INDIA’S Congress Party is greatly in need of new and dynamic leadership both in New Delhi and in the various states. A few months ago Prime Minister Nehru said “provincialism, casteism, and communalism” (religious rivalry) had developed within the party “to a scandalous and shameful degree. More than two years ago he admitted that the average Indian believes most Congress men are corrupt. Congress leaders themselves are responsible for this impression.
The party’s executive committee recently censured five top leaders of Rajasthan for “setting a bad example,” by issuing a joint statement accusing their chief minister, M. L. Sukhadia (roughly equivalent to an American governor), of “favoritism, nepotism, and corruption.” But others had set. the example earlier. Last year dissidents within the Congress in Punjab drew up a 3000-word “charge sheet” accusing their chief minister, Sardar Pratap Singh Kairon, of the same things.
There are dissident cliques in every state. Some represent economic groups like big landlords. Others represent caste groups, and others regional groups. Sometimes an entire group breaks off. In Andhra recently twenty-seven Congress members of the state legislature resigned and are now trying to form their own party. A similar group broke away in Madras state two years ago and fought tinlast elections as the Congress Reform Party. But experience has shown that splinter groups are ineffective. The cliques generally remain within the party, since this is the source of power and profit.
The 1957 Communist victory in Kerala was due primarily to feuding and mudslinging which destroyed the people’s faith in the Congress Party. Even now, while the Communists are busy strangling what is left of democracy in Kerala, tinstate Congress is rent with feuds. Two rival groups are trying to get control of the party office in the city of Kottayam, while other rival groups are lighting to control the Congress-led Indian National Trade Union Congress office in the Munnar district of Kerala.
Nehru used to spend a lot of time flying off to one or another of the state capitals to gather the feuding politicians behind closed doors and force them to patch up their troubles, at least temporarily. But it is growing obvious that Nehru’s authority is waning. The party bosses in the states pay lip service to his calls for unity but openly continue their bickering, and the Prime Minister seldom even attempts to restore peace. Yet at the same time he holds most of the reins of power in his own hands, so that no one else is able to do what he is unwilling or unable to do.
Now even Nehru’s personal reputation is being called into question. M. O. Mathai, the Prime Minister’s special assistant, resigned following Communist charges that he had unexplained sources of income. The Communists want to know where Mathai got the money to buy a farm worth $25,000 and why leading industrialists contributed to a $225,000 trust fund in memory of Mathai’s mother.
The Prime Minister has defended the integrity of his former special assistant and has flatly denied the implication that Mathai got money to influence his decisions. “I do not think it proper for anyone to imagine that Mr. Mathai influenced me in anything or in any policy,” Nehru said.
Proper or not, the Communists have reiterated their charges. They demand a full, public inquiry, but Nehru has agreed only to a secret investigation by a single government official. This has given the Communists the chance to pose as the defenders of democracy. They have repeated their demands for an open investigation and say they will not lay whatever information they have before the secret group. “Mathais may come and go,” declared Bhupesh Gupta, the Communist leader in the upper house of Parliament, “but our parliamentary system and our democratic standards shall remain and we have to protect them.”
No one believes that Nehru himself is involved in corruption, but the Mathai case does disclose several chinks in his armor. He is a poor judge of men. He is also impatient of implied criticism and either tries to ignore it or loses his temper and says harsh things to those around him. As a result there are few independent men around him, and there are fewer every year as the old stalwarts of the independence struggle — the men who knew Nehru as a youth and who make allowances for his moods — die off. They are replaced by others, who are at best yes men and at worst sycophants or “characters like Mathai”
Nehru is still the Congress Party’s greatest asset. He is literally worshiped by the vast, illiterate masses, who — by and large —will continue to vote for the party which is able to display Nehru’s picture on its election posters. But the question is, what will the Congress Party do for election material after he is gone? When Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi (no relation to the Mahatma) was elected Congress president, she spoke of bringing younger elements to the fore and of instilling a new sense of discipline. A. S. Raju, a Congress general secretary, said her election would check a “drift toward the rightist trend of thought.”
Her moves so far have been disappointing. The Old Guard members of the executive committee handed in their formal resignations so that she could appoint whomever she wished. She promptly reappointed almost all of the old bosses, explaining, “I cannot deprive myself of the sound and wise counsels of our national leaders in my attempt to make room for young blood.” Nehru was dropped as a regular member of the executive committee but added as a “permanent special invitee.”
How much socialism?
Nehru, contradictory person that he is, criticizes the Congress tor its “provincialism, castcism, and communalism,” but he also idealizes it. He once referred to the Congress as the “steel frame” of India, declaring that it was the only group which could hold the disparate elements of India together and at the same time provide democratic and socialist leadership.
This is partially true. The Congress is the only political group, except the Communists, which has an effective national organization. The Praja Socialist Party, on the left, is confined to a few pockets of strength and has to compete with two rival socialist parties besides the Communists. There is a flock of small rightwing parties, some of which are parties of former maharajas and feudal landlords.
However, there are doubts whether the Congress really represents socialism. The term is misleading. Congress socialism is generally devoid oi any ideological content; it means brotherhood, humanity, and a better deal for the underdog. The trouble with the Congress Party is that its representatives sometimes belie its socialist slogans.
The Congress health minister of Madhya Pradesh is Rani Padmavati Devi, a former ruling princess for a tribal area. Recently she was at the Nagpur railway station. Nehru had ordered all Congress officeholders to tour the countryside to explain the party’s latest plan to organize the entire rural economy into cooperatives by 1962. When the Rani was seen at the railway station returning from her tour, she had a maid to carry her pet Pekingese and four liveried servants to carry her twenty pieces of luggage.
The poor become poorer
Out of a population of 400 million, 70 per cent are engaged in agriculture and allied pursuits. Of these, 30.4 per cent are without land or have so little land they are classified as agricultural laborers. They own one percent of the land under cultivation and have a per capita income of $23 a year. Former Congress Party President U. N. Dhebar admits that these agricultural laborers are “groaning under subhuman conditions.”
Yet the Congress Party, despite eleven years of majorities in most of the states of India, has not been able to bring about effective land reform. One has only to look at how some of these majorities were obtained to understand why.
The Congress barely got a majority in Orissa in 1957 but promptly strengthened itself by absorbing three men who had been elected on the feudalist Ganatanra Parishad ticket and by forming an alliance with the five members elected on the equally feudalist Jharkand ticket. These new Congress members and Congress allies have effectively sabotaged land reform measures, and the old Congress Party members, who are interested in power more than principles, refuse to get rid of them.
Western visitors to India are always impressed by the many new factories and development works, but Indians themselves are more conscious of the fact that one third of the entire work force is either unemployed or underemployed. Mr. Dhebar has admitted that “the circle of the rich becoming richer and the poor becoming poorer remains unbroken.” This is the sort of atmosphere that can destroy a political party or can even breed a revolution.
The Communists already have Kerala, and they brag that they will win Andhra and West Bengal in 1962. However, it would be rash to predict that the red flag will soon be flying over the entire country. The Communists have their own internal troubles. They are mainly concentrated in the cities, and their membership is largely middle class. They arc susceptible to such things as the backwash of the Imre Nagy execution and the Pasternak affair. Both these incidents led to the resignation of several local Communist leaders.
Bhave, India’s new Gandhi?
Moreover, a new wind is stirring the countryside. Vinoba Bhave’s B hood an (land gift) movement is gaining strength. It has collected more than four million acres, of which one million have been distributed and another million will be parceled out within a year. The rest is uncultivable. Bhave has also collected about 4500 villages as Cramdan a plan whereby an entire village contributes all of its land to a common pool and farms it collectively. The Bhoodan movement aims at more than just land reform. Bhave wants a voluntary cooperative commonwealth built on a base of self-sufficient, self-administered villages.
To an American, Bhave’s idea may seem too utopian to be practical. But India has its own traditions and ways of doing things, and Bhave is a product of these traditions. Thirty years ago much of what Gandhi said about how to oust the British also seemed wildly impractical. Bhave has been able to convince several highly respected Indian leaders, including former Praja Socialist Jaya Prakash Narayan, of the validity of his approach.
Narayan was once believed to he Nehru’s logical successor, but he renounced politics five years ago to join the Bhoodan movement. He is convinced that parliamentary democracy does not meet the needs of India’s conditions. He thinks bossism, corruption, and feuds are almost automatic under the present system because it is too easy for a small, educated elite to take advantage of a vast, illiterate, and poverty-stricken peasantry.
Instead, he favors a series of indirect elections so that the peasants vote in small blocs for issues they can understand and for candidates they know personally. The persons elected from the bottom rung in turn vote for people to the next higher rung and so on up the line.
He also says the peasants must be given economic independence, and since there is not enough land for all, what there is should be worked cooperatively and the surplus labor used to produce most of a village’s nerds in clothing and small utensils and implements. Neither Bhave nor Narayan opposes large industries. They say that given the rapid population increase — now about 6 million a year — industries will never reduce the pressure on the land, so that capital-intensive heavy industries and labor-intensive cottage industries must develop side by side.
The Bhoodan ideas find ready acceptance among the Indian peasants. Bhave walks constantly, never stopping more than one night in any place. His march along narrow, dusty, back-country roads has taken on the proportions of a triumphal procession. The villagers come from miles around to greet him as he passes and then gather at his halting place to listen attentively to what he has to say.
Antidote to Communism
Basically, Bhave is helping to spread democracy. He tells the peasants to rearrange their lives and lands without waiting for the government to act. He insists that no coercion be used. Although he does not preach anti-Communism, he is actually a strong antidote to Communism. If the Indian peasants can learn to handle their own village and district affairs and not succumb to violence, they will automatically learn how to exercise better control of their political representatives at the state level, and eventually at the national level.
Despite the present confusion and growing sense of frustration due to the shortcomings of Congress Party rule, there are signs that democracy in India is already growing more vigorous, Last year public opinion forced the resignation of T. T. Krishnamachari, who was considered an all-powerful finance minister.
The way Indian newspapers have publicized the Mathai affair shows that even Prime Minister Nehru is no longer immune to criticism, although it is a pity that the Communists have managed to lead the attack. Even the feuding within the Congress Party is partially due to a democratic revolt against strong-man rule.
Ironically, although Bhave criticizes the Congress Party for its obvious failings, there are usually a number of white Gandhi caps, signifying Congress workers, in his audience. Bhoodan is inspiring Congress district workers to become more active among the people. the old Gandhian idealism, which swept away the British, may again nourish the roots of the National Congress Party.