PAST & PRESENT
Kripalani versus Menon
THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY
V.K. Krishna Menon in Chennai.
THERE is a wonderful book to be written about the best among our parliamentarians who always sat in the Opposition, who never held office. This book might have chapters on men such as N.C. Chatterjee (Hindu Mahasabha), Hiren Mukherjee (Communist Party of India), H.V. Kamath (Socialist Party), and Jyotirmoy Basu (Communist Party of India Marxist). It would have space for the fine women parliamentarians, who have tended to be from the Left such as Gita Mukherjee and Malini Bhattacharya. Some members of the present Lok Sabha might also find a place not least Somnath Chatterjee, famous son of a famous father, albeit placed at the other end of the political spectrum.
This book, I am sure, would have as its centrepiece the Parliamentary career of J.B. Kripalani, who was elected to the Lok Sabha four times, and from three different States: from Bhagalpur and Sitamarhi in Bihar, Amroha in Uttar Pradesh, and Guna in Madhya Pradesh. Scholar, teacher, khadi worker, and rebel, Kripalani was a hero of our freedom struggle before he became a hero of independent India. Before 1947 he was a close, but not uncritical, follower of Mahatma Gandhi; after 1947, a sharp, but not unsympathetic, critic of Jawaharlal Nehru.
The speech to remember
On April 11, 1961, Kripalani delivered what was described at the time as "perhaps the greatest speech that has been made on the floor of that House since Independence". This was a blistering attack on the Defence Minister, V.K. Krishna Menon. Under Menon's stewardship, said Kripalani, "we have lost 12,000 square miles of our territory without striking a single blow" (this was a reference to the Chinese takeover of Aksai Chin.) Army promotions, he claimed, were based not on merit but "according to the whims and fancies of the Defence Minister or what will suit his political and ideological purposes". Menon had "created cliques (and) lowered the morale of our Forces". In a stinging indictment, Kripalani charged the Minister with "wasting the money of this poor and starving nation", with "the neglect of the defence of the country", and with "having lent his support to the totalitarian and dictatorial regimes against the will of the people of freedom".
Kripalani ended his speech with an appeal to the conscience of the members of the ruling party. Recalling how, back in 1940, the Conservative Members of the British Parliament had compelled their Prime Minister to resign, he appealed to those "Congressmen who were not afraid of the British bullets and bayonets to place the good of the nation above the good of the party". With this parting shot Kripalani sat down, to vigorous applause from the Opposition benches.
On this day the galleries of the Lok Sabha were packed to overflowing. Senior civil servants and army officers had heard Kripalani, and they were to hear Menon too. The Defence Minister admitted to shortages of officers and equipment, yet held that the Government had taken all steps necessary to defend our borders. He claimed that "on the Chinese border there has been deployment of troops in the country in such a way that incursions into our territory are impossible". Our borders were safe, insisted Menon, and "the morale of the Indian army higher than ever before".
During Menon's speech, there were complaints that he was not audible. The Speaker said that this was because of too much noise in the House, but Kripalani was less charitable. The printed record has him saying, in Hindi, "Kuch sunne me nahin aata. Minister Sahib nicha muh karke bolte hain iss liye sunne ko nahin aata. (We can't hear anything. The Minister can't be heard because he is speaking with his head bowed [in shame])." The Speaker, irritated by the joke, retorted: "I thought the hon. Defence Minister is sufficiently audible. Probably, he (Kripalani) wants him to look up to him."
In truth, Menon looked up only to Jawaharlal Nehru, while Kripalani looked up to nobody at all. These were two intensely proud as well as greatly intelligent men. Their battle in the Lok Sabha was a rehearsal for a much larger battle outside it. For Kripalani was asked by the combined Opposition (the Communists excepted) to take on Menon in the General Elections of 1962. For this he had to shift from his safe seat of Sitamarhi to North Bombay, the constituency which the Defence Minister represented in Parliament.
At the hustings
In the rich, colourful and by now very extensive history of Indian elections, there has perhaps been no single contest as significant as that between Menon and Kripalani in North Bombay in 1962. So far as I know, this is the only such contest that has had a whole book written about it: the political scientist Aloo J. Dastur's Menon vs. Kripalani. An array of giants was brought out during the campaign. Speaking on Kripalani's side were such stalwarts as C. Rajagopalachari, as well as many distinguished non-party men lawyers, intellectuals, industrialists. Batting for Menon was the powerful Maharashtra Chief Minister, Y.B. Chavan, and senior members of the Union Cabinet. The Congress saw it as a prestige issue even Menon's known critics in Government, such as Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram, were commanded to go out and campaign on his behalf.
The contest was, among other things, a tribute to the cosmopolitan character of Bombay with a Malayali and a Sindhi competing for the affections of the people of a state not their own. Of course, this being Bombay, the constituency was very heterogeneous indeed many Marathi and Gujarati speakers, but also many Bhaiyyas from Uttar Pradesh, Goans, Sindhis, and Tamilians. These various segments were wooed by both contestants, with the campaign manifesting an intensity commensurate with the stature of the disputants, and the importance of their dispute.
Dastur's book reproduces the vibrant posters and evocative slogans used by either side. To this printed evidence, a friend adds this childhood recollection of a pro-Kripalani ditty: Chini hamla hote hain/Menon Saab sote hain/Sona hai tho sone do/Kripalani ji to aane do. (As China advances, Menon sleeps/Let him sleep if he must/But call Kripalani to be with us).
The Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, took the challenge to Menon as a challenge to himself. He inaugurated the Congress campaign in Bombay, but he found reason to support his man in other places as well. In Sangli, in Poona, in Baroda, he said that a defeat for Menon would signal a defeat for his own policies of socialism and non-alignment. His mentor's support helped Menon immeasurably. So did an incident that took his voters, indeed all of India, by surprise. This was the successful liberation of Goa, which took place in December 1961, weeks before the elections. Although the Government denied it, the action seemed timed to help the Defence Minister. For the Goa issue had been festering for years why was it resolved now, rather than six months before or a year later?
In the event, Kripalani's goose was cooked by Nehru's speeches and the action in Goa. He lost by more than a lakh votes. But for Menon, it was a Pyrrhic victory. Before the year was out he was forced to resign, acknowledging responsibility for the military defeat at the hands of China. Soon afterwards, Kripalani won a by-election from Amroha. He stayed in the Lok Sabha for the better part of the next decade, a thorn in the side of Nehru and the two Congress Prime Ministers who were to succeed him.
Ramachandra Guha is a historian and writer based in Bangalore. E-mail him at email@example.com
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