India’s 11-month Interim Government (1946-47) a landmark of political accommodation and powersharing


(Attn: “India in the Interregnum” on the Interim Government that was in place from September 1946 to August 1947 has just arrived at the stands. Presented below is an exclusive extract from the book)

By Rakesh Ankit
The record of the Interim Government 1946-47 can be assessed by varying criteria, absolute or relative. In absolute terms, of course, Partition did take place and the Indian political class moved away from a consociational, coalitional arrangement into a communal cauldron.
This became the raison d’atre for ignoring, overshadowing or downplaying the Interim Government’s existence in subsequent history writing. Furthermore, it became a standard line of attack on the existence and effectiveness of the September 1946-August 1947 government. Looked upon as a half-hearted compromise neglected by those who participated in it, it was deemed too little, too late, and neither inspiring nor efficient.
A contrast was drawn between the wishful faith in that government and the fateful reality all around it. But then, it is erroneous to look upon the Interim Government only as a last-ditch effort to stall/avoid Partition.
To endorse this critique is to overlook the serious limitations and underestimate the overwhelming pressures confronting that government. In fact, it can be misleading to debunk the Interim Government for not having gone far to prevent Partition. This argument, from hindsight, does little justice to the logic and politics of Partition that was the government’s damnosa hereditas from at least the late-1930s. On the other hand, the Interim Government had a clear record of activity and achievement in large areas of policy, which acted as a platform for its successor governments through the next two decades.
More broadly, in its own way, it was a landmark of political accommodation and powersharing, which was inherent in the transition from empire to dominions in British India. It brought Indian nationalists to the centre of governance and power but did so by evading, rather than resolving, dilemmas inherent in the potent potion of nationalism.
In economic terms, it provided a base for the ‘socialistic pattern of society’ of the 1950s. The planning and welfare state, a consequence to a large degree of wartime blueprints, saw a substantial social egalitarianism and a recasting of the fiscal system for social ends.
Notwithstanding the constraints of office, blandishments of civil service establishment and the economic elite, socialist convictions shone through the budget of February-March 1947. Its consensual nature cannot be exaggerated despite it being fiercely resisted on both the Congress’ and (Muslim) League’s sides by their conservative factions. Liaquat (Ali Khan, who went on to become Pakistan’s first Prime Minister) committed himself to a ‘tax-and-spend’ programme and (Jawaharlal) Nehru (who headed the dispensation with the powers of Prime Minister) supported him.
It was a gifted administration, a government of prima donnas in many ways, much like its British counterpart, but one in which the broad vision of Nehru, the managerial skills of Liaquat, the spartan intensity of (Sardar Vallabhbhai) Patel (the No.2 in the government), the ebullient authority of C. Rajagopalachari (later to become independent India’s first Governor General), the appealing austerity of (Rajendra) Prasad, the intellectualism of (Maulana Abul Kalam) Azad, the experience of (Dr John) Matthai, the administrative flair of Jagjivan Ram, and the loyalty of (Ibrahim Ismail) Chundrigar, Ghazanfar (Ali Khan) and (Abdur Rab) Nishtar were welded into some kind of a whole, while it lasted. Their socialist ideal was combined with executive competence and an eagerness to wield new-found power.A
Moreover, little by way of contrast can be usefully drawn with similar colonial or postcolonial experiences. Enduring social divisions – communal, caste, regional/linguistic and ethnic – economic inequality and the colonial state’s power, resistance to each symbolized by the gathering strength of the CPI and the alienation of large sections of the working class from national liberation struggles, hemmed in the Interim Government.
This heritage was a deep-rooted challenge to the institutional conservatism, which, in turn, steel-framed it. Its major priority of maintaining peace, establishing law and order, and protecting life and liberty, procedures, and processes was related to post-war reconstruction. At a time of collapse of inter-communal relations, it struggled valiantly in a multiplicity of roles to secure a bridgehead during a phase of transition.
In doing so, it was certainly not paralyzed by defeatism and is better off seen as a telescopic thread of continuity between the ministries of 1937-39 and the governments of 1946-51. To the extent possible, they all began busily with a whirl of activity on health, housing, local self-government, matters related to land and labour, inflation and employment, food rationing, and press freedom. They all derived their momentum from social radicalism and a new state contract. Thus, ‘control’ of industry and capital was of paramount emphasis for them.
That a tension-ridden polity and its share of despair and disillusion bedevilled the Interim Government makes its existence more and not less remarkable.
The Interim Government, then, was a rare landmark in the history of modern India. It may not have been a crowning achievement of unity and fraternity but it was certainly an alternative attempt at sharing and exercising power, plagued as it was by the rival tensions of grass-roots pressure on the Congress, the League, and others. In that sense, it was dualism symbolized and realism tempered. In the ‘advance’ towards independence/partition, it was an impulse of ‘consolidation’ in the face of structural opposition. Colonial state apparatus’ gradualism and moderation met with the impatient, democratic and self-determining urges of postcolonial society.
Was it impossible to reconcile these multiple contradictions inherent in it, namely British-Indians, Congress-League, Politicals-Officials, National-Provincial, State-Society? What about the popular perception of it, perhaps of protest at its zeal for power, without complete independence/partition? And finally, can it be seen as federalism/confederalism institutionalized even if briefly? Or, was it the case that it was the experience of the Interim Government with neither side willing to bow to the other that led to the emergence of two sovereign nation states? With pluralism, diversity, and multiplicity proving unworkable and unresolved, ‘free play between sections’ gave way to no play or different plays?
The uneasy and stressed ‘hybrid’ that it was, it proved to be the apotheosis of ‘high politics’. Of course, it was countered but the outcome remained uncertain down to June 1947. While the Partition Plan put its future in doubt, it was not done away with but was recast in August. The fault for its failure to survive did not lay in the Interim Government but in the very ambiguity of Indian nationalism as an organized force through the interwar years.
Manifestations of this ambiguity would confront the legatees of the Interim Government in both India and Pakistan after 1947. Not everything worked in the eleven months from September 1946 to August 1947 nor was there little difficulty, but, enough things worked for that time to be not written off. A number of different factors gave that government a purpose and a quality, it was neither expected to show then nor has been evaluated till now. There was the existence of an experienced group of ministers, along with two respected Viceroys. There was the experience of anticipation in the post-war years, with their desire for freedom and equality. There were clearly defined priorities on a range of policies as there were self-conscious provincial governments.
The overwhelming public mood was one of change, the overpowering urge was one of self-determination and these imperatives served broadly to bring together the interim cabinet, despite all incompatibilities. They served to bring together, if briefly, the British, the Congress, the League, the ‘official mind’, the floating political actors and social agents, the press, and the industrialists. (Thus), the break in 1947 by this time was not so much tragic as teleological.
(Rakesh Ankit teaches history and international politics at Loughborough University, Leicestershire Univerity. Published with permission from Oxford University Press)