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Krishna Menon's campaign in Bombay

CHARLES LEWIS

An eyewitness account of the electioneering in 1957.


We visited countless villages, and everywhere it was the same thing. Huge crowds surged forward, blocking the streets, while Menon was drowned by the surrounding uproar, his umbrella knocked away by the ceaseless bombardment of flowers and bouquets. He insisted, in spite of the heat of the day, the dust and the exhaustion, on fulfilling his programme.

PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Inexhaustible devotion to his work: Krishna Menon of the United Nations.

I ARRIVED in Bombay at the height of an election fever, the second General Election since Independence. The Congress Party were expected to win by a landslide, but what with nepotism, corruption and other sins of omission and commission the local Party was none too popular, and the Communists and Socialists were expected to make inroads into the Congress majority. Also Nehru's Government was fiercely criticised for its State policy of reducing the country to an even smaller number of States, without due allowance for linguistic groups. In the process neighbouring Madras, Mysore and Andhra had swallowed up the whole of Hyderabad, and Bombay now embraced the whole of Gujarat and Maharashtra. The complex bilingual problems in Bombay State had led to serious riots in the city, and were now being raised into a major election issue. Gruesome election posters bore witness to the bloodletting that had occurred a few months before, and would recur if Congress were allowed to go through with its linguistic policy.

Into the fray came Krishna Menon, straight from his Security Council triumph, to contest a Lok Sabha seat for North Bombay. He had previously held a seat in the non-electoral Upper House. He had become a national hero in the last few days for his championing of India's cause over Kashmir at the United Nations. Special newsreels were shown in every cinema of the dramatic scenes of his marathon speech and collapse from exhaustion. Every day the newspapers rivalled each other in extolling the excellence of Sri Krishna Menon. A fan club of Menonites went round energetically canvassing for him in his constituency, distributing pamphlets inviting everyone to meet "The great self-sacrificing patriotic son of our people".

In the Menon bandwagon

Perhaps the highlight of my stay in Bombay was getting caught up in the Menon bandwagon. How this happened I will now relate if only to refute a garbled report that I stayed with Krishna Menon on a houseboat in the middle of the Ganges. I first saw him at a press conference I gate crashed at the Taj Mahal Hotel.

He had just come back from New York and was addressing the Press Guild of India. He appeared (to my surprise because one generally sees Menon in Western clothes) in simple white cotton robes, in the style of his native Malabar.

Facing a battery of intense spotlights and flashbulbs, he spoke about the freedom of the press, making an oblique reference to the scurrilous article about the Queen that had appeared in a Congress journal, which he called "unrestrained, uncalled for and un-Indian". There were a number of Western correspondents at this press conference, but it was obvious that not only was Menon more at ease on home ground, but he was not the savage the press made him out to be on the other side of the Atlantic.

Here is a sample of what he said, which was often repeated in the next few days during the course of many electioneering addresses. He referred to two basic needs in India, national unity and national security. It would be "a long time before we can enjoy the luxury of party politics". India must be a united nation — nationalism was not just a thing of the past, worked up specially to achieve independence from the British. It was a vital force, which must be kept alive today to maintain unity in the struggle to achieve real independence and freedom.

Incidentally, this reference to the Congress Party being still a dynamic national movement was strongly criticised by many of his colleagues, because it did not agree very well with the democratic concept of a healthy opposition, which was what the Congress badly needed. But Menon was stressing the national character of the Congress movement in order to discredit the United Front adopted by the Opposition parties in Bombay against the Congress over the linguistic issue.

National security issues

Photos: The Hindu Photo Library

India's second General Elections: Orderly and organized polling booths.

The other basic need was for national security, on which domestic and foreign policy depended. Menon would not be drawn into acrimonious debate on Kashmir (he'd already had his fill in the Security Council). He confined himself to saying that Kashmir was irrefutably a part of the Indian Union, and that aggression of Pakistan in Kashmir was aggression by Pakistan against the whole of India. He regretted that the foreign press and the UN did not take this into account properly. As for Suez (still very fresh in everyone's minds, apart from the fact that at the time Menon was bringing added glory to India and himself by acting as a go-between), let the past be forgotten, though the present and the future must be considered and Egypt's sovereignty respected.

Referring to the deterioration of Anglo-Indian relations he attributed it to misunderstandings and the uninformed criticism of the U.K. press (Telegraph and Express were the chief offenders, as far as I can remember) rather than to the U.K. Government itself. The question of leaving the Commonwealth was "purely hypothetical" at the moment. Only children sulk, and India was now a "mature" nation. Commonwealth relations depend on "mutual respect, mutual reciprocity and mutual interests". There was no point "in making one person a bad boy". He was sure that the attitude of the U.K. and the Security Council could be swayed in India's favour, so long as Indian opinion was united. Relations with the American people were friendly, but misunderstood because of the element of "bloc-politics", which involves the supply of arms to Pakistan.

Menon was not very convincing when he tried to explain his recent equivocations over Hungary. He claimed that Indian public opinion was misinformed — in the Security Council he had strongly opposed the presence of foreign troops in sovereign territory (a principle frequently invoked against the use of UN troops to enforce a plebiscite in Kashmir). Finally, Goa represented the last vestige of foreign colonisation on the subcontinent — it should not be removed by force, but by peaceful methods in the same way as independence was won from the British.

Impressive

Throughout the press conference Menon impressed by his persuasiveness, reasonableness and good humour. He was not arrogant or vicious in spite of numerous "needle" questions. At the same time his argument was always slightly difficult to follow, so that one could not nail him down to anything explicitly said. The conclusions were implied rather than stated.

I went to a number of big rallies, which Krishna Menon addressed in Bombay. One was on a large maidan surrounded by relics of Imperial India. Another was on Chowpatti beach, where all the world goes for an evening walk, and where the trade in paan is briskest. The routine was much the same. People would turn up and sit quietly on the grass roped in and watched by turbaned policemen around, with lathis in case of trouble. A large dais, festooned with Congress flags and slogans, stood in front of the immense audience, with Congress officials neatly arranging the divan and cushions on which their leaders would sit, while other officials with pantomimic gestures directed people here and there to VIP seats or to the back.

Applause began with the arrival of the President of the Bombay Congress Party — Mr. S.K. Patil. A band struck up a somewhat feeble chant and then was immediately drowned by tremendous cheers as Menon himself arrived on the dais; Patil introduced Menon, stressing the part of India in world affairs, and especially Mr. Menon, as India's greatest ambassador abroad (cheers). Party differences and local issues must be submerged in the grater issue of India's prestige and interests abroad, which Sri Menon so ably represented, e.g. Kashmir (deafening cheers). Bombay was a great metropolitan and cosmopolitan city, so the fact that Mr. Menon was born in South India was of no importance whatever...

What Mr. Patil didn't mention, obvious as it turned out, was that Menon could not speak Hindi. Though Patil spoke in Hindi, or had his English translated into Hindi, Menon talked in English the whole time, without any interpretation at all, and generally at great length and well above the heads of the audience, had they been able to understand English. It was pointed out, however, that the mere presence of Krishna Menon was enough, that the longer he spoke, no matter how incomprehensibly, the longer he could be gazed at in reverent awe.

After attending a few of these meetings, I was able to pick out some of the party organisers, and at the end of one meeting enquired of one of them about the possibility of meeting Menon some time. I was told to go round to the flat where Menon was staying and ask his Private Secretary [Romesh Bhandari]. The PS was very courteous, and appreciated the evident and genuine interest of a foreigner. He would ask Mr. Menon if I could accompany him on the next day's electioneering tour, and phone back.

I got a call the next day, just as I was entertaining some friends to tea and bemoaning the fact that it couldn't possibly happen. I dashed off to the flat and arrived at the lift just as a corpse was wheeled out. There was no time to wonder what fearful portent this might be. I was taken up several storeys and then ushered into a pleasant living room where the owner of the flat, his wife, the PS, some friends and an American woman photographer [Margaret Bourke-White?] were sitting around having tea.

Menon could be seen in the next room pacing about in a dressing gown. He came in a few minutes later, dressed as usual in his South Indian clothes, and joked with his friends. I was introduced and when he heard where I'd come from he enquired whether it wasn't improper of me, still under Colonial Office contract, to become involved in an election campaign. I assured him I was under no obligations one way or the other. Then he chatted about the Cohens, "Mr. Cohen of the Colonial Office" whom he had known in London. Then he asked me if I would mind going in one of the following cars with the American woman and some of his friends, so as not to arouse any misunderstanding and embarrassment. He told us nevertheless that he much appreciated our interest in "India's great proclamation of democracy" — more people going to the polls than the total population of the USA — and welcomed our company.

On the campaign trail

It was time to be off. The American woman and I got into a car with two businessmen from Delhi who had, like many others of Menon's ardent supporters, given up their jobs to come and assist him in his election campaign. We drove fast to keep up with the cream and saffron coloured Plymouth, which was taking Krishna Menon northwards to a meeting with the residents of Santa Cruz. It was not a big meeting but Menon spoke for an hour or more in the hot afternoon sunshine, and adapted his speech to his audience, which happened to be largely Christian, emphasising the tolerance, which a secular state granted to Hindus, Muslims and Christians alike.

Then we were off in the cars again to another residential quarter where in a moment a large crowd of school children and other people gathered round, pressing forward to see the great man. Again he spoke at great length, hoarsely into a microphone. He didn't spare himself, though his audience was insignificant, and he drove himself to the point of collapse. He was revived and hurried off in the car to another meeting. In the meanwhile I was taken to a rendezvous at the film colony of Mahim, where Menon was already due to address a meeting.



Krishna Menon with Nehru.

A large stand had been erected, colourfully draped with bunting and flags, and a large crowd had collected to hear Menon and see the film stars who sat complacently on the stand. The crowd got restless, and began rooting for the film stars. Far from being a political meeting, it became a variety show as first one star and then another came forward, sang songs and cracked jokes. Menon's arrival, two hours behind schedule, was hardly noticed. He was very tired and had to be more or less carried on to the stage. But once at the microphone he rallied, and delivered yet another lengthy oration. As soon as he had finished there were wild scenes of enthusiasm and everyone rushed forward to mob him, but he was whisked away for a reviving cup of tea at a nearby local HQ. No one had eaten since midday, but that seemed a minor consideration in the mad rush from one meeting after another.

The last meeting of the day was held in the streets of Bombay itself. Menon began, "Good morning friends". It was already 1.00 a.m., yet the narrow street was packed with people in their night shirts sitting in the road, standing on the kerb, leaning out of windows and balconies and clinging to the lamp posts. Everywhere there was a blaze of light and noise as the amplifiers thundered from every corner. As quickly as they had assembled people vanished after the meeting was over. It was well after two o'clock before anyone in Menon's retinue got to bed.

I was around at the flat again by half past six, as ordered. Menon came in looking reasonably refreshed, and chuckled over the exploits of yesterday. We sat down to a light breakfast of corn flakes, toast and tea, which the delightful PS's wife bullied Menon into finishing. The papers were quickly perused, and concern expressed at the Communists' successes in Kerala, and then we all piled into the large Plymouth for the most hectic day of all. At a rendezvous in North Bombay Menon transferred to a specially prepared Jeep, something like Elijah's chariot, on to which clambered anyone who could find an inch of space.

People's excitement


An extraordinary cavalcade then set forth, a black car with a wailing siren up in front, followed by a Chevrolet lorry equipped with madly enthusiastic party workers with loud speakers and megaphones, followed by the Jeep, followed by the Plymouth, and behind that a whole stream of cars, lorries, scooters, bicycles, all moving at a frightening speed like a real chase of cops and robbers. Excited people came terrifyingly close to get a glimpse of Menon as we roared by, and at every stop he was immediately engulfed by uncontrollable mobs who thrust garlands and bouquets at him, shouting "Vote for, Vote for, Vote for, CONGRESS, CONGRESS!"

We visited countless villages, and everywhere it was the same thing. Huge crowds surged forward, blocking the streets, while Menon was drowned by the surrounding uproar, his umbrella knocked away by the ceaseless bombardment of flowers and bouquets. He insisted, in spite of the heat of the day, the dust and the exhaustion, on fulfilling his programme, and it wasn't until 2.30 p.m. or so that he appeared at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon in his honour, which he insisted the "two foreigners" should attend.

In the afternoon the same rush again from one meeting to another. Eventually we lost track of him at Juhu, after he had held forth to a group of fishermen. We were too tired even to dig up whisky bottles from the beach, so we gave up the chase and returned to Bombay.

The actual voting

The following day polling began all over Bombay. I adjudged it impolitic for me to be around when Menon toured the polling booths, so I went round with a friend. It was impressive to see how orderly and organised everything was. In the villages particularly there was heavy polling. Every adult who could get to a booth, and they were plenty in number, did so, maimed, halt, blind, drunk or otherwise. Local party officials were reluctant to say which way they thought the voting was going, but it was fairly clear at that stage, and confirmed by the final count, that Menon's personality won him a great many votes. In some areas where the electors voted for a non-Congress candidate for the State Assembly seat, they voted for Menon for the Lok Sabha seat.

It had been a most stimulating few days, and although I had seen Menon at a favourable time, a national hero and surrounded by loyal friends, I was impressed by his inexhaustible devotion to his work, by his complete lack of arrogance and by his ready friendliness. He has many detractors, not only in the West, and there are episodes in his career, which are hurriedly glossed over. But it seems that there is a deliberate attempt in some circles to discredit and misrepresent a man who is utterly devoted to the advancement of his country and her interests. What true patriot isn't?

Charles Lewis first visited India 50 years ago after graduating from Cambridge and following an 18-month assignment in Uganda as ADC to the then Governor Sir Andrew Cohen. He arrived in Bombay by sea in February 1957, and spent the next six months travelling in India and Pakistan. He went back to the U.K. via Afghanistan, Iran and Turkey, writing up his experiences on his return home. This description of the 1957 elections in Bombay is taken from his travelogue.

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