In 1857, when the Great Rebellion unleashed fire and fury against British rule in India, the subcontinent’s princes for the most part elected to stay loyal to the East India Company. From the Scindias of Gwalior and the maharaja of Jaipur in the north, down to the nizam of Hyderabad and the ruler of Kochi in the peninsula, public declarations of support were followed up with generous offers of material assistance. The princely states became, as a relieved viceroy put it, “breakwaters in the storm which would have swept (the British away) in one great wave"—for while the colonial state was smashing rebellion, the princes kept the peace in vast swathes of the country. Their states became pillars of the Raj hereafter, cementing the edifice of empire and helping establish for the British crown a moral authority in India.
But by the dawn of the 20th century, when peace was the new normal and military stability achieved, a new constituency emerged in the subcontinent: the English-educated Indian. While in the early stages their nationalism did not directly challenge the legitimacy of the Raj, over time the colonial establishment conceded that some stake would need to be fashioned for them too in the system if alien rule in India were to be sustained. As the British wooed influential, moderate Indians, small slices of power were devolved over time, even if their substance left much to be desired. But then, unexpectedly, armchair politics was overshadowed by Mahatma Gandhi’s formidable mass mobilization. Instead of being seduced by the colonial carrot, this new crop of nationalists was willing to risk an encounter with the stick.
But India’s imperial masters had other tricks too. Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience Movement, launched in 1930, culminated in the Round Table Conferences in London, and ultimately led to the Government of India Act of 1935. Under its provisions, India was to be governed by a new constitution, inviting nationalists to join the administration. So, for instance, in the provinces, elected governments were proposed, headed by Indian ministers. It was an effort to attract the Congress into constitutional offices, and hopefully blunt, with enticements of power and position, its agitational propensities. Of course, British governors would enjoy overriding powers to thwart any inconvenient legislation, but the promise of 1935 was certainly one to reckon with—a rather ripe carrot once again on the national table.
Naturally, within the vast, often conflicted (sometimes even confused) Congress machine, the idea was received with a mix of paranoia and eagerness. As the governor of Madras reported, “The bulk of the Congress down here are panting to take office," but senior leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru were against it: In 1936, the latter got through a resolution announcing how the whole project was “designed to facilitate and perpetuate the domination and exploitation of the people of India", albeit in a less obvious manner. While in the end, with Gandhi’s blessings, it was decided to participate in the elections after all, the question of whether the Congress should form governments if it won was deferred. As G.D. Birla, the celebrated industrialist who had the Mahatma’s ear, wrote, “Jawaharlalji’s speech in a way was thrown into the waste paper basket."
By 1937, the Congress formally agreed to form provincial governments, and winning eight out of 11 of these, went ahead and did precisely that: In Gandhi’s secretary’s words, by not obstructing the move, “Jawahar and his friends of course behaved splendidly". Being in power brought both advantages and problems, many of which still afflict our political system. On the one hand, it gave Congressmen active experience of running governments, a skill that would prove useful after 1947, when a seamless transition was made possible from British to Indian hands. But on the other, it also gave expression to some less-than-inspiring impulses : A taste of power, after all, could also translate into an appetite for corruption.
Even more interestingly, the Congress now found itself locked between the rock of its own heady aspirations and the hard place of practicalities. Until it landed in office, it represented a pan-Indian movement—a romantic idea that could shake mountains. Now, however, they had to confront such sobering concepts as the economy and budgets. In its election manifesto, the Congress had made grand promises of a pro-labour nature, even while the high command of the party nurtured remunerative bonds with powerful capitalists. Now both groups expected dividends, and it was left for the new Indian governments to strike a balance.
Balance was certainly attempted, but if it could not be found, the British happily offered laws to negotiate such situations. In September 1938, for example, the Congress government in Bombay passed an Industrial Disputes Act, largely in favour of businessmen. Labour protests broke out against this “black act" (an expression hitherto used by the Congress against British policies), and the authorities mobilized the police, killing two and injuring dozens. In the United Provinces, on the other hand, the Congress ministry was seen as too conciliatory towards labour, so leading businessmen decided to browbeat the party by donating to its rivals, including the Hindu Mahasabha, and, somewhat surprisingly—given that most of these donors were Hindus—to the Muslim League.
Either way, with their new experience in running government machinery, Congress politicians grasped fresh nuances in the art of politics. V.V. Giri, once a trade union leader, for instance, served as labour minister in Madras. And being in power sparked revealing changes. “I have always believed," the once uncompromising ex-firebrand now sagely declared, “in the spirit of negotiations between employers and workers". For, as politicians even today realize, grand declarations on the street were one thing; being in power another. In the end, though, all this faded into the background—by the winter of 1939, Congress governments across the country would resign from power. The British had dragged India into World War II without even pretending to consult its leaders. And so, the Congress withdrew—the courtship was over, and, in the storm that lay ahead, its leaders refused to serve as breakwaters.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).
He tweets at @UnamPillai