The Second Stage Debate

In early 1937, elections to the provincial assemblies were announced and once again the debate on the future strategy to be adopted began. This discussion within the Indian political circles is known as the Second Stage Debate. (Earlier, the First Stage Debate was during the period of non-mass struggle in the years 1934-35).

Background

Everyone agreed that the Government of India Act, 1935 was to be opposed root and branch but it was not clear how it was to be done in a period when a mass movement was not yet possible. There was full agreement that the Congress should fight these elections on the basis of a detailed political and economical programme, thus deepening the anti-imperialist consciousness of the people. But what to do after the elections was not yet clear. If the Congress got majority in a province, was it to agree to form a government?

There were sharp differences over these questions among the nationalists. The two sides of the debate soon got identified with the emerging ideological divide among the left and the right lines.

Divided Opinion

Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose and other Congress socialists and communists were opposed to the idea of office acceptance and thereby in the working of the Government of India Act, 1935 because they argued that it would negate the rejection of the Act by the nationalists. They felt that it would be like assuming responsibility without power. Also, it would take away the revolutionary character of the movement as constitutional work would side track the main issues of freedom, economic and social justice, and removal of poverty.

As a counter-strategy, the leftists proposed entry into the councils with an aim to create deadlocks, thus making the working of the Act impossible (the older Swarajist strategy). And, as a long-term strategy, they advocated an increased reliance on workers and peasants, integration of their class organisations into the Congress, thus imparting a socialist direction to the Congress and preparing for the resumption of a mass movement.

The proponents of office acceptance argued that they were equally committed to combating the Government of India Act, 1935, but work in legislatures was to be only a short-term tactic since option of a mass movement was not available at the time, and mass struggle alone was capable of winning independence. Capture or rejection of office was not a danger of being sucked in by wrong tendencies, but the answer was to fight these tendencies and not to abandon offices. The administrative field should not be left open to pro-government reactionary forces. Despite limited powers, provincial ministries could be used to promote constructive work.

Gandhiji's position

Gandhiji opposed office acceptance in the Congress Working Committee meetings but by the beginning of 1936, he was also willing to give a trial to the formation of Congress ministries.

In its sessions held at Lucknow in early 1936 and at Faizpur in late 1937, the Congress decided to fight elections and postpone the decision on office acceptance to the post-election phase. In February, 1937 , elections to the provincial assemblies were held.

Faizpur Session of Congress, December 1936 (also the First 'rural' Session)

Held at Faizpur near Jalgaon, this was the first Congress Session in a rural area. Pandit Nehru said during his presidential address said-

"The Government of India Act of 1935, the new Constitution stares at us offensively, this new charter of bondage which has beer imposed upon us despite our utter rejection of it, and we are preparing to fight elections under it. Why we have entered into this election contest and how we propose to follow it up has been fully stated in the Election Manifesto of the All-India Congress Committee, and I commend this manifesto for your adoption. We go to the legislatures not to co-operate with the apparatus of British imperialism, but to combat the Act and seek to end it, and to resist in every way British imperialism in its attempt to strengthen its hold on India and its exploitation of the Indian people. That is the basic policy of the Congress and no Congressman, no candidate for election, must forget this. Whatever we do must be within the four corners of this policy. We are not going to the legislatures to pursue the path of constitutionalism or a barren reformism.

There is a certain tendency to compromise over these elections, to seek a majority at any cost. This is a dangerous drift and must be stopped. The elections must be used to rally the masses to the Congress standard, to carry the message of the Congress to the millions of voters and non-voters alike, to press forward the mass struggle. The biggest majority in a legislature will be of little use to us if we have not got this mass movement behind us, and a majority built on compromises with reactionary groups or individuals will defeat the very purpose of the Congress.

With the effort to fight the Act, and as a corollary to it, we have to stress our positive demand for a Constituent Assembly elected under adult suffrage. That is the very corner-stone of Congress policy to-day and our election campaign must be based on it. This Assembly must not be conceived as something emanating from the British Government or as a compromise with British imperialism. If it is to have any reality, it must have the will of the people behind it and the organised strength of the masses to support it, and the power to draw up the constitution of a free India. We have to create that mass support for it through these elections and later through our other activities."

Jawaharlal Nehru addressing the delegates at Faizpur Session of Congress held in December, 1936

 

Congress Manifesto for Elections

After taking decision to take part in the elections, the Congress came out with a manifesto which reaffirmed the total rejection of the Government of India Act, 1935. The manifesto promised the restoration of civil liberties, the release of political prisoners, radical transformation of agrarian system, substantial reduction in rent and revenue, scaling down of rural debts, provision of cheap credit, the right to form trade unions and the right to strike.

Result of the Provincial Elections of 1937

The Congress had majority in most of the provinces. Out of the total 11 provinces, Congress formed ministries in 8 provinces- Madras, UP, Bombay, Central Provinces, Bihar, Orissa, Assam and NWFP. In 2 of the provinces, Punjab and Sind, Congress was in coalition with regional parties. In Bengal, although Muslim League was the single largest party, but did not have majority.

The Muslim League fared relatively badly at the elections. The Congress would support Muslim League only if Muslim League merged with the Indian National Congress and accept the view that the Congress was the only organisation in the struggle against the British. The decision alienated the Muslim League. And, this probably marked the turning point in its attitude. The Muslim League then started complaining of the maladministration. As a false propaganda, to malign the image of the Congress, the League indicted the Congress in the 'Pirpur Report' and the 'Shareef Report'. When in 1939, the Congress ministers resigned, Jinnah, leader of the Muslim League proclaimed a Day of Deliverance.

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