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Day of decision

On June 2,1964,as Kamaraj had planned,Nehru’s successor was named

Written by Inder Malhotra |
June 11, 2012 2:53:31 am

On June 2,1964,as Kamaraj had planned,Nehru’s successor was named

Everybody who was anybody in the Congress,to say nothing of the newshounds of the press,was confident that the issue of succession to Nehru would be settled on May 30. For Kamaraj had called a meeting of the enlarged Congress Working Committee (CWC) on that date. However,when the meeting took place those present were taken aback. The Congress president announced that the gathering would adjourn after paying glowing tributes to the departed leader and passing a condolence resolution.

He summoned the CWC to meet again the next day,May 31,a Sunday that did prove to be the day of decision. Come to think of it,the challenge before the Working Committee was the biggest since mid-June 1947 when it had met,also in Delhi,to decide whether or not to endorse the Partition Plan of June 3 of that year as a precondition for Independence. However,there were then titanic leaders such as Nehru,Vallabhbhai Patel and Maulana Azad to guide the committee. All the more credit therefore to Kamaraj,the solid strongman with few words,for masterminding a smooth settlement of the succession issue in rather difficult circumstances.

Congress leaders had started assembling well before 8.30 in the morning,the time fixed for the CWC’s historic meeting. No fewer than 42 Congress leaders were present. They included 19 regular members of the Working Committee,13 chief ministers (two others were members of the CWC),two representatives of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP),and eight “invitees”,including Krishna Menon,former Congress president U.N. Debar,and senior cabinet ministers such as T.T. Krishnamachari,Swaran Singh,and C. Subramanium.

Kamaraj began the proceedings with an appeal for “unity and solidarity” on the one hand and an early election of the leader,on the other. Support for this sentiment was huge. “Unity” and “unanimity” were the theme song of even those who acknowledged that a contest was a normal part of the democratic process. In a discussion that lasted until well after lunchtime — everyone present,with the solitary exception of Indira Gandhi,spoke — there were dissenting voices,of course.

Several supporters of Morarji Desai again demanded that the CPP must have the “unfettered” right to elect its leader. Had this been accepted,it would surely have worked to Desai’s advantage,but an overwhelming majority rejected it promptly. The Working Committee,the Congress’s highest decision-making body,most of those present said,had the right to “advise,even direct” the parliamentary party. Chief ministers emphasised that the states had a stake in the choice of the nation’s prime minister. With hindsight,it seems that Indian federalism was asserting itself even then.

At this stage,Kamaraj declared that there was agreement on both unanimity and Working Committee’s leadership in the election,and asked for opinions on how to proceed. Amidst a certain amount of cross-talk,Ram Subhag Singh proposed that the Congress president should ascertain the consensus. Many of those present claimed later that this procedure had really been agreed to at a conclave of the Syndicate the previous night. Anyhow,before the meeting adjourned,Kamaraj was authorised to ascertain the party’s consensus. By this time,Desai had realised that he had lost. For,as became known later,on reaching home he told his family: “They (party bosses) have manoeuvred it.” G.L. Nanda,on the other hand,explained why the consensus idea was bound to prevail: “We were all conscious that the world’s eyes were upon us,and we did not want to display too open a fight.”

At the meeting of the enlarged Working Committee — by this time nicknamed the “Grand Council of the Republic” — Karmaraj had fixed June 2 as the date of the new leader’s election. Armed with the mandate to ascertain the party’s preference,he embarked on the task with ferocious energy and conspicuous skill. Between the rest of Sunday and Monday evening he saw at least 200 Congress MPs,individually or in groups,and a host of Congress leaders from all parts of the country. When it was clear that Lal Bahadur Shastri was the party’s choice,he conveyed his reading to Desai first,then to Shastri and to three other aspirants,active or passive,Jagjivan Ram,Nanda and Indira Gandhi. Thereafter,he announced the decision publicly. Most newspapers had anticipated it,in any case.

What transpired between Kamaraj and Desai merits a mention. Significantly,the defeated candidate did not question the accuracy of the Congress president’s finding. But he did tell Kamaraj that since he was a “partisan”,he should have assigned the one-man poll to someone else. Yet,in the established Congress tradition,he offered to propose Shastri’s name at the meeting of the CPP. Kamaraj welcomed this. But both had counted without Nanda,conscious of his position as prime minister,however temporarily. He insisted that he must propose Shastri’s name,and Desai could second it.

This is precisely what happened on June 2 in Parliament’s Central Hall where proceedings were conducted with refreshing decorum. At everybody’s request,Kamaraj took the chair and let Nanda propose and Desai second Shastri’s unanimous election. At this point,we,presspersons,were allowed to come in and report the proceedings.

These began with Nanda,Desai,Jagjivan Ram and the CPP deputy leader,K.C. Reddy,affirming their “loyalty” to Nehru’s chosen successor. Kamaraj then spoke of the “tasks ahead”,and reminded everyone that no one could fill the void left by Nehru,and the Congress must henceforth function on the basis of “collective responsibility,collective leadership and collective approach”. The unanimous election of the new leader,he added,was a “fitting and humble tribute” to Nehru. Shastri’s thanksgiving speech was poised and touching,and contained his vow to continue following Nehru’s policies. “Socialism is our objective. Our policy has already been defined. What is essential is its proper and quicker implementation”.

However,Kamaraj still held the centrestage. Every speaker had praised him effusively. Yet,out of the blue,S.K. Patil stood up and moved an unscheduled vote of thanks to the Congress president,heaping high praise on him. Patil’s resolution was carried by acclamation. Kamaraj was the man of the moment.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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