The members of the Nehru cabinet in 1947 belonged to different parties and held different views. But they stood together at the time India became independent
As India became independent at the stroke of midnight of August 15, 1947 to the ringing words of the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru about “India waking to freedom as the world sleeps” and the “tryst with destiny” in the special session of parliament, there was also the unique characteristic that the country’s first Union cabinet was an all-party affair. The Indian National Congress was the party which led the freedom struggle and it was the dominant party in the government, but it was not a Congress cabinet. It was a national cabinet where members who did not belong to the Congress were the leading figures. Prominent among the non-Congress members of the Nehru government were Dr BR Ambedkar, considered architect of the Constitution which was then in the process of being framed, became India’s first minister for law. Ambedkar has been a lifelong critic of the Congress party, and it is said that it was Mahatma Gandhi who prevailed upon Nehru to include Ambedkar in the cabinet. The other conspicuous figure who did not belong to the Congress and who was a staunch critic of Congress politics was Syama Prasad Mookerjee of the Hindu Mahasabha. He too was part of the cabinet and he held the important portfolio of Industries and Supplies. The general view is that it was on the advice of Mahatma Gandhi that Mookerjee became part of the Nehru team.
There were four other prominent individuals in the first cabinet who did not belong to the Congress. They were RK Shanmukham Chetty, who held the finance portfolio, CH Bhabha, who was the commerce minister, Baldev Singh, the defence minister, and John Matthai, minister for railways and transport. Chetty was a member of the Swaraj Party, which was founded by Motilal Nehru and Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, and he was also with Justice Party, which was mainly in the then Madras Presidency and a rival to the Congress. Bhabha was a businessman who became the first commerce minister. He was not involved in politics. Maulana Azad had apparently favoured the inclusion of Bhabha because he felt there was need for representation of a Parsi in the cabinet. Baldev Singh was mainly the representative of Sikhs in the negotiations leading up to Partition and Independence. He was again a non-Congress man in the government. India’s first government was in many ways a coalition, though the word was not used to describe it.
At the crucial moment of independence, it was a message to the country and to the world, that people with different points of view and those not belonging to the majority party were part of the government and they stood together. It was clear that these non-Congress stalwarts, and they were each one of them strong men, did not agree with Nehru on many issues. But it did not prevent them from becoming part of a team led by Nehru. There was mutual but grudging respect between Nehru and them. It is a different matter that this government of national unity did not last for too long. But it was in place from 1947 to 1951, the key post-Independence years. Mookerjee, Ambedkar, Chetty, Bhabha, Baldev and Matthai represented a spectrum of talent and they left the government for various reasons, mostly because of their disagreements with Nehru. It is interesting to note that the second finance minister, Matthai, resigned from the cabinet because he felt that the newly-formed Planning Commission was a bad idea, and that it cut into the powers of the finance minister. Mookerjee left the government because of his objection to the Nehru-Liaquat pact. Liaquat Ali Khan was the prime minister of Pakistan. Ambedkar too resigned because of differences with Nehru. The differences surfaced as they were bound to, but what is noteworthy is that they were all willing to bury their differences when India became independent.
India’s first government has also set an example that without the need for formal political alliances, the ruling party could draw talent from different parties and different walks of life and make them part of the government. What was needed was a vision of broader national unity. The man who provided this idealistic vision was none other than Mahatma Gandhi. He persuaded Nehru to take along people from other spheres and parties.
The members of the Congress who were part of the Nehru cabinet were tall leaders like Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Dr Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Jagjivan Ram. Though they were of the same party, Patel and Prasad did not always see eye-to-eye with Nehru. But the differences did not matter. They all stood together despite personality clashes and personal differences. But what united them all was their love and loyalty to India. They also felt bound by Mahatma Gandhi. They respected his decision when he chose Nehru to be the prime ministerial candidate, and they gave their full support to Nehru in the running of the government.
India’s first government indeed marks the golden moment in Indian politics. The leaders did not compromise their strongly held political convictions, and at the same time they did not allow the differences among themselves to become divisive barriers. They held national unity above personal beliefs. They were also not enamoured of power and they had no desire for office. They became part of the first government because of their sense of duty to the nation.
It was inevitable that party loyalties reasserted themselves and the Indian democracy followed the pattern of party democracy in the following decades. When political coalitions became a norm from 1989 onwards, it was interesting that no one looked back to the 1947 model of the first Union cabinet which was an ideal combination of talent and ideologies. It was only in 1989 when no party had a majority that then president R Venkataraman toyed with the idea of a national government. It is quite possible that he had in mind the 1947 government comprising Nehru, Mookerjee, Ambedkar, Baldev Singh. But he could not press it. The situation indeed was different. Indian politics in 1989 was quite different from that of 1947.
India’s first cabinet should always be remembered as an idealistic set up. Even if it cannot be replicated ever, it will always remain a moment to cherish. At a time when political rivalries are sharp and intense, it is good to remember that in 1947 political leaders overcame their differences and worked together when the country needed their services the most. India’s first cabinet should be celebrated as a moment of political idealism, and it should serve as beacon for today’s politicians as well as those in the future.
National unity governments need not always be formed only at the time of crisis. They could be tried out at other times as well. There may be or may not be another national unity government like that of Nehru’s cabinet of 1947, but it should serve as a shining example of what politics could be in a positive sense.
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