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A Political Party at the Crossroads

Sucheta Mahajan

By Visalakshi Menon
Sage Series in Modern Indian History, New Delhi, 2003, pp. 363, Rs. 395.00


Visalakshi Menon has given us a fascinating story of a political party at the crossroads. Having spearheaded an anti-imperialist movement and had its cadres languish in colonial jails, it debates whether to assume office and eventually forms governments in eight provinces of British India. Some significant questions arise. What impact will this new role have on the old one? Will the party give up mobilizing for movements and concentrate on administration? The British Government was sure the Congress would “study moderation” and forsake movements in the future. That, after all, had been the premise behind the Government of India Act of 1935 – to divert the energy of the Congress from revolution to constitutionalism and reduce its influence by bringing in the princes as a countervailing force in the Federation. The Congress was equally emphatic that far from becoming a constitutional party it had accepted office with the objective of wrecking the constitution from within!  Who would be proved right?            The period covered in the book is the years 1937 to 1942 and the region is the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, now Uttar Pradesh. The choice of the region itself makes this book important as serious political analyses of this province seem to be in inverse proportion to its political importance! The theme is provincial autonomy under the Government of India Act of 1935 which is generally ignored by historians. The curtain rises with the acceptance of office by the Congress under   Govind Vallabh Pant’s premiership, as chief ministership was then known. Jawaharlal Nehru had played an important role in the election campaign. S. Gopal described this as “the first of his national campaigns, covering the Indian village network by train, plane, car, bicycle, cart and steamer, on horse, elephant and camel, and on foot”.       Provincial autonomy comes across in the literature on late colonial India   as a period of compromises with vested interests. Menon refutes the view put forward by Reginald Coupland [The Constitutional Problem in India, Part II] that the popular provincial ministries wished to cling to office in 1939 whereas the central leadership was in favour of their quitting office and resuming struggle against a Raj which had brazenly declared that India was at war without consulting the Indian people. She shows how they were willing to quit office whenever necessary and even did so over the issue of release of political prisoners. Neither does Menon buy into Damodaran [Broken ...

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