A perfect balance
When Gandhi advocated a two-party system for India
By: Ramachandra Guha
Many Western democracies are characterized by the alternation of power at the national level between two parties, one somewhat left of centre, the other somewhat right of centre. Thus, in the United States of America, you have the Republicans and the Democrats, in the United Kingdom the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, in Germany the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats. In each case, a two-party system has given the country and its politics stability and solidity. Having a strong party in Opposition has acted as a check on the party in government. It has been a spur to efficient governance, and a deterrent to corruption and the abuse of power.
The Republic of India, on the other hand, has never had a proper two- party system. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the Congress was the sole national party. A range of smaller parties opposed it, but none was strong enough to pose a credible all-India challenge. In recent years, the Bharatiya Janata Party has been the sole national party. Now, too, while particular parties strongly oppose the BJP in particular states, none is able to effectively challenge or replace it at the national level.
Between the earlier era of Congress dominance and the current era of BJP dominance lay the era of coalition and minority governments. In that period, which ran from 1989 to 2014, the Central government was too weak, too prone to give in to vested interests to design or implement effective policies. On the other hand, a single party being too strong has led to arrogance and even to authoritarianism, which have not been good for governance either.
Someone who recognized the merits of a two-party system at an all-India level was Mahatma Gandhi. In 1937, in the election held under the Government of India Act, the Congress emerged as the clear victor. It won 74 per cent of the seats in Madras, 65 per cent in Bihar, 62.5 per cent in the Central Provinces, 60 per cent in Orissa, 59 per cent in the United Provinces and 49 per cent in Bombay. The Unionists, a party led by a cross-religious coalition of large landlords, won a comfortable majority in the Punjab. Other provinces witnessed more fragmented verdicts, with no party in a position to stake a claim to form a government on its own. Taking British India as a whole, the Congress won 707 seats with the Muslim League in a distant second place, winning 106 seats.
Through 1938 and 1939, the leader of the Muslim League, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, sought to consolidate opposition to Congress domination. He met the scheduled caste leader, B.R. Ambedkar, as well as the leading non-Brahmin activist in South India, E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker. He even sought a meeting with V.D. Savarkar, the president of the Hindu Mahasabha. One might have thought that the Congress party would be worried by these developments. But, remarkably, Gandhi regarded Jinnah’s outreach to other Opposition parties as ‘thoroughly healthy’. Writing in his weekly magazine, Harijan, he said: “Nothing can be better than we should have in the country mainly two parties – Congress and non-Congress or anti-Congress, if the latter expression is preferred. Jinnah Saheb is giving the word ‘minority’ a new and good content. The Congress majority is made up of a combination of caste Hindus, non-caste Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews. Therefore it is a majority drawn from all classes, representing a particular body of opinion; and the proposed combination becomes a minority representing another body of opinion. This may any day become a majority by commending itself to the electorate. Such an alignment of parties is a consummation devoutly to be wished. If the Quaid-e-Azam can bring about the combination, not only I but the whole of India will shout with one acclamation: ‘Long Live Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah’. For he will have brought about permanent and living unity for which I am sure the whole nation is thirsting.”
Gandhi sent an advance copy of his piece to Jinnah. In his covering letter, he praised Jinnah’s “plan to amalgamate all the parties opposed to the Congress [which] at once gives your movement a national character”. If he succeeded, Gandhi told Jinnah, “you will free the country from [the] communal incubus and, in my humble opinion, give a lead to the Muslims and others for which you will deserve the gratitude not only of the Muslims but of all the other communities. I hope that my interpretation is correct. If I am mistaken, you will please correct me.”
Gandhi was urging Jinnah to focus on the politics of numbers rather than the politics of community. He had in mind Western models of democratic politics, where two national parties competed for office. Labour and Conservative in Britain, or Democratic and Republican in the US, were parties based on policies and ideologies, not on religion or caste.
Gandhi saw the Congress as being a non-denominational party too. It had Muslim and Christian members as well as Hindu ones; Muslim and Parsi presidents as well as Hindu ones. Congressmen who were themselves Hindus came from different castes. From varied social backgrounds, the members of the Congress were bound together by their party’s manifesto. In Gandhi’s famous formulation of the 1920s, the Congress was a sturdy bed with four legs: those of inter-religious harmony, inter-caste equality, economic self-reliance and non-violence.
Gandhi welcomed the move to build a broad coalition of forces opposed to the Congress. If Jinnah did that, he could construct a non- or trans-denominational alliance, that, at the national level, could challenge (and one day defeat) the non- or trans-denominational Congress, thus bringing India closer to the standard norm of democratic politics in other parts of the world.
Gandhi’s suggestion was well meant. But Jinnah rejected it outright. Replying to Gandhi, he said his talks with Parsis, scheduled caste leaders and non-Congress Hindus were “partly a case of ‘adversity bringing strange bedfellows together’, and partly because common interests may lead Muslims and [other] minorities to combine”. Jinnah stuck to the position that “India is not a nation, nor a country. It is a sub-continent composed of nationalities, Hindus and Muslims being the two major nations.”
Gandhi was keen to see Jinnah as more than a Muslim leader. Jinnah, on the other hand, was determined to see Gandhi as a Hindu leader alone. “More than any one else”, he wrote, “you happen to be the man today who commands the confidence of Hindu India and are in a position to deliver the goods on their behalf. Is it too much to hope and expect that you might play your legitimate role and abandon your chase after a mirage?” Gandhi, in Jinnah’s eyes, was the leader exclusively of the Hindus; in which capacity he could, if he so wished, meet and negotiate with Jinnah himself, the leader of the Muslims.
Gandhi urged Jinnah to take the Muslim League out of the ghetto of religious politics, and to build an opposition to the Congress on other than denominational lines. He failed, which was India’s loss. For if Jinnah had heeded his advice it is not just that Partition might have been avoided, but an independent India might have had the advantage of a proper two-party system whose lack has bedevilled our country ever since the first general elections of 1952. For, if we had two parties, both with a pan-Indian presence, alternating in power and keeping one another in check, perhaps our democracy would have been less imperfect and our governments less corrupt.