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On the back foot

An argument in the Lok Sabha over Nehru’s faulty China policy led to the only no-confidence motion against his government

Written by Inder Malhotra |
April 16, 2012 3:04:29 am

An argument in the Lok Sabha over Nehru’s faulty China policy led to the only no-confidence motion against his government

In an earlier column (‘Purge with no losers’,IE,March 19),a passing reference was made to the first and only motion of no-confidence in the Nehru government,nearly nine months after the catastrophic border war with China in 1962. At least a glimpse of this unique event is necessary,if only to reflect the national mood in those tormenting times.

The first point to be made is that the highly emotional and usually eloquent discussion that lasted nearly 24 hours spread out over four working days,all too often descended to a low level of petty personal attacks,sometimes bordering on the scurrilous. To cite only one of numerous examples,socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia,a powerful orator who had made one of the half a dozen finest speeches during the debate,slamming the government’s policies across the board,spoilt it all by embarking on a shabby tirade against the prime minister personally: “The government was spending on Nehru Rs 25,000 a day”,that even his “dog needed security”,that the presence of B.K. Nehru,R.K. Nehru,General B.M. Kaul and other Kashmiris in the higher echelons of the government “proved” that the prime minister was “guilty of nepotism”,and much else in the same vein.

Finance Minister Morarji Desai,not a great admirer of Nehru,took Lohia on,point by point,and hit him hard. He reserved his sharpest condemnation of the socialist leader for the latter’s observation that Nehru was “plotting” to ensure that his daughter succeeded him and that this would give newspaper readers every morning “a comely face to behold”. “Dr Lohia”,said Desai,“is a brilliant man,but his brilliance has run amok”.

Of course,name-calling wasn’t a one-way street. Congress MPs were equally unrestrained. Some of them accused Acharya Kripalani of having “defalcated Rs 25,000 from the funds of a Gandhian organisation”. Some others made tasteless remarks about the Acharya being at odds with his wife. He retorted: “I am neither henpecked,nor do I kick my wife when she disagrees with me”.

Secondly,there were more than half a dozen parties in the Lok Sabha of which the now-defunct Swatantra Party,a party of big business,was then the largest,though not large enough to be recognised as the opposition. However,these parties couldn’t table the motion jointly because,even at the height of their unity against the Congress,they were like a gaggle of squabbling geese. It thus fell to Kripalani,formerly a comrade of Nehru and other leaders of the freedom movement,to sponsor the motion. The Congress benches made much of it. Nehru did so with subtlety.

He had heard,the prime minister said,leaders of the Muslim League,the Hindu Mahasabha and the DMK,were all in “serried ranks behind General Kripalani”. What had “brought together this curious array”,he added,was not the dislike of the government so much as the dislike of him. He also twitted three of the opposition’s main speakers — Kripalani,Lohia and Minoo Masani — who had won three key by-elections in April-May,saying that they “were still excited over their electoral victory”.

As for the substance of the debate,the government was clearly on the back foot. For,although its domestic and economic policies were also under attack,the focus was on Nehru’s faulty China policy and Krishna Menon’s appalling performance as defence minister that had led to a military debacle and political disaster. More than once,there was a suggestion that in Menon’s case,it was not merely incompetence but also “something much worse”. When the Congress benches protested that the opposition’s insinuation against the former minister was “malicious”,the retort from the other side was: “So,you have sacked an innocent man!”

Nehru spoke at some length to deny Kripalani’s charge that the government had concealed from the country Chinese occupation of Indian territory but Kripalani,in his reply to the debate,quoted chapter and verse about Aksai Chin to confute the prime minister.

On economic issues,there were tense exchanges between Lohia and Nehru. As a forerunner to today’s controversy over the poverty line,the socialist leader contended that an average Indian had to live on “three annas a day” (a sum equal to today’s 20 paise at 1963 prices) and Nehru insisted that this figure was “absurdly low”.

For my then newspaper,The Statesman,I had covered the debate elaborately. At the end of the fourth day,my conclusion — on which the next morning’s banner headline was based — was that Kripalani’s motion “had been defeated,but not Kripalani”.

The narrative of this extraordinary event cannot be complete without a mention of the two revealing sidelights. In the first place,the Communist Party of India (at that time still undivided) had refused to support the no-confidence motion but had used the occasion to demand the dismissal of the “two reactionary ministers in the Nehru cabinet,Morarji Desai and S.K. Patil”. Communist leader Hiren Mukherjee had made his plea with customary oratorical skill. Patil,as good a parliamentarian as the best of them,hit back in kind. He read out an editorial in the Soviet newspaper Pravda to underscore that Hiren Babu was “only his master’s voice”.

Secondly,the Communists were not the only ones to disassociate themselves from the no-confidence motion. Among many others on the opposition benches was Frank Anthony,nominated to represent the Anglo-Indian community,who also led a small group of independent parliamentarians. He was unsparing in telling the Congress party what was wrong with it. On China and Menon,no one was more trenchant than him.

Yet he argued that whatever the weaknesses of the Congress,it alone had given the country “democratic continuity and political coherence”. Moreover,to Nehru had been given “absolute power,and to that extent his responsibility was also absolute”. Anthony concluded on a note of prayer that God give Nehru “the strength,the determination and aye, the ruthlessness to sweep clean because that’s the only way of democratic survival”.

This obviously was more heartening to the Congress and its leader than the easily anticipatable rejection of the no-confidence motion by 346 votes to 61.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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