gauge the public mood. 

Nehru’s avowed secularism was also put to the test. Every now and then, a new communal problem would crop up. In the build-up to the election, in July 1950, Nehru was shocked to hear about tensions in Ayodhya a few months earlier in which his party colleagues Raghav Das and Bishambar Dayal Tripathi had played an active role.

The Muslim-owned Star Hotel was ordered to be vacated by local Hindus and the next day, it was taken over by them. It was given a new name; the Gomti Hotel.

Nehru asked Lal Bahadur Shastri, his point-person for Uttar Pradesh, “Under what law or rule of common sense or policy this was done, or was permitted to be done, is not clear to me.” He was disgusted with Das and Tripathi for carrying out “propaganda of the kind which can only be called communal and opposed to Congress policy”. Nehru feared the ‘trouble’ could spread to Mathura and other places.

Also read: Babri Masjid: The Timeline of a Demolition

Nehru was also worried about new parties that had cropped up to take on the Congress. Not so much about communists, who he thought would make little difference, but the Socialists, he said, will make some difference. He was also concerned about the Jana Sangh – the new party formed in October 1951, with leaders on loan from the RSS – and its leader, Syama Prasad Mookerjee.

Portrait of Syama Prasad Mookerjee in the Indian parliament. Photo: Government of India/ GODL.

Opening up to Lord Mountbatten, Nehru wrote, “Mookerjee is behaving like a perfect demagogue and his slogan is Akhand Bharat – ‘Indivisible India’; that is to say, he is after undoing the partition.”

Then there was the Hindu Mahasabha, in the thick of communal politics since the 1920s, along with Swami Karpatri Maharaj’s Ram Rajya Parishad (RRP).

Karpatri was a rabble rouser who first established the Dharma Sangh in 1940; launched a paper, Sanmarg, to defend Hinduism; and immediately after independence, formed the RRP, a party so orthodox that even Jana Sangh and Mahasabha refused to do business with it.

The RRP stood for a rural economy based on the traditional jajmani system and barter; traditional systems of medicine such as Ayurveda and the prohibition of alcoholic drinks and cow slaughter.

He even wanted Jana Sangh to be based on a holy Hindu text, a suggestion rejected by Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, who had been loaned by the RSS.

At the head of the table was the RSS, claiming to be, quintessentially, a backroom organisation but which lent foot soldiers and ideological strength to the Mahasabha and the Jana Sangh. 

By October, 1950, the Mahasabha had begun its preparations for the election in full swing. A parliamentary board was put in place to select candidates and carry out vigorous electioneering, with Ashutosh Lahiry appointed as its chairman.

Lahiry wrote to all provincial units to provide him with the number of definite constituencies for the Lok Sabha and assemblies that had been delimited. Lahiry also wanted to know the number of parties and names of their leaders in each province opposed to the Congress. He asked provincial heads of Mahasabha if these non-Congress parties had been contacted to work on the basis of a common programme and also impressed upon them the need to keep a close eye on disgruntled Congressmen.

Another strategy was to reach out to individuals who did not belong to any party, but had political ambitions and were willing to contest. Lahiry was preparing the party keeping in mind that the elections would be held in May or June of 1951. He had specifically warned leaders in several provinces not to fall for rumours that the elections would be held in October-November. 

While readying itself for the elections, the Mahasabha intensified its opposition to Partition. President Khare issued a statement exhorting his partymen and Hindus in general not to celebrate Independence day, calling it an “unhappy date” when the “division of our sacred mother land” took place. The Mahasabha also interpreted P.D. Tandon being elected as the Congress president as a sign of intellectual revolt against Nehru, his policies and a precursor of things to come.

Its election manifesto was a repetition of its aim to establish a Hindu rashtra, patronise Hindu culture and the Hindu way of life, and annul the partition. The party also promised the nationalisation of key industries and state ownership of land, Christophe Jaffrelot writes in The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India.

Just before the elections, the Mahasabha allowed non-Hindus to join the party and work in the “parliamentary affairs of its activities”. But this meant little, given the background of its leaders like Mahant Digvijay Nath, who had said in 1950 that the party would disenfranchise Muslims if it came to power. Khare, himself, had even called Muslims “second-class citizens”.

The Jana Sangh, on the other hand, toed a relatively ‘moderate’ line. Its foundational basis was, ‘One country, one nation, one culture and the rule of law’. It promised to build the nation on the basis of Bharatiya sanskriti and maryada. The party dismissed secularism as being nothing more than Muslim appeasement and dismissed the talk of a composite culture as “unrealistic, illogical and dangerous”. 

Two common themes ran through the three Hindu political outfits; opposition to Hindu Code Bill and the demand to ban cow slaughter.

Also read: Why the Jan Sangh Was Politically Unsuccessful in India’s First General Election

Divided House and campaign

A unity of purpose and the dream of a Hindu rashtra was not enough to paper over the serious differences among the three Hindu parties.

Within the Hindu Mahasabha, discussions began on an amicable note. Mahasabha secretary V.G. Deshpande convinced Gokul Chand Narang, a party strongman in Punjab, that full scope be given to the Jana Sangh. As part of the plan, he said, Mahasabha members should contest on a Jana Sangh ticket. Deshpande wanted the alliance in Punjab, Delhi, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and the Central Provinces. In Madhya Bharat and Saurashtra, he proposed that candidates contest on Mahasabha tickets.

Narang felt Deshpande’s idea should be implemented if the “object is to offer an effective resistance to the Congress’s fascism and to create at least effective opposition in Parliament and state assemblies’. He thus, in turn, tried convincing Mahant Nath. “The question of the prestige of the Hindu Sabha will have to be ignored,” Narang said.

Digvijay Nath

Nath, however, rejected Deshpande’s idea. A known hardliner, Nath was suspicious of the Sangh, despite its RSS roots. “Even today, the word Hindu is taboo to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and they rely on ‘Bhartiya’. That means a fundamental difference… I can and do agree to a pact, but not to a total extinction,” Nath had said.

Mookerjee was in favour of an electoral alliance with the Mahasabha and wanted Karpatri to also be on board so that all three Hindu outfits could fight as one unit. In case of any dispute regarding candidates, he suggested senior leaders should intervene and the best candidate with greatest probability of success be given the ticket. However, Mookerjee was not in favour of publicising the arrangement.

Within the Mahasabha, at least in Punjab, there was a strong undercurrent against yielding to the Jana Sangh. Narang’s enthusiasm for the Sangh was closely monitored by the Mahasabha’s  office secretary, Indra Prakash. He complained party president Khare that a large number of enquiries were coming from provincial units, seeking clarity on the Mahasabha’s attitude towards the Jana Sangh.

In Punjab, the candidates were in dark. Khare tried to reason with Prakash, arguing that Jana Sangh and Mahasabha had similar ideologies and that “cooperation with it during election is necessary and desirable”. However, the distrust was so deep that an alliance could not be stitched for the civic election in Delhi.

Eventually, some sort of understanding between the Mahasabha and the Sangh, imposed by the top leadership, was put in place. Forming alliances with smaller parties, such as the Uttar Pradesh Praja Party, Purusharthi Parishad and Zamindar Party thereafter, was easier.

Before the battle for the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas could reach a fever-pitch, the results of the Delhi civil polls came. The Mahasabha was routed and the Jana Sangh won 21 seats.

The knives were out. J.R. Goyal, a prominent Mahasabha leader in Delhi and editor of Indian Heritage, levelled serious charges against the top leadership and asked Khare to explain allegations of groupism, lack of preparation and corruption.

The result of the civic polls dampened the enthusiasm of the two organisations. The Mahasabha tried to regain some ground by constantly seeking the presence of Veer Savarkar during the campaign. Be it Nath or N.C. Chatterjee, everyone wanted Savarkar. He, however, refused, citing poor health.

Eventually, pamphlets of Savarkar’s appeal were sent to the candidates. More than 10,000 of them were printed and candidates had to buy them at Rs 25/per thousand pamphlets.

The ‘battle royale’, however, was between Nehru and Mookerji.

Nehru called the Jana Sangh communal and reactionary. “All the reactionary people in India, – I say this deliberately– princes and jagirdars, who are, to my mind, the real backward classes, are behind the Jana Sangh. They are financing it,” Nehru said.

When Mookerjee asked who would protect the four crore Muslims after Nehru, Nehru retorted by saying that Hindus should live in a manner such that the Muslims had nothing to fear.

Mookerjee would insist that Muslims would not have to leave India, but would, at the same time, talk of an Akhand Bharat, without suggesting how was his party was going to undo Partition.

In the Lok Sabha election, Nehru was pitted against sadhu-politician Prabhudatt Brahmachari, contesting from the Allahabad East constituency. Brahmachari had joined the fray at the behest of Golwalkar and Rajendra Singh of the RSS. His attack on Nehru was limited to the demand for a ban on cow slaughter and an opposition to the Hindu code bill. 

A well-orchestrated campaign was launched against Nehru for being a ‘beef-eater’ while the Congress kept up the charge of ‘killers of Gandhi’ against the Hindu outfits.

Jaydayal Goyandka and Hanuman Prasad Poddar, the founders of the well-entrenched Gita Press, campaigned for the RRP candidate in Calcutta and exhorted voters not to commit the sin of voting for Nehru’s Congress.

B.R. Ambedkar, who had introduced the Hindu Code Bill in Parliament, was another who faced the wrath of the Hindu parties.

The verdict

In the end, the election results came as a rude awakening to the Hindu parties. The Jana Sangh won three seats; two in Bengal and one in Rajasthan. Mookerjee won from Calcutta South-East with a big margin, Durga Charan Bannerji from Midnapur and Umashankar Muljibhai Trivedi from Chittor in Rajasthan.

Mahasabha candidate Chatterjee won from Hooghly, V.G. Deshpande won from two seats; Guna and Gwalior, and Shakuntala Nayar from Gonda in Uttar Pradesh.

In Punjab, the fight between the Jana Sangh and the Mahasabha was evident. Only one candidate was able to even retain the deposit. Narang, who contested on a Jana Sangh ticket, finished second in Karnal and party founder Balraj Madhok lost badly to Bhim Sen Sachar in Ludhiana.

In the assembly elections, out of the 725 seats contested, the Jana Sangh won 35. Its best result was in West Bengal where it won nine seats, followed Rajasthan, where it won eight. 

The results also firmly established the Jana Sangh as the main Hindu party, relegating the Hindu Mahasabha to be a force which only mobilised Hindus on communal issues.

The Socialist Party celebrated the loss of ‘communal parties’: “The elections have conclusively proved that communalism no longer influences the politics of our people.”  They may have thought that the right-wing Hindu-oriented parties were finished for good.

As it turns out, they were overly optimistic in their assessment. The next two elections were also not very encouraging, but the Hindu nationalist parties eventually learnt the importance of speaking in one voice and also found readymade issues, in the Hindu Code Bill and cow slaughter, to mobilise Hindus on religious grounds.

By the mid-60s, the Jana Sangh had become a political force. Subsequent decades of Congress misrule, the Emergency, the Shah Bano case and the misadventures in Ayodhya only catapulted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP; the reincarnation of the Jana Sangh) to the pole position in 2014.

Akshaya Mukul is a Delhi-based journalist and author of Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India.

The author’s references for this piece are the Hindu Mahasabha Papers, Jayaprakash Narayan Papers, and Jawaharlal Nehru Papers (post-1947) – all available at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library. He has also referred to party documents of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (1952-1980), Craig Baxter’s The Jana Sangh: A Biography of an Indian Political Party and Christophe Jaffrelot’s The Hindu Nationalist Movement in India.

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