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The Indian Version of First among Equals – Executive Power during the First Decade of Independence

  • H. KUMARASINGHAM (a1)

Abstract

When India gained independence in August 1947 the world watched with excitement as well as trepidation as to what would happen following this unique and major event. The political destiny of the world's largest democracy would lie in the hands of an infinitesimal portion of the population – the political executive. India's new institutions had new operators to act in new conditions. There were few precedents. Within this Westminster system, refounded in India with its emphasis on executive flexibility and ambiguity, the leading political figures often had conflicting opinions and interpretations as to their powers. The relationship between Nehru as Prime Minister and other leading political figures, such as Patel as deputy Prime Minister, Prasad as President, and their definitions of their roles, would forge a new India. This paper revisits those debates and ideas in the first decade following independence, which allow greater understanding of the workings and conventions of today's Indian executive.

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1 Nehru later explained that Rashtrapati is Sanskrit for ‘head of state’, while Chanakya was a famous minister of Chandragupta, who built an empire in north India in the fourth century BC and was ‘the prototype of Machiavelli’. The article was published in The Modern Review of Calcutta in November 1947; ‘Rashtrapati’, October–November 1937; Nehru, Jawaharlal, The Essential Writings of Jawaharlal Nehru, 2 Vols, Gopal, Sarvepalli and Iyengar, Uma (eds), (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003), pp. 644645.

2 Alexandrowicz, C. H., Constitutional Developments in India (Bombay: Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 140.

3 Though other colonies such as Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon were close behind.

4 Brown, Judith, Nehru – A Political Life (London: Yale University Press, 2003), pp. 205206.

5 Cited in Nanda, B. R., ‘Nehru and the British’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 30, No. 2 (May 1996), p. 478.

6 Brown, Judith, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru and the British Empire: The Making of an “Outsider” in Indian Politics’, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1 (April 2006), pp. 6975.

7 Nehru, Jawaharlal, An Autobiography (London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1936), pp. 1921.

8 Churchill, back in office in 1951, later called Nehru ‘The Light of Asia’. See Gilbert, Martin, Winston S. Churchill, Never Despair, 1945–65, Vol. 8, (London: William Heinemann, 1988), p. 1094. For an examination of Churchill's complex relationship with India, see Gopal, Sarvepalli, ‘Churchill and India’, in Churchill – A Major New Assessment of His Life in Peace and War, Blake, R. and Louis, Wm. Roger (eds.), (London: Oxford University Press, 1993), pp. 457472.

9 Nehru, An Autobiography, p. 17.

10 Brown, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru and the British Empire’, pp. 72–75.

11 Morris-Jones, W. H., ‘Shaping the Post-Imperial State: Nehru's Letters to Chief Ministers’, in Imperialism, the State and the Third World, Twaddle, Mark (ed.), (London: British Academic Press, 1992), p. 220.

12 Nehru had become Congress President at Gandhi's insistence, despite many in the Congress Working Committee favouring Sardar Patel, which potentially could have meant Patel could have become the Vice-President and the de facto Prime Minister. See Gangal, S. C., Prime Minister and the Cabinet in India – A Political Study (New Delhi: Navachetna Prakashan, 1972), pp. 1920. For further information on this, see the section on the crucial Nehru–Patel relationship.

13 Gangal, Prime Minister and the Cabinet in India, p. 13.

14 Wavell, Lord, The Viceroy's Journal, Moon, Sir Penderel (ed.), (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 322323.

15 Articles 75 (1) (3), in Basu, Durga Das, Constitutional Law of India, 7th edition (New Delhi: Prentice Hall, 1998), p. 154.

16 Venkateswaran, R. J., Cabinet Government in India (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967), p. 23.

17 Chakrabarty, Bidyut, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru and the Administrative Reconstruction in India: A Mere Imitation of the Past or a Creative Initiative?South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, Vol. 29, No. 1 (April 2006), p. 85.

18 Brown, Nehru, p. 340.

19 Morris-Jones, ‘Shaping the Post-Imperial State’, p. 225.

20 Weiner, Myron, Party Building in A New Nation – The Indian National Congress (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), pp. 3843.

21 Graham, B. D., ‘The Prime Minister and the Hindu Right’, in Nehru to the Nineties – The Changing Office of Prime Minister in India, Manor, James (ed.), (New Delhi: Viking, 1994), pp. 187188.

22 For greater detail on Nehru's battle with Tandon, see ‘The Road to Elections’, in Gopal, Sarvepalli, Jawaharlal Nehru – A Biography, Volume Two: 1947–1956 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1979), pp. 149165.

23 Graham, ‘The Prime Minister and the Hindu Right’, pp. 189–190; Robin Jeffrey, ‘The Prime Minister and the Ruling Party’, in Nehru to the Nineties, pp. 166–167; Brecher, Michael, Nehru – A Political Biography, Abridged edn (London: Oxford University Press, 1961), p. 166; Brown, Nehru, pp. 194–195; see Nehru to Purushottam Das Tandon, 8 August 1950, in C. Rajagopalachari Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (henceforth NMML).

24 Jeffrey, ‘The Prime Minister and the Ruling Party’, p. 166; Brown, Nehru, pp. 198, 286, 331.

25 Venkateswaran, Cabinet Government in India, pp. 109–121.

26 Cited in Venkateswaran, Cabinet Government in India, pp. 76–77.

27 Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru, pp. 304, 312–313.

28 The position of deputy Prime Minister was only revived again 17 years later in 1967 when, like her father, Indira Gandhi was forced to appoint a powerful opponent to the position, namely Moraji Desai.

29 Viceroy's Personal Report No. 17, 16 August 1947, in Constitutional Relations between Britain and India – The Transfer of Power 1942–7, Vol. 12, Nicholas Mansergh, E. W. R. Lumby and Penderel Moon (eds.) (London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office, 1970–1983), p. 771.

30 Brecher, Nehru, p. 151.

31 Venkateswaran, Cabinet Government in India, pp. 55–57. On the formation of the first ministry, see also Gangal, Prime Minister and the Cabinet in India, pp. 46–49.

32 Sisson, Richard, ‘Prime Ministerial Power and the Selection of Ministers in India: Three Decades of Change’, International Political Science Review, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1981), pp. 140141; for an unsympathetic and opinionated appraisal of Nehru's rise to the prime ministership, see Bhave, Y. G., The First Prime Minister of India (New Delhi: Northern Book Centre, 1995), p. 14. Bhave, for example, stated that ‘Nehru's lack of political wisdom and administrative foresight looked so ridiculously incongruous with the important post he was holding. Compared to Patel's towering personality as the “Iron Man of India”, Nehru looked not even a wax pygmy.’

33 Brecher, Nehru, p. 153.

34 Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru, p. 37.

35 Nehru to Patel, 23 December 1947, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, S. Gopal (ed.), Second Series, Vol. 4 (New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund, 1984), pp. 538–539.

36 Patel to Nehru, 24 December 1947, in Patel, Vallabhbhai, Sardar Patel's Correspondence 1945–50, Vol. 6, Das, Durga (ed.) (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1973), pp. 1213.

37 Nehru to Patel, 11 January 1948, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 5, p. 475.

38 Note to Mahatma Gandhi, 6 January 1948, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 5, pp. 471–472.

39 Nehru had sent a personal emissary to Ajmer over the head of Patel and the Chief Commissioner of the district in Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 5, pp. 472–473.

40 Note to Mahatma Gandhi, 6 January 1948, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 5, p. 473.

41 Note to Mahatma Gandhi, 6 January 1948, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 5, pp. 474–475.

42 Patel to Nehru and Patel's Note to Mahatma Gandhi, 12 January 1948, in Sardar Patel's Correspondence 1945–50, Vol. VI, pp. 21–22.

43 Patel to Nehru and Patel's Note to Mahatma Gandhi, 12 January 1948, in Sardar Patel's Correspondence 1945–50, Vol. VI, p. 22.

44 Patel to Nehru and Patel's Note to Mahatma Gandhi, 12 January 1948, in Sardar Patel's Correspondence 1945–50, Vol. VI, p. 24.

45 Nehru to Patel, 11 January 1948, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 5, p. 476.

46 Nehru to Ambedkar, 27 April and 30 April 1948, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 6, pp. 373–374, 377–379.

47 Gangal, Prime Minister and the Cabinet in India, pp. 48–49. Article 75 (1) of the 1950 Constitution: ‘The Prime Minister shall be appointed by the President and other Ministers shall be appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister.’

48 Cited in Venkateswaran, Cabinet Government in India, p. 58.

49 ‘Five Years of Independent India’, circa 1952, Sir Ivor Jennings Papers, India C16, ICS125 (London: Institute of Commonwealth Studies [henceforth ICS]).

50 Viceroy's Personal Report No. 11, 4 July 1947, Constitutional Relations between India and Britain – Transfer of Power 1942–7, Vol. 11, pp. 898–900; Khan, Hamid, Constitutional and Political History of Pakistan (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 86.

51 Ziegler, Philip, Mountbatten – The Official Biography (London: Collins, 1985), pp. 429456.

52 Jinnah thought that Mountbatten should stay as a ‘Super Governor-General’ over both Dominions to administer the distribution of assets. Viceroy's Personal Report No. 11, 4 July 1947, Constitutional Relations between Indian and Britain – Transfer of Power 1942–7, Vol. 11, pp. 898–900; Khan, Constitutional and Political History of Pakistan, pp. 86–88; Brown, Nehru, pp. 176–179.

53 Ziegler, Mountbatten, p. 461.

54 Earl of Listowel (British Secretary of State for India) to Mountbatten, 24 July 1947, in Constitutional Relations between Indian and Britain – The Transfer of Power 1942–7, Vol. 12, p. 328.

55 Viceroy's Personal Report No. 11, 4 July 1947 in Constitutional Relations between Indian and Britain – Transfer of Power 1942–7, Vol. 11, pp. 898–899.

56 For example the Governor-General's influence was crucial in regard to centre–state relations. See Nehru to Mountbatten, 6 November 1947, in Jawaharlal Nehru, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 4, pp. 472–473.

57 Lord Mountbatten's Record of Interview with Nehru, 5 February 1948, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 5, pp. 480–481.

58 After his death in 1964 it became the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.

59 Brown, Nehru, p. 191.

60 Mountbatten agreed to stay on till June 1948. Lord Mountbatten's Record of Interview with Nehru, 14 January 1948, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 5, p. 477.

61 Ziegler, Mountbatten, p. 475.

62 ‘The Services of Lord and Lady Mountbatten’, 20 June 1948, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 6, p. 357.

63 C. Rajagopalachari was more popularly known as C.R. or Rajaji.

64 Ziegler, Mountbatten, pp. 475–477.

65 Nehru to Rajagopalachari, 21 May 1948, Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Second Series, Vol. 6, p. 356, fn 2.

66 One of Rajagopalachari's first instructions was that ‘in regard to stocks of liquor, the Governor-General Designate said that he did not wish to have any of this on his charge’ in contrast to the Mountbatten regime. See minutes of a meeting between His Excellency (Mountbatten) and the Governor General designate (Rajagopalachari) at 10 a.m. on Friday, 4 June 1948, in C. Rajagopalachari Papers, NMML, New Delhi.

67 Nehru to Rajagopalachari, 30 March 1948, in C. Rajagopalachari Papers, NMML.

68 Nehru to Rajagopalachari, 11 April 1948, in C. Rajagopalachari Papers, NMML.

69 Gandhi, Rajmohan, Rajaji – A Life (New Delhi: Penguin Books India, 1997), pp. 299305.

70 Basu, Constitutional Law of India, pp. 141, 151. It is interesting to note the similarity of Article 74 with Section 9 of the Government of India Act, 1935, which stated that ‘there shall be a Council of Ministers. . .to aid and advise the Governor-General in the exercise of his functions.’

71 Nariman, Fali S., ‘The Office of the President’, Journal of Constitutional and Parliamentary Studies, Vol. 38, Nos 1–4 (January–December 2002), p. 154.

72 Manor, James (ed.), ‘The Prime Minister and President’, in Nehru to the Nineties – The Changing Office of Prime Minister in India (New Delhi: Viking, 1994), pp. 116117.

73 Prasad to Rau, 10 May 1948, in Prasad, Rajendra (Vols 1–11, 1984–1995), Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 9, Choudhary, Valmiki (ed.) (New Delhi: Allied Publishers, 1987), p. 51.

74 Basu, Durga Das, Introduction to the Constitution of India, 18th edn (New Delhi: Prentice Hall, 1998), p. 163.

75 For example ‘Prasad enraged Nehru by suggesting a change in the date of Republic Day. . .because it was astrologically inauspicious. He also tried unsuccessfully to include Hindu rituals in his presidential installation ceremony’. See Manor, ‘The Prime Minister and President’, p. 120.

76 Nehru to Prasad, 10 September 1949, Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 11, p. 152.

77 Prasad to Patel, 19 September 1949, Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 11, pp. 160–162.

78 ‘Introduction’, in Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 12, p. v.

79 Though Nehru held Rajagopalachari in the highest regard, especially intellectually, he did in fact share views similar to those of many Congressmen at the time on Rajagopalachari's contrasting utterances on communalism in the midst of tension with the Muslim League and Britain, as Nehru confided to his prison diary the hyperbolic question, ‘[I]s there a more dangerous person [than Rajagopalachari] in all India?’ Nehru, ‘Mental Perturbation’, 5 August 1944, in The Essential Writings of Jawaharlal Nehru, Vol. 2, pp. 691–692; Gandhi, Rajaji, p. 309.

80 Rudolph, Lloyd I. and Rudolph, Susane Hoeber, ‘Redoing the Constitutional Design: From an Interventionist to a Regulatory State’ in The Success of India's Democracy, Kohli, Atul (ed.) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 141.

81 Munshi, K. M., The President under the Indian Constitution, 2nd edn (Bombay: Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, 1967), pp. ivvi.

82 Sir Ivor Jennings, British Year Book of International Law 1948, p. 416, cited in Prasad, President's Status vis-à-vis Council of Ministers, 24 January 1951, Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. XIV, p. 289.

83 ‘The Oath or Affirmation by the President, Article 60’, in Basu, Constitutional Law of India, p. 145.

84 Cited in Basu, Introduction to the Constitution of India, p. 188.

85 ‘Confidential – Memorandum on the Union Constitution’, 30 May 1947, Rau Papers, NMML.

86 Bernard, Jean-Alphonse, ‘The Presidential Idea in the Constitutions of South Asia’, Contemporary South Asia, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1992), p. 41.

87 Prasad Diary, 12 May 1952, Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 15, p. vi.

88 Alexandrowicz, Constitutional Developments in India, p. 129.

89 Prasad to Nehru, 1 July 1950, Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 13, p. 3.

90 Prasad to Nehru, 26 August 1950, Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 13, p. 63.

91 Prasad to Patel, 27 August 1950, Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 13, pp. 64–66.

92 Prasad to Nehru, 11 September 1950, Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 13, pp. 76–77.

93 Prasad, President's Status vis-à-vis Council of Ministers, 24 January 1951, Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 14, pp. 277–280.

94 Som, Reba, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru and the Hindu Code: A Victory of Symbol over Substance’, Modern Asian Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (1994), pp. 169172.

95 Austin, Granville, Working a Democratic Constitution – The Indian Experience, (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 19.

96 Prasad to Nehru, 15 September 1951, Dr Rajendra Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 14, p. 104.

97 Guha, Ramachandra, India after Gandhi – The History of the World's Largest Democracy (London: Macmillan, 2007), p. 230.

98 President's Enclosure for Cabinet, 15 September 1951, C. Rajagopalachari Papers, NMML.

99 Nehru to Prasad, 15 September 1951, Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 14, pp. 104–107.

100 Nehru passed the President's letters on to Rajagopalachari the very same day he received them along with his replies with the caution, ‘[P]lease keep these papers absolutely secret. No mention should be made of them to anyone’. See Nehru to Rajagopalachari, 15 September 1951, C. Rajagopalachari Papers, NMML. However, Prasad himself had been enclosing copies of their earlier disagreements with Nehru to Patel, before the deputy Prime Minister's death in December 1950, who definitely erred towards Prasad's Hindu conservatism. See Som, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru and the Hindu Code’, p. 172.

101 Nehru wrote to a Cabinet minister on 22 September 1951: ‘I regret to say that the President attaches more importance to his astrologers than to the advice of his Cabinet on some matters. I have no intention of submitting to the astrologers’. Cited in Gopal, Jawaharlal Nehru, p. 155. Prasad confided to K. N. Katju, ‘I have written as strongly as I could. . . . I could not have done more’. Cited in Som, ‘Jawaharlal Nehru and the Hindu Code’, p. 185.

102 Prasad to Nehru, 18 September 1951, Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 14, pp. 107–108.

103 Article 75 (2) in Basu, Constitutional Law of India, p. 154.

104 Prasad to Nehru, 18 September 1951, Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 14, pp. 108–109.

105 Note by Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Aiyar, 20 September 1951, cited in Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 14, pp. 280–282.

106 Note by the Attorney General, 24 September 1951, cited in Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 14, pp. 280–286.

107 Nehru to Prasad, 21 September 1951, Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 14, p. 110.

108 Note by Aiyar, 8 October 1951, Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 14, pp. 286–290.

109 Brown, Nehru, p. 232.

110 Guha, India after Gandhi, pp. 234–235.

111 Gopal, Sarvepalli, Radhakrishnan – A Biography (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1992), pp. 262266, 286–292.

112 Austin, Granville, The Indian Constitution: Cornerstone of a Nation, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 141.

113 Cited in Basu, Introduction to the Constitution of India, p. 188.

114 Note by Aiyar, 20 September 1951, cited in Prasad: Correspondence and Select Documents, Vol. 14, p. 282.

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