Madras Presidency legislative assembly election, 1937
The First legislative assembly election for the Madras Presidency was held in February 1937, as part of the nationwide provincial elections. The Indian National Congress obtained a majority by winning 159 of 215 seats in the Legislative Assembly. This was the first electoral victory for the Congress in the presidency since elections were first conducted for Madras Legislative Council in 1920. The Justice Party which had ruled the presidency for most of the previous 17 years was voted out of power. The assembly was constituted in July 1937 and C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) became the first Congress Chief Minister of Madras.
The Congress also won the election held simultaneously for the Legislative Council. The victory in Madras was the Congress' most impressive electoral performance in all the provinces of British India. The Congress Government that was formed after the elections lasted till October 1939, when it resigned protesting India's involvement in the Second World War. The next election was held in 1946.
Government of India Act of 1935
The Government of India Act of 1935 abolished dyarchy and ensured provincial autonomy. It created a bicameral legislature in the Madras province. The Legislature consisted of the Governor and two Legislative bodies - a Legislative Assembly and a Legislative Council. The Assembly consisted of 215 members who were further classified into General seats and those reserved for special communities and interests:
|General||Scheduled Castes||Mohammadans||Indian Christians||Women||Landholders||Commerce and Industry||Labour and Trade Unions||Europeans||Anglo Indians||University||Backward areas and tribes|
The Legislative Council Consisted of a minimum of 54 and a maximum of 56 members. It was a permanent body not subject to dissolution by the Governor and one-third of its members retired every three years. 46 of its members were elected directly by the electorate while the Governor could nominate 8 to 10 members. The breakdown of seats in the Council was as follows:
The Act provided for a limited adult franchise based on property qualifications. Seven million people, roughly 15% of the Madras people holding land or paying urban taxes were qualified to be the electorate. Separate ballot boxes were kept for candidates of different political parties. The Congress was allotted the yellow coloured box, while the Muslim League was allotted green coloured box.
Issues and Campaign
The Justice Party had been in power in Madras for 17 years since 1920. Its hold on power was briefly interrupted only once in 1926-28 when P. Subbarayan was a non-affiliated Chief Minister.
Unpopularity of the Justice Government
The Justice Government under the Raja of Bobbili had been steadily losing ground since the early 1930s. It was beset with factional politics and its popularity was eroding slowly due to the autocratic rule of Bobbili Raja. The Raja was inaccessible to his own party members and tried to destroy the power and influence of the District level leaders who were instrumental in the party winning power earlier. The Suthanthira Sangu, in its issue dated February 26, 1935 explained the destruction of the power of local bodies:
The Local Boards Act has been recently amended, taluk boards have been abolished, a district board has been bifurcated and attempts have been made to bifurcate other boards, which are hostile to him... He is superseding municipalities, which do not bow to his authority, removing chairmen not liked by him and trying to forfeit the liberty of these bodies by the appointment of Commissioners.
The Justice party was seen as the collaborative party, agreeing with the British Government's harsh measures. Its economic policies during the Great Depression of the 1930s were also highly unpopular. Its refusal to decrease the land revenue taxation in non-Zamindari areas by 12.5% was hugely unpopular. The Bobbili Raja, himself a Zamindar, cracked down on the Congress protests demanding reduction of the revenue. This further reduced the popularity of the Justice Party. The Governor of Madras, Lord Erskine reported to the then Secretary of State Zetland in February 1937, that the peasants in South India had become fed up with the Justice Party and "every sin of omission or commission of the past fifteen years is put down to them [Justice Party]". The affluent lifestyle led by the Justice ministers at the height of the Great Depression were sharply criticized by the Madras Press. They drew a monthly salary of Rs. 4,333.60 when compared to Rs. 2,250 per month the ministers in the Central Provinces received. This invoked the ire of the Madras press. The newspaper India wrote:
Is not Rs. 2,000 enough for Madras ministers, who were only second-rate vakils (lawyers) in the mufassal (rural areas)? When the poor are suffering for want of money, they are drawing fat salaries? What an injustice?.. When the country is on fire, when the axe of retrenchment has fallen on the poor and when the people are experiencing intense suffering under the heavy burden of taxation, the Madras Ministers have started on their tours immediately after passing the budget.
Even the European owned newspaper The Madras Mail which had been the champion of the earlier Justice Governments was sickened by the ineptitude and patronage policies of the Bobbili Raja administration. On 1 July 1935, it wrote in its editorial: "if the Justice Party is really determined upon reorganisation... the spoils system must go. The extent of the discontent against the Justice Government is reflected in an article of Zamin Ryot:
The Justice Party has disgusted the people of this presidency like plague and engendered permanent hatred in their hearts. Everybody, therefore, is anxiously awaiting the fall of the Justice regime which they consider tyrannical and inauguration of the Congress administration...Even old women in villages ask as to how long the ministry of the Raja of Bobbili would continue
Resurgence of the Congress
The Swaraj Party which had been the Justice party's main opposition merged with the Indian National Congress in 1935 when the Congress decided to participate in the electoral process. The Madras Province Congress party was led by S. Satyamurti and was greatly rejuvenated by its successful organisation of the Salt Satyagraha and Civil Disobedience movement of 1930-31. The Civil Disobedience movement, the Land Tax reduction agitations and Union organizations helped the Congress to mobilize popular opposition to the Bobbili Raja government. The revenue agitations brought the peasants into the Congress fold and the Gandhian hand spinning programme assured the support of weavers. Preferential treatment given to European traders brought the support of the indigenous industrialists and commercial interests. The Congress had effective campaigners like Satyamurti and Rajaji while the Justice party had only Arcot Ramasamy Mudaliar to counter them. The Congress election manifesto was populist in nature and promised to reduce land revenue taxes, to ensure decent working conditions and wages for the laborers, low rents and all around prosperity. It even appealed to the Europeans who had reserved seats in the Assembly. It also appealed to the nationalist sentiment of the populace. Commenting on the Congress's manifesto, the Indian Annual Register said:
The promises made in the election manifesto by the congress, while seeking suffrage, roused hopes, that the Congress government, if voted to power, would give relief to them. Perhaps the Agrarian distress forced the Indian National Congress to give up the policy and programme of non-cooperation and to undertake the responsibility of Government under a hated act
The Congress campaign was effective and targeted all sections of the population like peasants, workers, weavers and businessmen. Against it the Justice party had no definite program or policies. It could only harp on the Brahmin domination in Congress. Amidst the backdrop of the Great Depression and economic distress their charge was not effective. Satyamurti utilised the services of popular actors like Chittor V. Nagaiah and K. B. Sundarambal for the election campaign. In particular Sundarambal vigorously campaigned for the Congress. Satyamurti also produced a campaign film directed by A. Narayanan of Srinivasa Cinetone. It featured the speeches of Rajaji, Satyamurti and other Congress leaders. But the film was banned by the colonial government. The coloured box system enabled the most organised party - the Congress to have uniform slogans throughout the presidency. The slogan "vote for Gandhi and the yellow box", was very popular and helped the party to mobilise its supporters.
The other parties contesting the election were the Madras Province Muslim League (MPML) headed by Jamal Mohammad, the People's Party of Madras started by Raja of Pithapuram (a breakaway faction from the Justice Party) and the Muslim Progressive Party led by Nawab C. Abdul Hakim and S. M. Pasha.
Total Number of Seats : 215
|Indian National Congress (INC)||159||Justice Party (JUSP)||18||Madras Province Muslim League (MPML)||11|
|Southern India Chamber of Commerce||1||Nattukottai Nagarathar Association||1||European Commerce||3|
|Justice Supported Parties||2||Anglo Indians||2|
|Muslim Progressive Party||1|
|People's Party of Madras||1|
|TOTAL (1937)||160||TOTAL (1937)||21||TOTAL (1937)||34|
Note : The Nattukottai Nagarathar Association and Southern India Chamber of Commerce were seats reserved for Indian Commerce (businessmen). Nagarathar Association seat was won by Rajah Muthiah Chettiar (allied with Justice Party) and the Southern India Chamber of Commerce seat was won by T. T. Krishnamachari of Congress.
Causes for Defeat
The victory of Congress over the Justice Party has been ascribed to various reasons. N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu and Robert L. Hardgrave, Professor Emeritus in the Humanities,Government and Asian Studies at University of Texas, Austin attribute the defeat of the Justice party to its collaboration with the British Government. According to Hardgrave:
The Justice Party had strangled itself on the rope it had woven: Support of the British Raj had brought it to power, but with the impact of national self-consciousness and aspiration for Swaraj, its imperial connection brought its defeat
Dr. David A. Washbrook, Senior Research Fellow of History at Trinity College, Cambridge and Andre Béteille say the elitist nature of the Justice Party members caused its defeat. Marguerite Ross Barnett attributes the Justice party's defeat to two causes - 1) The loss of Dalit and Muslim support and 2) Flight of the social radicals to the Self-Respect Movement. According to P. Rajaraman:
...internal dissension, ineffective organisation, inertia and lack of proper leadership led the Justice Party along the path of decline.
Many incumbent ministers of the Justice Government were defeated in this election. The chief minister Raja of Bobbili was defeated by V. V. Giri of Congress by a margin of over 6000 votes in the Bobbili Assembly Constituency. Other prominent Justice losers included Kumararaja of Venkatagiri, P. T. Rajan, A. P. Patro and the Raja of Ramnad.
The elections were held and the results declared in February 1937. Rajaji was elected as the leader of Congress Legislature Party (CLP) in March 1937. Despite being the majority party in the Assembly and the Council, the Congress was hesitant to form a Government. Their objections stemmed from the special powers given to the Governor by the Government of India Act of 1935. According to the act, the Governor was given 1) special responsibilities in the area of Finance and (2) control and absolute discretionary powers over the cabinet in certain other issues. The Governor had the power to overrule the Cabinet. The Congress refused to accept power (in all the six provinces where they had won) with such caveats .The Governor of Madras, Lord Erskine, decided to form an interim provisional Government with non-members and opposition members of the Legislative Assembly. V. S. Srinivasa Sastri was first offered the Chief Ministership of the interim government but he refused to accept it. Eventually an interim Government was formed with Kurma Venkata Reddy Naidu of the Justice Party as Chief Minister on 1 April 1937. Congress leaders like S. Satyamurti were apprehensive about the decision to not accept power. They carried out a campaign to convince Congress High Command (Gandhi and Nehru) to accept power within the limitations set by the Government of India Act. They also appealed to the British Government to give assurances that the Governor's special powers will not be misused. On 22 June, Viceroy Linlithgow issued a statement expressing the British Government's desire to work with the Congress in implementing the 1935 Act. On 1 July, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) agreed to form Governments in the provinces they had won. On 14 July, Rajaji was sworn in as the Chief Minister. The first legislative assembly convened for the first time on 15 July and elected Bulusu Sambamurti and A. Rukmani Lakshmipathi as the Speaker and Deputy Speaker respectively.
Kurma Venkata Reddy Naidu's Cabinet
Council of ministers in K. V. Reddy Naidu's interim provisional cabinet (1 April - 14 July 1937):
|Kurma Venkata Reddy Naidu||Chief Minister, Public, Revenue and Legal|
|A. T. Panneerselvam||Home and Finace|
|M. A. Muthiah Chettiar||Local self government|
|P. Kalifulla Sahib Bahadur||Public Works|
|M. C. Rajah||Development|
|R. M. Palat||Education and Public health|
|C. Rajagopalachari||Chief Minister, Public and Finance|
|P. Subbarayan||Law and Education|
|V. V. Giri||Labour and Industries|
|Bezawada Gopala Reddy||Local Administration|
|T. S. S. Rajan||Public Health and Religious Endowments|
|Maulana Yakub Hasan Sait||Public Works|
|V. I. Munuswamy Pillai||Agriculture and Rural Development|
|S. Ramanathan Pillai||Public Information and Administration Reports|
|Kongattil Raman Menon||Courts and Prisons|
- On 7 January 1939, Raman Menon died and C. J. Varkey, Chunkath was inducted into the cabinet. Education portfolio was transferred from Subbarayan to Varkey and instead Subbarayan was given additional charge of Courts and Prisons.
The 1937 elections marked the start of the Indian National Congress' participation in the governance of India. In the Madras Presidency, it also marked the beginning of Rajaji's ascendancy in the Congress Legislature Party. Though it was Satyamurti who had led the election campaign, he gave up the leadership of the Legislature to Rajaji in accordance to the wishes of the national leaders of the Congress in Delhi. This election also marked the beginning of Congress dominance in the politics of Madras Presidency and later the Madras State. Except for an interlude during 1939-46, the Congress would go on to rule Madras uninterrupted till 1967. The Justice Party was demoralized by its defeat and the Raja of Bobbili temporarily retired from active politics. The party remained in political wilderness and eventually came under the control of Periyar E. V. Ramasamy in 1938 and transformed into the Dravidar Kazhagam in 1944.
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