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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 21 New Delhi May 14, 2016

Krishna Menon: Not Millstone but Milestone

Monday 16 May 2016, by Nikhil Chakravartty

From N.C.’s Writings

May 3 marked the 120th birth anniversary of Vengali Krishnan Krishna Menon, the former Defence Minister of India (popularly known as V.K. Krishna Menon). Unfortunately the anniversary went largely unnoticed. He was born near Calicut on May 3, 1896 and passed away in New Delhi on October 6, 1974. On this occasion we are reproducing the following piece from N.C.’s “New Delhi Skyline” written in Mainstream (December 3, 1966). This was written in the context of the ongoing debate within the pre-split Congress leadership on whether or not to accede to Krishna Menon’s demand that he be allowed to contest from the North Bombay constitutency he had successfully fought and won in the previous Lok Sabha elections in 1962. The eventual decision of the then Congress leadership to deny him that seat resulted in Krishna Menon’s exit from the Congress at the end of December 1966.  

At one time Krishna Menon was an enigma to many in Indian politics. Today Krishna Menon has become the touchstone of political awareness for different groups at the power-centre of the Congress.

The raging controversy has shaken the High Command almost as severely as it did at the time of the two dramatic tussles for succession to Prime Ministership in the last three years. And out of this battle royal, the High Command as a whole has bruised itself much more severely than Sri Menon himself.

A key feature of this entire episode—perhaps the most crucial in the post-Nehru era so far—has been the significant coming together of the two stalwarts of the Right, Sri Morarji Desai and Sri S.K. Patil. Ranged against them in disarrary have been the Prime Minister and the Congress President; in fact, the ccombined Right could take the maximum advantage of the mutual antipathy that prevails today between Smt Gandhi and Sri Kamaraj. Five years ago, a senior Cabinet Minister who was a mutual friend of both Sri Desai and Sri Patil tried to bring them together but was told off by the latter that even if they two agreed they could never unite. Today this almost-axiomatic feature of the current Indian political scene seems to have changed and the meeting of minds that Sri Patil and Sri Desai could arrive at over the Krishna Menon controversy is a significant indication of the shape of things to come. It is at the same time a measure of the strength as well as weakness of both the Right and the Left inside the Congress.

By itself, the allocation of a seat to a leading political figure like Sri Menon is not a matter of dispute for the Congress leadership, because it is taken for granted that Sri Menon can win his way to the Lok Sabha from most of the constituencies in the country. It is precisely because of this mass eminence that he commands that the Right forces wanted to stage a crisis of veto in the allocation of his present constituency in North Bombay: a sort of stalling action was planned by Sri Patil to demonstrate the strength of his faction as also of the entire Right. He therefore decided to concentrate on making a prestige issue out of the controversy around Sri Menon’s ticket for North Bombay.

In fact, Sri Patil had been trying to precipitate controversy at the time of the Ernakulam AICC when Sri Patil and his Syndicate were issuing warnings that Sri Menon would not be given the North Bombay constituency. At that time the Congress High Command, particularly Sri Kamaraj and Smt Gandhi, did not seem to have attached much importance to this objection: they were confident that the issue could be settled at the Central Election Committee. At Ernakulam itself, Sri Kamaraj is believed to have made it clear to both Sri Chavan and Sri Patil that he would like Sri Menon to get the North Bombay constituency, since it is the normal procedure for a sitting member having won with a large majority to be asked to stand from his own constituency. Although at an informal level Sri Patil had never relented in his objection to Sri Menon contesting from Bombay, political observers in the Capital believe that perhaps he would not have forced a crisis over it if he could have managed to wangle the Home portfolio after the ouster of Sri Nanda in which Sri Patil played a leading part. In fact, Sri Patil’s disapp-ointment over the Home portfolio was regarded as a setback for the political prestige of the Syndicate.

Then came Sri Patil’s operation in which he got the Pradesh Election Committee in Bombay to eliminate Sri Menon from the list of recommen-dations to the Centre; this was done without the consent of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress and the Chief Minister Sri V.P. Naik despite the fact that two of the Assembly constituencies within Sri Menon’s present parliamentary constituency of North Bombay fall within the jurisdiction of the Maharashtra Pradesh Congress Committee. After stage-managing the Bombay PEC veto against Sri Menon, both Sri Patil and Sri Atulya Ghosh started practically an all-India campaign that Sri Menon should not be given his old constituency because it would not be fair for the Central Election Committee to go against the recommendations of a Pradesh Election Committee unless there were very substantial reasons for doing so; an apparently democratic stand was thus sought to be taken by the Syndicate with the argument that since the election campaign would have to be conducted by the party organisation at the base, the wishes of the lower unit should as a rule be respected by the central body.

Against this controversy, hardly any move—not even a counter-explanatory campaign—was taken on the part of the Congress President or the Prime Minister, a sort of complacence could be noticed in the High Command circles. And taking advantage of this drift, Sri Patil made the Menon nomination a prestige issue for himself and the Bombay Congress. This is in evident contrast to the position taken by Nehru at the time of the selection of candidates for the 1962 General Election. At that time also Sri Patil and his tribe tried to raise objections to Sri Menon standing from North Bombay. But Nehru made it clear that he would definitely want Sri Menon to contest from his old constituency, and once this was made clear by the Prime Minister, the local Congress bosses, despite evident non-cooperation with Sri Menon’s electioneering campaign, could not come out in frontal opposition to it; the only exception was Sri Patil’s Man Friday, Sri Shantilal Shah, who could be found to be campaigning against Sri Menon during the 1962 General Election.

This attitude of drift on the part of the Congress President was mainly because of his belief that he could solve the dispute by some sort of organisational gimmick. The Syndicate’s argument about the CEC respecting the wishes of the PEC was sought to be nullified by the decision taken on the question of Sri Kamalnayan Bajaj’s ticket: the Maharashtra PEC shrewdly refused to recommend Sri Bajaj’s candidature from his old constituency of Wardha and when Sri Bajaj’s appeal came up before the CEC, it was quietly upheld by the Congress President knowing that both Sri Morarji Desai and Sri Patil would be strongly interested in the fate of their protégé. Presumably the Congress President and Sri Chavan thought that by once demolishing the Syndicate’s pseudo-democratic claim that the PEC recommendation should be regarded as sacrosanct, they would be able to silence Sri Patil when the question of Sri Menon’s candidature would be taken up for consideration in the CEC. What they did not seem to have bargained for was the stubborn stand by the Syndicate, now reinforced with the support of Sri Morarji and his group.

The main weakness of the pro-Menon elements in the Central Election Committee have sprung from the fact that Sri Patil and his faction have taken the maximum advantage of the state of armed neutrality that marks the prevailing relationship between Smt Gandhi and Sri Kamaraj. It is no secret that both the Congress President and the Prime Minister have been scrutinising the nominations for the Congress tickets in the light of the prospective accretion of strength in the Congress Parliamentary Party that each side would like to mobilise after the General Election. The anxiety to raise their respective strength to the maximum in the Parliamentary Party has almost paralysed any political initiative on their part against the Right. In other words, the division in the camp of the anti-Right has been exploited to the full by the combined stand of the Right.

This is clear from the position taken by both Sri Kamaraj and Smt Gandhi. The Congress President was anxious not to alienate Sri Patil and his Syndicate for fear that if they threw in their lot with the Prime Minister, then in the selection of candidates in the major States, Sri Kamaraj might be a loser. It is also to be noted that the lesson drawn by Sri Kamaraj’s camp from the episode surrounding Sri Nanda’s resignation was that the Syndicate on its own initiative could dislodge an ardent supporter of Sri Kamaraj himself, completely flouting their personal loyalty to the Congress President. It was therefore evident that despite his known views, strongly expressed in informal discussions, in favour of Sri Menon’s candidature from North Bombay, Sri Kamaraj could not take up the issue as a frontal challenge to the Syndicate.

On the other hand, Smt Gandhi, who is also equally interested in seeing that Sri Menon is not humiliated by having to quit North Bombay, was inhibited by the very same consideration which weighed heavily with the Congress President. There is no gainsaying the fact that she is keen on maximising the strength of her supporters in the drawing up of the list of Congress candi-dates from UP and Bihar, the key strongholds which would play a decisive role in the election of the future Prime Minister after March next year. Political observers in the Capital have noted the significant stand by her on the Menon issue: instead of forcing an early decision on the subject, she was pleading most of the time for postponement of its consideration. It appears that her main concern was that Sri Patil’s displeasure should not be invited untilafter the UP and Bihar lists were finalised. Smt Gandhi already knew that Sri Patil was rather embittered at her choosing Sri Chavan as the Home Minister in place of himself; and she was not prepared to antagonise him further over the Menon question until the cases in which she herself is interested, namely, the UP and Bihar lists, had been finalised.

This way the entire political initiative on the Menon controversy had passed into the hands of Sri Patil and his Syndicate long before it was formally opened inside the CEC.

This is reflected also in the position of the minor actors in the CEC drama. Sri Chavan was expected to speak up for Sri Menon, but actually he confined himself to a narration of his talks with him. It would not be surprising if Sri Chavan’s known support for Sri Menon’s case was cramped by the consideration that since the two principals were not openly emphatic, should wisdom permit him to rush in support of Sri Menon? The new Home Minister’s relations with Sri Morarji are cordial and there is no earthly reason why he should spoil his own chances in the March battle for the Prime Ministership, when neither Sri Kamaraj nor Smt Gandhi were not risking theirs. Sri Sadiq had gone away but he did not let down Sri Menon, the Kashmir Chief Minister having recorded with the Congress President beforehand his vote in support of Sri Menon. Curiously enough, it was left to Sri Jagjivan Ram and Sri Nanda to formally propose that Sri Menon should be given a seat, preferably from Delhi, if Bombay could not be managed. Sri D.P. Mishra (who, incidentally is regarded as the chief architect of Smt Gandhi’s strategy in the CEC) was generous with an offer of a safe seat for Sri Menon from Madhya Pradesh. At this, Sri Desai was reported to have butted in that what the CEC was seized with at the moment was the Bombay list and not the Delhi nor the Madhya Pradesh list. Whereupon it was summarily decided that the Congress President should discuss with Sri Krishna Menon as to the constituency from which the latter should contest.

Smt Indira Gandhi outspoken support at the Press Club next evening for Sri Menon’s claim to the North Bombay constituency came as a pleasant surprise to many of Sri Menon’s supporters, but those who know the New Delhi cross-currents could detect a new element in the controversy. By this public assertion in support of Sri Menon’s case the Prime Minister was obviously trying to dispel the impression that she was a party to letting down Sri Menon in the CEC—although, in the bargain, she helped to spread the equally unwholesome impression that the Prime Minister’s wishes carried little or no weight in the CEC. By implication, the responsibility for Sri Menon’s discomfiture was sought to be thrown on Sri Kamaraj’s shoulders. By one shot, Smt Gandhi tried to kill two birds at the same time, namely, that she was upholding the claim of the progressive wing and that Sri Kamaraj, despite all his talks of being a prog-ressive, had actually capitulated to the reactio-nary pressure. Thus, in the game of power-politics that marks the Congress High Command chessboard today, Sri Kamaraj seems to have been badly cornered.

At the time these lines are being written, it is not clear how the Congress President is going to extricate himself from the quandary in which he is placed. His image as an independent political figure is threatened, particularly because there has never been any occasion in which he could claim to have confronted the Syndicate on a straight issue; rather, the periphery within which he personally moves is largely dominated by the Syndicate personalities. The Menon controversy offered him with the chance to assert his independence over the Syndicate. That is why New Delhi circles are all the more intrigued about Sri Kamaraj’s next move, if he would be able to put the Syndicate on the leash or let it celebrate its triumph in this crucial controversy. Reports are current in the Capital that Sri Kamaraj may offer Sri Menon a Madras seat, thereby demonstrating his difference with the Syndicate.

In the current state of cold war at the level of the Central leadership, many may be led to believe that Sri Kamaraj’s discomfiture would be to Smt Gandhi’s benefit; if one is down, the other should be up. But the reality may not necessarily unfold itself according to such factio-nalist astrology. With Sri Kamaraj humbled over the Menon controversy, the gainer is undoubtedly the Right. The ominous signs of a Patil-Morarji rapprochement can by no means be to Smt Gandhi’s advantage. If this new axis is forged, the spoils of office would be carefully distributed by the Right, Kept at bay by Nehru for fourteen long years that followed Sardar Patel’s death, and after Nehru’s death, it is Sri Kamaraj who has so long been instrumental in keeping them from the centre of power. This new get-together of Sri Patil and Sri Desai therefore marks a new, though desperate, bid of the Right to run down Sri Kamaraj. And if the Congress President’s authority is vetoed by the Right coterie, the whip-hand does not pass to the Prime Minister but to Sri Patil in conjunction with Sri Morarji. In the prevailing tendency of shortsighted squabbling between Smt Gandhi and Sri Kamaraj, it is doubtful if this lesson of the Menon episode will easily dawn upon the Prime Minister and her confidants.

If the irony of history should be that Sri Patil, who could worm his way upto the Cabinet in 1957 mainly as a reward from Nehru for the management of Sri Krishna Menon’s election to the Lok Sabha, is today marking his triumph by trying to humiliate Sri Menon nine years later over the same question of his re-election from Bombay, it is no less a case of poetic justice that Sri Kamaraj should have to suffer his first major reverse as the Congress President at the hands of the very Syndicate which he has so long been able to use as the instrument of his own purpose. More important for New Delhi observers to note, however, is the new pattern of power-alignment in the offing: the fading out of mutual allergy between Sri Patil and Sri Morarji Desai, which alone can ensure a Right consolidation that the pro-West lobby, with the sincerest blessings of Washington and Wall Street, have all these years been trying to achieve. No one in New Delhi—that is, no one who has his eyes and ears open—hs any doubt that the immediate objective of this new consolidation is to exercise the casting vote in the election for India’s next Prime Minister.

It is against this new alignment of forces that one is tempted to pose the question before both Smt Gandhi and Sri Kamaraj, if the time hs not come for those ranged against the Right to close up their ranks, to forget petty advantages, demarcate themselves clearly and sharply from all shades of the Right, and put up the united front that alone can upset the calculations of both Sri Desai and Sri Patil.

Sri Krishna Menon’s case is thus no millstone round the neck of the Congress High Command. Rather, the controversy raging round his parliamentary ticket has turned out to be a new milestone in the arduous journey of the democrats within the Congress against the power and the mischief of the plutocrats, both indigenous and foreign.       

(Mainstream, December 3, 1966)