Clemens Dutt

India Nationalism and the Elections

Source: Labour Monthly, Vol. 8, December 1926, No. 12, pp. 733-744, (4,374 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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India is a country of 300 million inhabitants which has been on the brink of a social revolution. That fact, with all its significance for the British Empire, Asia and the world, is the dominating factor for appreciating what is taking place in India to-day. It is natural, therefore, to measure the stages of development since the war from the abortive upheaval of 1920-21. The betrayal by bourgeois nationalism of the mass movement at Bardoli in February, 1922, is the starting point of a retreat which has put the revolution temporarily in the background, but which will have the effect for its delay of making the next explosion more forceful, conscious and effective. For nothing in the central features of the situation has been changed, but there has been rapid economic development, which has produced a corresponding development in class differentiation and class consciousness.

This differentiation is expressed in the stages since Bardoli through which the nationalist movement has passed. Up to the close of the present year three such stages can be distinguished. The first period from Bardoli to the Gaya session of the National Congress in December, 1922, when the Swaraj Party was launched, was the period of retreat from Gandhism and the formulation of a new policy for bourgeois nationalism. The second period was a further stage of clarification marked by the gradual modification of Swarajist policy during its experience of parliamentarism and reversion to Liberalism. It culminated in the acceptance of Government office and the resignation from the Swaraj Party in the autumn of 1925 by Mr. Tambe, the Swarajist leader in the Central Provinces (the only provinces in which the Swarajists had a majority in the Legislature), which thus opened the new period of differentiation marked by the splitting of the nationalist ranks and the formation of new parties. The imminence of this new phase was pointed out in an article in the LABOUR MONTHLY1 in the summer of last year. The rapid developments of this phase will reach a conclusion in the results of the elections now being held and in the decisions of the forthcoming National Congress at Gauhati in Assam.

The economic characteristics of this period are a continuation of the preceding one. There has been a series of good monsoons, which has meant that harvests have been satisfactory (an all-important question in India, where the exploited mass of peasants have no reserve to fall back upon) and which, in the resulting absence of famine and consequent economic crisis, has allowed of the establishment of relative stabilisation. Economic development has proceeded rapidly and the policy of economic rapprochement and reconciliation between British imperialism and the Indian big bourgeoisie, determined upon by the former ever since it discovered in the first shock of the war that it would have to be dependent for vital iron and steel products on the Indian firm of Tata, has gone further ahead. Salient features of the recent period have been the establishment of the Indian Tariff Board and the abolition of the cotton excise duty. Nothing marks the new era of the development of Indian industries behind high tariff walls more clearly than this last step, for the whole history of the Indian National Congress has been bound up with the struggle of Indian capitalism for the removal of the cotton excise.

The results of the new economic situation are obvious in recent political history. Agrarian agitation, the centre of the previous mass movement, has been relatively quiescent. The Indian bourgeoisie, discovering that political freedom is not so indispensable for the furtherance of their immediate economic interests as they had previously imagined, are more disposed to be satisfied for the present with the existing constitution, and therefore to “work the reforms.” At the same time, the Left Wing in the nationalist movement has become more articulate as it has begun to realise the direction in which the nationalist leaders are going. Moreover, in spite of the legal terrorism exercised against the Communists, the Indian Communist Party has grown in strength, and sympathetic nationalist groups, such as the Workers’ and Peasants’ Party in Bengal, have extended their influence. A complicating political factor, which reached its maximum intensity during the last year, has been the unprecedented growth of communal conflict between Hindus and Moslems, resulting in religious riots in which thousands of persons have been killed or injured. This communal tension is closely connected with the political differences in the nationalist ranks.

The Electoral System

All the factors above mentioned affect the present general elections to the Imperial and Provincial legislatures and go to make the situation more complex than at any time previously. The first elections, in 1920, were boycotted by all except the loyalist upper strata of the bourgeoisie. In the second general election, in 1923, the new Swaraj Party was the sole representative of the National Congress. Now the nationalist ranks are divided into a number of different warring parties or factions, each claiming to represent the nation and to speak in the name of the nationalist movement and the National Congress, and seeking seats and positions of power in the legislatures at the expense of its opponents. They quarrel and compete among themselves for the chance of getting into the councils, and they roundly denounce the Government for not giving them more power when in the councils, but they neglect to attack or even to notice the essential feature of the councils, viz., the enormously restricted franchise on which they are based, which make them something aloof from, and useless to, the vast body of the nation.

The character of the elections, and the social composition of the membership of the councils themselves, is above all determined by the nature of the electorate. The restricted franchise is based on both communal and property qualifications. There are also special constituencies for electing representatives of Europeans, big landlords and big commercial and industrial organisations.

Take, for example, the Bengal Legislative Council. First of all, out of 139 members only 113 are elected at all. The remainder are Government nominees, the remnant of the old system in which the members of the Legislative Council were all merely “advisers” appointed by the Provincial Governor. Of the 113 elected representatives, only eighty-five are elected by general, though communal, constituencies. The whole province is divided into forty-two geographical areas forming non-Mohammedan constituencies in which no Mohammedan, even if otherwise qualified, is allowed to vote. The same province is also divided geographically into thirty-four constituencies in which only Mohammedans can vote. This separation is applied throughout practically the whole of British India, and is intended to ensure representation of the special interests of the Moslems. It, of course, considerably assists in dividing them off from the rest of the population.

The rest of the elected members, twenty-eight in number, are returned by special constituencies. Europeans, numbering less than 25,000 in a total population of 46,000,000, have five representatives. The Bengal Chamber of Commerce returns six members. The big landowners of Burdwan, Chittagong, &c., each elect a representative of their own. The Indian Jute Mills Association, the Indian Tea Association, the Indian Mining Association, Calcutta University, the Calcutta Trades Association, the Marwari Association are all reckoned as special constituencies. Most of these special representatives will be Europeans, and all will stand for big capitalist or landlord interests.

The number of voters in the special constituencies will be very small. They constitute, in this respect, something very like the “pocket” boroughs of pre-Reform England. On the other hand, the vast bulk of the workers and peasants are totally disfranchised. The property qualification for voters varies from region to region, but it is sufficiently high to exclude ninety-seven to ninety-eight per cent. of the population. Take the Bombay rural constituencies as an example. The essential qualification for an elector is payment of land revenue amounting to not less than sixteen to thirty-two rupees per annum, according to region. As the land revenue for the total assessed area in Bombay Presidency varies from half to one and a-quarter rupees per acre, it can be concluded that only cultivators of some fifteen acres or more will be entitled to a vote. Recent statistics show that three-quarters of all the Bombay holdings are below fifteen acres. All these cultivators, therefore, would be disfranchised together with the large number of landless wage-workers and agricultural labourers.

For the All-India Legislative Assembly the franchise is even more restricted. Only 104 out of 144 members are elected. All but two or three of the general constituencies are separated on communal lines. Most of the provinces have special constituencies of Europeans and of big landholders, and special representation is given to the Indian Merchants’ Chamber and Bureau, Ahmedabad Millowners’ Association, Madras Indian Commerce, Bengal Marwari Association, &c.

Urban electors to the Assembly have to pay income tax (not levied on incomes below 2,000 rupees per year) or a high rate of other taxes, while the rural electors must pay land revenue of about fifty rupees or upwards. The result of the restriction is that the total electorate for all the seats in the Assembly is below a million, there being only a few thousand voters for each seat.

It must not be forgotten also that the Central Legislature includes an upper chamber, the Council of State, with sixty members, of whom thirty-four are elected. Electors to this body must be very rich or have been members of the Central Legislature or held high office in municipal government. The electorate numbers a few hundreds in each constituency. Thus, in a by-election, earlier this year, in West Bengal, the successful candidate polled seventy-eight votes; the remaining three received fifty-eight, twenty-six, and one votes respectively.

Without taking any account, therefore, of the question of the authority of the councils, it is obvious that they are utterly unrepresentative in character and cannot be an index of the desires of the mass of the nation.

The Break-up of the Swaraj Party

Nevertheless, the attention of the nationalist movement has become more and more exclusively directed to obtaining control of these puppet legislatures. The forty-odd Swarajists that entered the Central Legislative Assembly in 1923 were very quickly deflected from their early intransigence. By the autumn of 1925 the desire of the Right Wing for a drastic modification of the programme, so as to allow of the acceptance of office and the practice of the so-called policy of “responsive co-operation” (i.e., the policy of working the constitutional reforms scheme as far as possible, and only voting against the Government when British policy conflicted directly with the immediate interests of the Indian bourgeoisie), led to a crisis in the party and the secessions began.

In November the Bombay Swarajist leaders, Jayaker and N. C. Kelkar, resigned and at the National Congress at Cawnpore in December, 1925, there was a definite bloc, led by the Mahrattas from Bombay and the Central Provinces and Berar, calling for a modification of the programme. The National Congress, however, in spite of its smaller numbers, represents a wider field than the electorate of the Assembly, and it endorsed the official Swarajist policy. Thereupon the dissidents seceded from the Swaraj Party and organised the Responsive Co-operation Party, which was definitely launched on February 2, 1926.

The Liberals were not slow in attempting to profit from the situation by forming a bloc with the Responsive Co-operationists aimed against the Swaraj Party. The new alliance, formed in March, 1926, was christened the Indian National Party, and it contained representatives of the Liberals, the Independents, the Home Rule League, led by Mrs. Besant (to all intents and purposes identical with the Liberals, but united in pushing the Commonwealth of India Bill), the non-Brahmins, the Muslim League and the Responsivists. The latter, however, only gave a qualified support to the new party, retaining their separate identity. The real difference of the Responsivists from the Liberals lay only in the fact that they were still members of the National Congress, and they were aware that if they lost their connection with the Congress they would be considered purely as Liberals, and as such less trustworthy and experienced than the old Liberal leaders.

The other groups in the National Party, with one exception, were outside the National Congress, and they based their refusal to have anything to do with the Congress on the grounds: (1) that the present Congress creed still endorses mass civil disobedience and general non-payment of taxes as a policy for which the country should make preparations; (2) that the Congress is still dominated by the Swaraj Party, which is committed to a policy of obstruction; (3) that they cannot agree to enter the Congress unless they get an adequate share of the Congress offices; and, finally, (4) that wearing of khaddar (homespun cloth) is still compulsory at Congress functions (a last relic of the period of Gandhi’s domination).

The only semi-Liberal leader of note who remained within the Congress was Pundit Malaviya, who even during the most revolutionary period fought the Liberal battle inside the Congress, and who has been pressing for the adoption of a Congress programme which would embrace all shades of nationalism.

Faced with the possibility of a union of the secessionists from the Swaraj Party with the Liberals, Pundit Nehru, the Swarajist leader, attempted a compromise which would break up this union, and, by practically giving in to the Responsivists, draw them back into the Swaraj Party. This compromise was formulated in the Sabarmati Pact, signed at Ahmedabad on April 21, 1926.

The Swarajist leader, however, had under-estimated the strength of the Left Wing within his party. The All-India Congress Committee, which comprises 350 members, mostly local Congress officials who are closer to the rank and file of the Congress membership and not directly interested in the question of parliamentary office, refused to ratify the pact. They showed their distrust of Nehru also in their action in defeating his resolution for a committee to inquire into Mrs. Besant’s Commonwealth Bill. Since Mrs. Besant had seceded from the Congress over the non-cooperation issue and her scheme was being canvassed by various Liberals and other groups without the endorsement of the Congress, Pundit Nehru’s action in attempting to raise the matter was a clear indication of his Right-Wing tendency, and the defeat of his resolution was a clear vote of no confidence in him.

The existence of a Left Wing within the National Congress and the Swaraj Party, which prevents the leadership from openly entering into co-operation with the Government, has been evident at all the larger Congress gatherings. Under the spinning franchise introduced by Gandhi the registered membership of the Congress dropped to about 14,000, and even though the four-anna subscription was re-introduced in 1925, the paying membership at the time of the Cawnpore Congress was still under 20,000, Nevertheless the rank and file, comprising mainly petty bourgeois elements, was sufficiently in evidence to compel the Swarajist leaders to adopt a revolutionary phraseology, to talk of the preparation of mass civil disobedience and to declare that the Swaraj Party would leave the Legislative Councils if their demands were unheeded by the Government.

It was this Left Wing that called Pundit Nehru to heel. It was this Left Wing that at the Bengal Provincial Congress in May, 1926, began an agitation against Sen Gupta, the Bengal leader, because of his Right-Wing tendencies, and even moved a resolution of protest at the disparaging remarks of the president, Sasmal, concerning the ex-revolutionaries in the Bengal Congress organisation.

The latest stage in the disintegration of the Swaraj Party has followed the fiasco of the party’s method of putting into practice the resolution of the Cawnpore Congress for withdrawing from the councils.

In order to make a demonstration to impress the rank and file, and to hide their bankruptcy in policy, the Swarajist members of the Assembly and of the provincial councils made a spectacular withdrawal in March, thus, incidentally, saving themselves the task of voting against the budget, which many of them were loath to do. It was not long, however, before the members in most of the councils were clamouring for permission to return in order to defend or oppose certain measures. Permission was given, for otherwise there would have been many defections from the party, and it is noteworthy that in all cases the walk back was openly for the defence of class interests. Thus, in the Punjab, the Swarajists returned to oppose the Money Lenders Bill, which threatened to curtail the power of the moneylenders: in Madras the issue was the Malabar Tenancy Bill, and in Assam a Land Revenue Assessment Bill.

Finally, it was decided that the members of the Central Legislative Assembly themselves should return in order to oppose the new Currency Bill, and then retire again, taking no further part in the last session of the Assembly. This led to the latest split in the Party, for Lajpat Rai, the veteran nationalist and deputy-leader of the party, refused to walk out again and severed his connection with the party.

This new split meant a serious weakening of the strength of the Swaraj Party. It also gave a new opportunity to Pundit Malaviya. Under his auspices the Congress leaders, like himself and Lajpat Rai, who were in the Congress but not in either the Swaraj or Responsive Co-operation Parties, began negotiations for unity with both of the latter groups.

It was obvious that Nehru was only deterred by fear of his own rank and file from attempting to conclude a revised form of the Sabarmati Pact. Accordingly it was the Responsive Co-operationists who first joined hands with Lajpat Rai and Malaviya. Early in September they decided to form an Independent Congress Party to unite the Right-Wing members of the Congress, who were outside the Swaraj Party. They adopted a resolution declaring that, since the policy of wholesale obstruction in the councils had failed, as had also the policy of “walking-out” from the legislatures, and that no basis had been found for unity with the Swaraj Party:—

the only course left open to such members of the Congress as do not agree with the Swarajists’ policy and programme is to form themselves into a separate party within the Congress. . . .

The policy of the party will be to work the legislatures, defective though their constitution is, for all they are worth and use them for accelerating the establishment of full responsible government.

It will be open to the party to accept office, provided the power, responsibility, and initiative necessary for the effective discharge of their duties are secured to the ministers.

The party will work in full co-operation with the Responsive Co-operation Party.

Lajpat Rai was appointed the president of the new party and Pundit Malaviya its general secretary. The formation of the new party was hailed as a triumph for their principles by the Responsivists, though they generally gave as their opinion that it would have been better for Lajpat Rai and his followers to have joined the Responsivists altogether.

The Communal Conflict

The dissensions within the nationalist movement were greatly complicated by the growth of Hindu-Moslem conflict leading to a series of religious riots in all parts of the country, during which hundreds have been killed and thousands injured. The underlying causes are very complex. Apart from direct economic issues (as in Bengal and the Punjab, where Moslem peasants are to a great extent faced by Hindu landlords and moneylenders), the conflict has been closely connected with the struggle for political influence between the rival communities. This rivalry has always been fostered by the British Government, and it has been deliberately fomented by the nationalist leaders. As long as the common national revolutionary struggle was in the forefront and Government positions were boycotted, rivalry between the communities was not acute. Now, however, communal passions have been deliberately aroused for political purposes. The leaders of each community are competing against each other for positions of influence in the councils and other bodies.

During 1925 Hindu and Moslem religious organisations developed rapidly. Most of the prominent Hindu and Moslem nationalist leaders declared it to be their object especially to defend the interests of their co-religionists. In April, 1926, Sir Abdur Rahim, a Liberal Moslem leader in Bengal, formed a Bengal Moslem Party. In May, 1926, the Khilafat Conference, which had been more or less in abeyance since the abolition of the Khilafat, enlarged its objects to embrace all the interests, temporal as well as spiritual, of Mohammedans. In June the chief Hindu organisation, the Hindu Mahasabha, countered by deciding, where necessary for support of Hindu interests, to run its own candidates at the elections. In August an Independent Muslim Party was formed through the agency of the Khilafat Committee to contest the elections on behalf of Moslem interests. It consists now largely of former Moslem Swarajists.

The Elections

From what has been said it will be clear that the candidates for election to the councils and Assembly are appearing under a great variety of labels. The differences between them are, however, not very important. All of them profess to stand on a nationalist platform, and now that the most extreme Swarajist demand has been whittled down to Dominion status or even merely an encouragement for “honourable co-operation,” the Swarajists do not stand so far removed from the most right-wing moderates. The parties can be divided into three main groups, representing roughly the three sections of the Indian bourgeoisie. The big bourgeoisie dominate the Liberal and National Parties; the Responsive Co-operationists and the Independent Congress Party stand for the middle bourgeoisie; while the. Swaraj Party is predominantly petty bourgeois in composition and outlook.

The National Party is practically indistinguishable from the Liberals. It represents merely an election bloc to prevent clashing of non-Congress candidates in some regions, notably in Bombay and Bengal. As a party it was stillborn, being killed by the mutual suspicions between those in and those outside the Congress.

The Responsivists and Independent Congress men represent the new dominant trend of bourgeois nationalist policy and, therefore, are gaining in strength. Their organisation, however, has a firm hold only in the Mahratta provinces. Both of the parties, and particularly the Independent Congress Party, are strongly pro-Hindu, and in fact, if not in profession, stand for the special interests of Hindus as against Mohammedans. They agree with the Swarajists except on the one point that they believe the national cause should be pushed by using the reforms to the full, including the acceptance of office. Naturally the Swarajists brand them as job-hunters and Liberals, and in return they retort that the Swarajist policy is bluff and make-believe and that the Swarajists are really Liberals themselves. Mr. Jayaker, the leader of the Responsivists, says:—

The Swarajists practise nothing but responsive co-operation, but refuse to call it by that name.

In spite of being weakened by successive splits and defections, the Swaraj Party still includes the bulk of the rank and file of active nationalists. Its leaders, against their own desires, have refrained from advocating a change of policy in the hope of getting a majority in the elections. The electoral arrangements, however, between the Liberals and Responsivists, and between the Responsivists and Independent Congress candidates, have in many places prevented triangular contests, and left the elections to be fought on the clear issue of co-operation or non-co-operation. In such cases, since the bulk of the electorate consists of landlord and capitalist elements, there are bound to be many defeats suffered by the Swarajists, and their hope of a majority in the councils is rendered vain.

The great asset in their favour is their possession of the Congress machinery, and it is freely charged against them that they have used funds collected for the Congress for their own election purposes. The latest election results appear to show that in no case can the Swarajists secure an absolute majority, that in general they have lost ground, but that they have increased their representation in some places, such as Madras, where the formerly dominant moderates have been discredited through their past actions.

The National Congress

Whatever the result of the elections, the coming session of the National Congress at Gauhati, in Assam, at the end of the year will witness a determined effort on the part of the Right Wing to commit the Congress to a policy of Liberalism under the guise of uniting all wings of the nationalist movement. Hints have been thrown out by prominent Swarajists that the Swaraj Party is only waiting for the result of the elections to modify its policy. If they do not succeed in obtaining thumping majorities, the Swarajist leaders will be ready to accept their defeat as the verdict of the country and adapt their policy accordingly. It will need a bold stand by the rank and file of the party if another Sabarmati Pact is to be avoided. The rank and file are opposed to the surrender policy of the leaders, for they are closer to the masses and themselves also have nothing to gain by the alliance with British imperialism, but they are disunited, confused by communal and, other side issues and easily deceived by the pseudo-revolutionary phraseology used by the bourgeois leaders.

Nevertheless, there is no way forward unless they come out into the open with a programme of their own based on the class needs of the masses. The Left Wing can only rally itself around the demand for a free democratic republic. Thus the class issues are getting more defined. After the elections it is to be expected that the communal issue will cease to occupy such a prominent position, and the class issue become more pronounced. After the big bourgeoisie the middle bourgeoisie also is forsaking the national revolutionary struggle and finding its ally in the imperialist camp. The workers and peasants will be compelled to fight their own battle and find their own allies. The latter are especially to be found outside India, where other workers and peasants are engaged in the struggle with the same enemy.



1.  “Indian Politics: An Analysis,” by Clemens Dutt, LABOUR MONTHLY, Vol. VII, pp. 399-409 (1925).