Opposition Parties: 1947 – 1964

Socialist Party

This party was one of the most promising one and would have emerged as a suitable alternative to congress. Socialists were a part of the congress but in 1948 as Sardar Patel suggested having organizational cohesion by enforcing “One party membership” rule led to their deserting. Although majority of the socialists remained in the Congress but a few dynamic leaders chose to leave viz. Jayprakash Narayan, Ram Manohar Lohia. Even founder of congress socialist party Acharya Narayan Dev was against the split but chose to follow the Socialists.

The Socialist accused congress of dissociating from the Socialist policies and appeasing capitalists. Although socialists and communists left the Congress but Nehru had always been inclined towards socialism and wanted congress to become a “Left of the Center” party. He gradually tried to make this happen as any sudden movement would led to a split in ranks.

Congress never lost its ideological policy of socialism and continued to strive for an egalitarian society. However the socialists tried to raise slogans against the congress and rile public opinion against it. This didn’t succeed and the socialists had to face loss at National and provincial elections. The popularity of the congress was still high. Socialists also saw a split in ranks and indiscipline within the party.

When Nehru extended the olive branch by suggesting Kriplani as Congress President things would have thawed but Kriplani was defeated. He moved out and formed an independent party of socialists. Congress under Nehru continued with its program of nation building and economic development. It was here than a section of socialists led by Ashok Mehta said that economic development was key to establishing a welfare state on socialist lines and that Socialists should support the congress or risk marginalization.

This didn’t find favor amongst the majority of party leaders and Ashok Mehta’s thesis was rejected. He subsequently joined the planning commission as a member. This led to a large part of the Socialists joining the congress. The problem with Socialist party was also of maintaining party discipline and so major leaders were often expelled. A few great leaders also retired from politics or died. This created a vacuum at the top.

The Congress had also now embarked on a socialist agenda. Thus the socialists couldn’t differentiate themselves from the Congress. The decision of leaving the congress turned out to a wrong one and the socialists had underestimated the Congress’s opinion amongst the masses. Within the congress they had clout and support of Nehru and could convince him to support their demands. But outside they seemed like a splinter group competing with a popular party with a dynamic leader.  

Communist Party

Communists were a part of the Congress but later developments led to a split. One of the reasons was that Support should be given by India to British in WWII as the Soviet Union was attacked. Congress however disagreed and so Communists didn’t support the Quit India. They also attacked the ideology of the Congress calling it a bourgeois party. It refused to accept Indian independence and called the Constituent assembly an imperial tool and the constitution a sham. It went on an armed struggle against the congress as it wanted to remove congress claiming it as a party of the capitalists. This view was also supported by Soviet Union.

Subsequent to violent acts of CPI it was banned and also lost its popular base. It also suffered from problems like cadre indiscipline and lack of great leaders. CPI soon decided to change its tactics and contest elections to defeat the congress using constitutional means. Supported by Nehru who lifted the ban on it, CPI emerged as a major force in the opposition. It had gained support in West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and succeeded in forming a government in Kerela [first democratically elected communist government in the world].

However this victory was short-lived. Like the Socialists the CPI faced a split and a radical CPI (Marxists) emerged that targeted congress. Cadre indiscipline and defections also affected the party. It gave alarmist propaganda of the decline economic conditions, class conditions deteriorating and people getting disillusioned by the congress repeatedly at every public platform. But this was without any in-depth analysis. More importantly the party couldn’t present a national agenda of its own or economic planning for the nation. Most of its ideology was targeted at the congress and like the socialists it too underestimated the congresses popularity with the masses. CPI also failed to realize that social channels could be brought only by parliamentary institutions.

All this led to Communists becoming irrelevant soon at the national stage and the rise of communal and casteist parties.

Bhartiya Jan Sangh

It was a communal party with a communal ideology. The social and economic policies of a communal party change as it has to appease electorates in order to strengthen communalism. It isn’t a conservative party but a right wing party that seeks to strengthen communalism by exploiting the reactionary elements of the society. BJS had a few constraints of operation. It couldn’t work as a full fledged communal ideology party as it had to appeal even to non-communal voters and also India had a secular democratic polity that disallowed politics on religious lines.

RSS was the parent organization of BJS. It was created along military lines with dedicated cadres. The RSS was an Anti Muslim organization that preached against any favors to Muslims. Gowalkar was the supreme head of RSS and wanted Muslims in India to accept Hindu domination or cease being Muslims. RSS also preached hatred against Congress and its leaders and Gandhiji too. It was against the favor given to Pakistan by Gandhiji. Though not directly involved in RSS, Nathuram Godse got indoctrinated and assassinated Gandhiji.

RSS was banned by Sardar Patel and was legalised only after assuring that it would remain apolitical. But BJS was started as a front for taking part in active politics. Though it had many policy objectives that sought to establish an egalitarian society the main motto of BJS was to have Hindu Rashtra. It continuously attacked Muslims as proxies of Pakistan. Hindutva was an openly communal term used by them. RSS control over party cadres increased too.

Other Hindu communalists like Hindu Mahasabha declined and their base was shifted to BJS. Due to weaker political alternatives the communal parties rose to the scene. However for a long time they were marginalised. They weren’t effective opposition to the Congress too.

Change of Leadership: India after Nehru

Nehru died without naming a successor in 1964. It was believed by many that the death would lead to political turmoil in the faction ridden congress. This also meant that a succesor had to be chosen at the earliest. He had to be a man of principles and honest and more importantly acceptable to the Congress leadership. The process of election was carried out in a dignified manner. There were two candidates, Morarji Desai [Right wing leader, honest but known for being confrontational] and Lal Bahadur Shastri [Honest and tactful]. The congress party was under the influence of Syndicate consisting of State party bosses and Central. They chose Shastri as the leader.

Shastri’s rule was initially that of hesitation where important decisions were delayed and trouble increased. The cabinet also started functioning independently and party concentrated on political work. Shastri too couldn’t control his cabinet colleagues effectively. The later stage of his rule was firm and he started managing affairs in tougher way. The highlight of his career was the Indo Pak war of 1965.

In this the military which was reeling under the humiliation of China war gained its pride back. The war started with a small section of Pakistan army arching into the Rann of Kutchh. The Indian military response was weak and this increased Pakistan courage. Later they sent infiltrators into Kashmir to foment violence. This led Shastri to declare the army to attack and capture posts beyond the ceasefire line. Pakistani army to launched an all out war. US and UK cutoff military and civilian aid to both nations. China declared India to be the aggressor but due to Soviet pressure refrained from taking any action. Finally a ceasefire was declared.

USSR sponsored peace talk was held at Tashkent and both sides agreed to surrender captured territories. Due to poor heart condition, Shastri died there. And this led another conflict for succession. Syndicate and Kamaraj still were against Morarji Desai’s candidature and so wanted a second nominee. Here Indira Gandhi’s name was suggested. She was an acceptable candidate to both sides and being Nehru’s daughter was popular with the masses. Morarji Desai wasn’t ready to leave without a contest. In the secret ballot Indira won and became the next leader of the Congress.

Indira Gandhi Enter’s the Stage

Indira Gandhi’s tenure saw a lot of political action. She turned out to be a firm decision maker and the hopes of the syndicate that wanted to manage the affairs of the government were thwarted. However even during her tenure a lot of drama was seen. The conflict of Punjab state, rebellion of Naga militants were some but were dealt with effectively. However the other problem was her handling of the US foreign relations.

India was suffering from acute famine and food scarcity. This would lead to hunger and unrest but such problems like food provisioning and distribution were handled on a war footing. The number of deaths were lesser than those during colonial times. India had to borrow food from the US and in return US expected India to approve the Vietnam war. But India’s reluctance led to US providing delayed supply to it. This led Indira to change appeasement of US and move closer to USSR. It signed a joined declaration naming US as the chief aggressor in Vietnam. Indo US relations went spiraling downwards and hit bottom during the 1971 war.

The policy of devaluation of the Rupee to increase exports and reduce inflation and boost economy was taken. This was rejected by the Congress party itself. The opposition united against the Government. The decision couldn’t improve the situation and popular discontent increased against Indira. A new form of agitation of bandh’s started and cities and towns closed.

Indira Gandhi also had to face strong reactions in her own party. She was subjected to personal attacks, male chauvinism, heckling, harassment and vicious personal attacks. The Congress too had eroded public confidence. The cadre were more interested in personal gains and political positions. Corruption, lavish lifestyle was common. Even at entry level factions were formed. This had to be handled firmly but Indira Gandhi wasn’t a team leader nor did she have the ideology to handle the situation effectively. She wasn’t effective in controlling the syndicate. The syndicate members were highly partisan and gave party tickets to their favorites. The cadre’s that had lost the race for tickets contested as independents. this weakened the congress even though the opposition had strengthened behind it. The opposition parties formed an electoral strategy of avoiding division of votes of anti congress.

1967 Elections

In the 1967 elections the congress suffered a setback. Though it had narrowly managed to retain hold over Center but the States assemblies now had newer parties. The opposition to had gained strength and consisted of communal, right-wing parties. One other reason for congress’s loss of popularity was defection of rich peasants. The rural agrarian structure had changed and the rich peasants now dominated the scene. They were threatened by the leftist rhetoric of Congress. The rich peasant also took a sizeable section of the middle and small peasants with him.

1967 elections also started a trend of coalitions to form government. The opposition parties united to form the government which now had elements from right-wing and leftists. In some states where the congress was the major party it formed alliances. But such alliances often broke down as allies hankered with each other for more privileges. The defections too increased. Governments were formed and toppled at the states but the center remained united. Also there was no breakdown of legal machinery at center – state level.

Anti congress-ism rose amongst intellectuals and parties at this time. It meant a complete weariness of the congress and hankering towards other choices. All this led to erosion of congress’s popularity and now it had to redefine itself as it could no longer rule on the basis of Freedom struggle or Nehru’s popularity. All this didn’t decrease Indira’s position in the party but strengthened it contrarily. The syndicate or its cronies were not successful at the elections and lost clout at the center and states. Indira now got full autonomy to decide her government’s policy and cabinet. Morarji Desai who had opposed her initially now was willing to negotiate if given the Deputy Prime Minister’s job. In the interest of party unity this was given to him.