A Lesson in Leadership for the Congress, and India, from 1947

Acharya Kripalani shows that the Congress’s presidentship has given the nation a tradition of individuality and dissent, not prescriptiveness and consent.

J.B. Kripalani. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

J.B. Kripalani. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Who was president of the Indian National Congress on Independence Day, 1947?

Not many in the grand old party today will know the answer; not many outside of the party would be particularly interested.

But the question – and the answer – are of some importance to the party and the country today, as perhaps never before.

As Sindh (along with the North West Frontier Province, West Punjab, Balochistan and East Bengal) was disappearing from the map of India on the midnight of August 14/15, 1947, the Congress was led by the Sindh-born leader, Jivatram Bhagvandas Kripalani.

Better known as Acharya Kripalani, the historian, scholar, teacher, author and Gandhi’s earliest associate, he became Congress president in 1946. He succeeded Maulana Azad, with whom he shared the same birthday, November 11, 1888. Azad was Congress president – ‘rashtrapati’, as the holder of the position was then popularly called –  till 1945, when he emerged from an almost three-year-long jail term in the Ahmadnagar Fort prison along with Nehru, Patel, Narendra Deva and Kripalani.

Zuleikha, Azad’s wife of over four decades, had died while her husband was in jail. A man of great forbearance and grit but also one of great inwardness and willed isolation, Azad needed and deserved respite.

Kripalani, who had been general secretary of the party from 1934 to 1945 –  a record of sorts – deserved the recognition implicit in the elevation to Congress presidency. The general secretary was important to the party’s organisational structure and its inner functioning, but it was the party president who, until the country’s independence, was its foremost political figure. He was the shadow prime minister and, in a sense, projected in opposition to the viceroy, the president of the Muslim League and the president of the Hindu Mahasabha. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Congress president was also the counter-weight to prominent Indians such as B.R. Ambedkar representing Dalit India, Master Tara Singh symbolising Sikh aspirations, Sheikh Abdullah personifying the Kashmir Valley and, in ‘far off’ Madras, Congress’s squandered asset, the future ‘Periyar’, E.V. Ramasamy.

No less pertinently, the Congress president was also a foil to the aura of three dominoes in the political imagination of India –  Bhagat Singh, Subhas Chandra Bose and Aurobindo Ghose. Of these, the first had stepped into legend as a martyr, the second as a dream hero, the third as a supreme renunciate. All three loomed larger than life as people to whom the ‘crown’ of leading India belonged, only to be snatched away by capricious destiny.

The Congress president, depending on who he or she was, swayed in the balance of relative strength against these titanic figures, individually and collectively. Gandhi and Nehru, whether they were Congress presidents or not, had their own unique status which, in the case of the younger leader, was re-inforced whenever he happened to be Congress president in addition to being (in Gandhi’s memorable phrase) ‘Hind ka Jawahar’.

Was Kripalani, as Congress president on the supremely historic day when India was becoming free, going to be and do all that?

Sceptics would have said ‘no’, and did. But Kripalani was a sceptic of sceptics himself, and sceptical about many of his own comrades he had analysed over the years as general secretary and fellow jail-mate. He had no illusions about himself. He knew he was no Nehru to overpower, no Patel to overawe, no Azad to overwhelm, no Rajagopalachari to overturn in the cut and thrust of debate.

And yet Kripalani knew that if he was chosen to lead the Congress in that crucial and crowning year, over many another stalwart more than ‘willing and able’ to don the laurel, he was not going to hold that office perfunctorily. And he did not.

Why, how and with what results ?

Meeting Gandhi

A look again at the man. Among the Congress’s front-rankers, not Nehru or Patel, not Rajagopalachari or Azad or Rajendra Prasad but Kripalani was the first to have met Gandhi. He was, chronologically, the first Gandhi recruit to the Congress’s Team A. In 1915, freshly-arrived from South Africa and making his first call on Tagore in Santiniketan, Gandhi met the Sindh-born professor of history. The Acharya was then a professor of history in a college in Muzaffarpur, Bihar. He later wrote:

I was introduced. I greeted him in the old traditional Indian style with folded hands. He returned the courtesy with a broad welcoming smile. He invited me to sit by him and straightaway entered into conversation. The talk on both sides was personal. There was no mention of politics at this first meeting. But from his occasional gaze at me, I thought he was trying to know me and measure me. I too on my side was doing the same. Today it may appear presumptuous for a young man to talk in terms of taking the measure of Gandhiji. But it must be remembered that in those days Gandhiji was not the Mahatma that he became afterwards.

That is vintage Kripalani, not afraid of taking the measure of men and affairs in his own scale, in his own lights, undeflected by the illumination of his object’s status. Having taken that initial recording of Gandhi, Kripalani went on with his own life until a few months on, when Gandhi set up his new Satyagraha Ashram at Ahmedabad. Kripalani saw the prospectus. He was attracted to it and, at the same time, bewildered. Gandhi had specified in it that if a man used superfluous buttons on his shirt or coat, he would be “stealing”. Kripalani wrote: “I thought if a person was so hopelessly unrealistic, it was no use making any suggestions to him. He might establish his Ashram in the Himalayas rather than in Ahmedabad, the city of mill owners. Thus I dismissed Gandhiji from my thoughts.”

But the Acharya and the Mahatma were not to be kept apart. The Champaran satyagraha saw Gandhi enlisting Kripalani and Kripalani, not before an argument on violence and non-violence, getting enlisted. There is no instance in history, Kripalani told Gandhi, in which a subject people had achieved freedom without the use of some violent force. Gandhi, unimpressed with this argument, gave Kripalani his thesis that India was the most non-violent country in the world. Kripalani countered this by saying that Indian history was a series of wars, big and small. He wondered how India could be regarded as more non-violent than other countries. Their viewpoints differed, although there was no gainsaying that Kripalani had already become Gandhi’s trusted colleague.

Kripalani had intellect, but nothing of what by superficial lenses is seen as charm. He had guts but not of the kind that impresses the naïve by its swagger. His political acumen, his understanding of the nuances of Indian politics, his ability to size up people and expose their cant and their cunning were quite matchless. But if his very skill in detecting humbug and calling it by that title in at least a dozen different ways earned him respect, it cost him popularity. He could speak to the Mahatma with the same directness with which he spoke to any colleague. He could and did tell him to his face that he, Gandhi, was ill-served by the meek obedience of his followers. And that, for instance, his “open-to-the-skies experiments in brahmacharya” were the work of his ego, not his chastity. He was willing – keen, in fact – to be Gandhi’s soldier, but disciple? No, thank you.

Kripalani (L) with Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Manibehn Patel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Kripalani (L) with Sardar Vallabhai Patel and Manibehn Patel. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Climbing the ranks

The year 1934 was momentous for Kripalani. Engaged in earthquake relief operations in Bihar, he met Sucheta Mozumdar whom he was to marry in 1936. And then, in the same year, his politics saw an upswing. Gandhi reasserted that year that he stood for India’s complete independence. Prasad, with his great leadership in battling earthquake collapse bolstering him, became Congress president and, at its Bombay session that year, chose the Acharya to be general secretary. He was to hold that post continuously for 12 years. Kripalani was general secretary under a galaxy of Congress presidents: Prasad, Bose, Nehru and Azad. His turn, on the eve of the transfer of power, to become Congress president himself was ‘natural’.

But was it resented.

Mountbatten, misty-eyed about Gandhi and starry-eyed about Nehru,  would not see in Kripalani the man of the moment. Jinnah would not have seen him as his equivalent under any circumstances and not going to ‘speak on equal terms’ with a Sindhi Hindu. But it was his own party that was  going to deny him the unqualified respect that is due to a Congress president. Gandhi valued Kripalani’s free spirit, as did Nehru did.

But the working committee, the high command? No.

If it was Kripalani’s privilege to head the great organisation when India won its freedom, it was not one that was to last for much longer thereafter. New equations were being forged after August 15, 1947, new balances were attaining equilibrium. Kripalani felt that the office of Congress president ought to continue to exercise the earlier weight. Would the prime minister ‘report’ to the party president on all matters of policy, at least on those on which the party had its clear positions, mandate and promises? No, he would not, not because Nehru was an autocrat but because in the political imagination of India, the de facto power of the Congress president had dissolved into the de jure office of the prime minister. And the nation now had a ‘proper’ rashtrapati. The party president could no longer be thought of as, much less called, ‘rashtrapati’. The office of the Congress president, in the years between 1947 and 1950, had been eclipsed by the new celestial being called the Indian republic. Kripalani tendered his resignation.

Characteristically, Nehru backed Kripalani in a contest for party presidentship against the conservative Purushottandas Tandon and offered Kripalani a place in the Union cabinet as well as a governorship. But Kripalani said ‘no, thank you’, to both. ‘No, thank you’ was Kripalani’s favourite political  expression.

Like the province –  Sind – from which he came, Kripalani had no place on India’s political map to call his own, no address, no home except the dry homestead of his own individuality and the lone aquifer of his wife Sucheta’s companionship.

Founding the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party and briefly leading the Praja Socialist Party, it was as an independent MP that Kriplanai really came into his own. Introducing the first no-confidence motion ever in the Lok Sabha against Nehru’s government, he created parliamentary history which Nehru augmented by treating it with honest, not cosmetic, respect. Touring, writing, speaking with devastating sarcasm, Kripalani personified democratic dissent. Kripalani was given a front seat by the speaker in parliament even though, technically, this privilege did not automatically belong to an independent MP.

On his part, Nehru, democrat of democrats that he was, initially left Kripalani’s constituency uncontested by the Congress. But Kripalani was a fighter. He demanded a fight and got it – sometimes losing as in North Bombay in 1962 to the brilliant Krishna Menon and sometimes winning as in the Amroha by-election the very next year. His speeches were scintillating. “We have become a nation, of live corpses,” he once said, “without a purpose or dynamism since independence.”

Live corpses. The phrase rings true today.

Kripalani’s message

What, this August 15, 2016, does Acharya Kripalani say to us?

That the Congress is meant to be a climate that makes its seasons, not a season of rains one day, sun the next. That it is bigger than its office bearers, certainly bigger than the self-images of those office bearers. That the institution of Congress president is meant to be assisted by strength, not sycophancy and visionary foresight, not smart hindsight.

“You can burn the string”, Dadabhai Naorji famously said of his family name ‘Dordi’ meaning string in Gujarati, “but you cannot take the twist out of it”. The Congress pre-independence and the Congress post-independence have to be and are different in the patterns of its warp and weft. But not in the dordi’s basic ‘twist’. And that ‘twist’ is about intellectual vitality, free expression, the courage to support and the guts to dissent.

Kripalani, as a former Congress president who headed the organisation when the country became free, represents the Congress dordi’s tradition of fearless thinking, fearless vis-a-vis the party’s perceived power centres and fearless of the country’s power centres. He shows that the Congress’s presidentship has bequeathed to the nation the tradition of individuality and of discerning dissent, not of prescriptiveness and conforming consent.

In times when dissent is seen as seditious, free speech as bordering on treason and when we have the testimony of a Rohith Vemula who said he felt he had been reduced to a digit and a number and when we see a Kanhaiya Kumar and a Jignesh Mevani use humour and  sarcasm to searing effect, we know that Kripalani may be all-but-forgotten today but his spirit is alive – as alive as the next withering jibe from the mass of our people aimed at the class that, unsmiling and sour, lives off it.