Why Mahatma Gandhi was anti-national


Dietmar Rothermund

Dietmar Rothermund is a professor emeritus for the history of South Asia. For many years he was Managing Director of the South Asia Institute at Heidelberg University.

Historical key points and political developments from 1947 to the present

In the first decades after independence, India's political development was largely shaped by the Congress Party and its charismatic leaders Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Only since the mid-1970s have other actors been able to influence the fate of the country. Regardless, the Congress Party remains a dominant force.

Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi at the "All-India Congress" in Mumbay, 1946. (& copy AP)

India was a cultural area with a long history before becoming a modern nation. It comprises more than twice as many people as the entire European Union and is much more diverse. Nevertheless, on the one hand due to its colonial heritage and on the other hand as a result of a long and intense struggle for freedom, India has achieved a political unity that Europe does not yet have. The British introduced the elements of parliamentary democracy as part of the British-Indian constitutional reforms, but had to withhold perfect parliamentarism from the Indians because this would not have been compatible with the maintenance of the rule of the British viceroy. But it was precisely this that motivated the leaders of the struggle for freedom to strive for undiminished parliamentarism and not to think of any alternatives.

The British also left India with a special kind of federalism. It was intended to serve as a gradual transfer of power, in which the central position of the viceroy was retained and a political arena was opened to the Indians at the provincial level. This explains the Unitarian character of Indian federalism, which was also preserved in independent India.

The Constitution of the Republic of India, which came into force in 1950, was essentially based on that Government of India Act from 1935, by the Independence of India Act from 1947 was only slightly modified. The Constituent Assembly of India met for three years, but its real contribution to the revision of British constitutional law was merely to introduce a catalog of fundamental rights that the British had not enshrined in their laws. As part of the struggle for freedom, the Indian National Congress (Indian National Congress, INC passed a resolution as early as 1931 that contained such a catalog, which also contained social rights such as the right to work.

Such demands could be made in the struggle for freedom, but the Republic of India could not undertake to guarantee such rights because they would have been overwhelmed by them. This is how these rights were incorporated into policiesDirective Principles of State Policy), which, unlike basic rights, are not enforceable. But the Supreme Court (Supreme Court) referred to them in his reasons for the judgment. This has already happened repeatedly. The Supreme Court is one of the most respected institutions in India and has become a conscience of the nation on many social issues.

"Nehru was a parliamentarian through and through"

Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi, her son Rahul Gandhi and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (from left to right) during a commemoration ceremony on the occasion of Rajiv Gandhi's 60th birthday in August 2004.
Photo: AP

The Independence of India Act of 1947 was the longest law the British Parliament has ever passed, and so the Indian Constitution is very extensive. But the constitutional text is downright laconic on the questions that are particularly important for the form of government. The office of prime minister is only mentioned briefly, but nothing is said about the powers of the head of government. It was assumed that they should correspond to those of the British Prime Minister.

But since there is no British constitution and the power of the Prime Minister is not explicitly defined but only determined by conventions, it was now a matter of introducing these conventions in India as well. Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, played an important role in this. Nehru was a parliamentarian through and through. During his tenure, the Indian Parliament had at least 120 sessions a year, while today there are often only 80. Nehru attended most of the meetings and was spirited into many debates.

Pakistan's counterexample shows how significant Nehru's merit was. This state had inherited the same constitutional structure as India, but parliamentary democracy could never come into play there. The state's founder, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, did not opt ​​for the office of Prime Minister but for that of Governor General. He took over the legacy of the viceroy - one could also say that he interpreted the constitution in the Gaullist sense, which the constitutional text allowed.

Although Nehru was not a federalist at the time of the struggle for freedom, because he saw the federal structure created by the British as an instrument for maintaining colonial rule, he retained federalism in independent India. That was, of course, all the easier since both the federal government and the state governments were provided by the INC during his term of office. Almost all of the state ministers' presidents were confidants of Nehru from the time of the freedom struggle. His letters to these prime ministers are impressive testimony to Nehru's leadership style.

However, his undisputed position of power was shaken when the border war with China in 1962 led his foreign policy to absurdity. He had combined the office of foreign minister with that of prime minister. From the perspective of the struggle for freedom, he had assessed China as an anti-imperialist power that India would never attack. The defeat of 1962 robbed him of confidence in his political principles. He was a broken man afterwards and died in May 1964.

Under his supposedly weak successor, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Pakistan then considered it opportune to force a war on India in 1965, but was defeated, especially since it was abandoned by its Chinese allies. Shastri died during the peace conference convened by the Soviet Union in Tashkent in January 1966, where Pakistan had to sign a declaration of non-violence.

The rise of Indira Gandhi

Shastri might have been able to maintain the "congressional system" in which a dominant party repeatedly emerged as the undisputed winner of free elections. But his successor Indira Gandhi, who was chosen as a compromise candidate by the congress politicians who did not grant each other the office of prime minister, had to face an election in 1967 in which she only barely managed to keep her party's position in the Bundestag, while several state governments were lost. Up until then, federal and state elections in India had always been held simultaneously. The Landtag candidates, who were closer to the people simply because of their smaller constituencies, carried the respective Bundestag candidate on their shoulders to victory, so to speak. But that was fundamentally changed by Indira Gandhi.

Indira Gandhi soon showed that she had been thoroughly underestimated. It split the Congress party, got rid of the old guard and had early federal parliamentary elections held in 1971, which it designed as a personal plebiscite. The state elections were thus forever separated from the federal elections. Indira Gandhi won an overwhelming election victory in March 1971 and was at the height of her power when she became Bangladesh's midwife at the end of the year.

The 1972 oil price shock, which led to imported inflation in India, created domestic problems. Their power was falling. Not least because of this, she responded to the plans of Indian nuclear physicists to carry out a test explosion in 1974, which was not identified as that of a bomb, but only as an experiment with an explosive device carried out for peaceful purposes (nuclear device) was designated.

Power politician between a state of emergency, electoral defeat and comeback

The following year, when her resignation was called for for various domestic political reasons, Indira Gandhi fled forward and left a national emergency - Emergency - calling out. It postponed the 1976 general election and arrested most of the opposition leaders. Then she suddenly called new elections for March 1977, but only dismissed the opposition leaders two weeks before the election date.

They had now learned through painful experience. They founded an electoral alliance in which only one candidate was nominated against the congressional candidate in each constituency. This created a two-party system for the first and so far only time, which, according to the doctrine of political scientists, should be the inevitable consequence of majority voting. It worked out. Indira Gandhi was beaten. Her long-time rival, Morarji Desai, became prime minister.

Desai had been deputy prime minister under Indira Gandhi for a short time, but she fired him in 1969 when she was preparing to split the party. Desai was a good administrator but a clumsy politician. At first he took great pride in the fact that all the parties that supported his government had become a new party, the Janata party, had merged. Also the "far right" at home Bharatiya Jan Sangh (BJS) joined the new party.

The internal contradictions of the Janata party but were so big that they failed. Desai resigned in 1979. In 1980 elections, Indira Gandhi made a surprising comeback, thanks to her tireless efforts in a tough election campaign. Again she had won a personal plebiscite. The Janata Party split. The Hindu Nationalist Indian People's Party (Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) went its own way again, but did not revive its old name BJS because it was now moving from the "far right" to the center of the political spectrum.

In her second term in office, Indira Gandhi encountered resistance from the Sikhs in the Punjab. Radical Sikhs wanted their own state "Khalistan". Indira Gandhi had tried to create discord among them on the principle of "divide and rule". But in the end she was forced to use the army against the secessionists. Although they were beaten, Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards in October 1984.

Changing alliances after Indira Gandhi's death

After the death of Indira Gandhi, the president, himself a Sikh, acted quickly and had Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi elected prime minister. Soon after, he faced an election that he won because of a sympathy bonus. He wanted to lead India into the 21st century and initially had some political successes, but in 1989 he suffered an election defeat. A former minister in his cabinet, V.P. Singh, with whom he had fallen out, organized the campaign against him and gave the BJP many seats as part of an electoral agreement. V.P. Singh formed a minority government with "outside" support from the BJP.

BJP election bus in Jaipur (Rajasthan) in April 2004
Photo: Stefan Mentschel
The BJP bet on the Hindu map and organized a campaign for the "liberation" of Ramjanmabhumi, the birthplace of the god-king Ram in the north Indian city of Ayodhya. The Grand Mughal Baber had a mosque built here. In 1990 the BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani caused a sensation with a procession across India to Ayodhya. V.P. Singh had him arrested just before the procession reached its destination. The BJP's support for V.P. Singh's government.

It was replaced by another minority government under Prime Minister Chandrashekar, which was now supported "from outside" by the INC. This gave up the support in the spring of 1991, because he hoped to win another election himself. During the election campaign in May 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was murdered by a supporter of the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from Sri Lanka. The Congress Party did not win a majority, but could now under Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao form a minority government - and gain a majority through "defectors" during its term of office.

When the Ayodhya mosque was demolished by Hindu fanatics at the beginning of December 1992, this initially meant a setback for the BJP. But it soon caught up again. Narasimha Rao lost the 1996 elections. However, the INC remained the strongest party and could have headed a coalition government. As the "Center Party", however, the INC was not yet inclined to form coalitions because it did not want to commit itself to either the left or the right. The BJP did not have such concerns, but it has not yet succeeded in forging a coalition. Therefore a third force emerged, which was formed by the regional parties of the federal states.

The regional parties had so far suffered from the effects of majority voting. They won almost a third of the votes several times, but not a corresponding number of seats. That changed in 1996. The Prime Minister of Karnataka, H.D. Deve Gowda became Prime Minister of a "National Front". This was again a minority government that was supported "from outside" by the INC. When Deve Gowda was no longer acceptable to the INC, it forced the "National Front" to present another prime minister. It was the former Foreign Minister Inder Kumar Gujral. But his days were numbered too.

India's Hindu nationalists are the government

After new elections in 1998, India's Hindu nationalists came to power in the country. Under Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP formed a coalition government, which was overthrown a year later by the resignation of a coalition partner. Now the new president of the INC, Sonia Gandhi, the widow of Rajiv, would have had the chance to form a coalition government, but she failed to do so. Vajpayee served until the November 1999 general election, which he won. He benefited from winning a war in Kashmir in the summer of 1999 that Pakistan had forced on him.

The BJP government carried out atomic bomb tests in May 1998. Pakistan followed suit a few weeks later. Now two neighboring nuclear powers faced each other and the Pakistani army chief at the time, Pervez Musharraf, who came to power shortly afterwards, accomplished the feat of breaking the first conventional war between nuclear powers because he assumed that India would avoid a nuclear escalation . This worked out, but Musharraf lost the conventional war and Vajpayee, who had shown determination and prudence, emerged victorious.

Vajpayee was granted a full term as prime minister from 1999 to 2004. However, it was tarnished by an attack in December 2001 in which terrorists almost managed to break into the Indian parliament, where they could have killed many members of the parliament and government. Musharraf did not order this attack. On the contrary, he complained that the terrorists wanted to torpedo the "Alliance against Terror" to which India and Pakistan belonged.

Nevertheless, Vajpayee was forced to deploy troops on the Pakistani border. The "war-in-sight" crisis of 2002 was then overcome through intensive US mediation. In October 2002 elections were held in Kashmir, which made it possible to re-establish a democratic government there.

India Shining? Election defeat of the BJP and renaissance of the Congress Party

In 2002 there was a pogrom in the state of Gujarat that killed more than 2,000 Muslims. Gujarat's BJP Prime Minister Narendra Modi had apparently done nothing to stop the killing and soon afterwards also led a state election campaign in which he proclaimed the "pride of Gujarat". The BJP leadership in Delhi was silent about Modi's success.

In 2004 the Hindu nationalists went with the motto India Shining (India beams) in the election campaign for the federal parliament in order to point out their economic successes. However, it failed to take into account that economic growth had hardly benefited the vast majority of the rural poor. Here the INC led an intensive election campaign that ultimately led to success. It was not so much the losses of the BJP and the profits of the INC that led to this result, but rather the losses of several coalition partners of the BJP. The advance of most of the regional parties had continued, gaining nearly half the votes and a corresponding number of seats.

Coalition politics was now almost inevitable - and this time the INC was very adept at it. Sonia Gandhi, who as president of the Congress party would have been entitled to the office of prime minister, had been severely attacked by the BJP because she was, as a native Italian, out of place in this office. After her victory, she took the wind out of the sails of the opposition by handing over the office to Manmohan Singh, who as finance minister under Narasimha Rao had become the father of Indian economic reform.

First term of the United Progressive Alliance

The INC-led coalition government of the United Progressive Alliance (United Progressive Alliance, UPA) came to power in 2004 and was fortunate in her first five-year term. The economic policy set in 1991 and the positive development of the world economy helped India to achieve a rapid upswing with annual growth rates of 8 to 9 percent.

India's current account was positive, high foreign exchange reserves were achieved. When it came to exporting, it was primarily the creation of software that brought India great advantages. It was about the very wage-intensive programs for industrial production (Computer aided manufacturing) and for the administration of the banks. With a large number of well-trained experts in this field who did not yet demand high salaries, India was able to achieve a leading position worldwide.

In terms of foreign policy there was a rapprochement between India and the USA, a departure from the old politics of the Non-alignmentwhich after the end of the Cold War no longer corresponded to the "zeitgeist". US President George W. Bush saw India as a counterweight to China and offered a "nuclear pact" that gave India access to American technology, although it still did not sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

New power of the regional parties

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh strongly advocated this pact, but it was rejected by the communists, on whose support he depended in parliament. However, Singh dared to put the vote of confidence in parliament. A north Indian regional party - the Samajwadi Party - saved him by supporting him "from outside" from now on.

The Samajwadi party (SP) had its own reasons for seeking proximity to the UPA. It represents the interests of the so-called middle castes Other backward classes (OBC), which make up about 40 percent of the Indian population. In the densely populated state of Uttar Pradesh (around 200 million inhabitants), the SP had been the state government for many years, but it was from the state elections in 2007 Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) was defeated under the leadership of the charismatic politician Mayawati.

The BSP represents the interests of the lowest castes or the so-called casteless, who today themselves as Dalits (Oppressed) denote. Party leader Mayawati is revered by many of them, even if she forges political alliances that one would not have expected. So Mayawati managed to win the support of the Brahmins, who from a religious point of view are at the top of the caste system and who make up around 10 percent of the population in Uttar Pradesh. She was also able to get the Muslims on board, whose share of the population in this state is particularly high at 17 percent. Also the Dalits make up around 17 percent of the population there, so that the BSP succeeded in gaining an absolute majority in the 2007 elections thanks to its clever policy. In the state elections in 2012 the pendulum swung back, of course, and the SP came back to power.

Second term of the United Progressive Alliance

In the meantime, the 2009 Bundestag elections had again made the UPA successful and Manmohan Singh was able to take up his second term. The INC had 206 seats and the BJP only 116 seats. The UPA alone did not have an absolute majority and the communists who supported the government "from outside" during the previous term had suffered great losses. The total number of seats in the Bundestag for both communist parties (CPM and CPI) had melted from 57 to 18. After they almost overthrew the prime minister in 2008, he could gladly forego their support. In return, both the SP and the BSP pledged such support to the UPA and Premier Singh could therefore count on a large majority in parliament.

One would now have expected that he would vigorously pursue his reform course, on which the communists had hindered him in the previous term. But that didn't happen. His second term in office was also not fortunate. Corruption scandals increased. He himself is considered incorruptible, but he did not act consistently in these scandals and had to share responsibility for them against his will.

In addition, the crisis in the global economy that began in 2008 and initially did not affect India affected India. Exports decreased. Foreign investors held back. The rupee lost value. Economic growth was only around 5 percent. The UPA's chances in the upcoming federal elections in 2014 are therefore poor.


In times of crisis, one would expect the left opposition to grow, but the communists have not regained ground since the drastic defeat of 2009. They even lost control of the state of West Bengal in 2011, where a "Left Front" was in government for over three decades. There he won Trinamool Congress under the leadership of the populist Mamata Banerjee an overwhelming majority (226 seats compared to only 63 of the "Left Front").

The BJP is now hoping for a victory in the parliamentary elections and has nominated the Prime Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, as a candidate for the office of Prime Minister. He is a dedicated advocate of Hindu nationalism and the memory of the Muslim pogrom at the beginning of his term in office is still alive. Although it could not be proven that he actively favored the pogrom, as Prime Minister he could have intervened more vigorously to contain it. His candidacy polarized the national electorate. The most recent successes of the BJP in three state elections in 2013 seem to speak for a victory in the federal elections.

But Indian democracy always has surprises in store. At the end of 2013, for example, the new parliament was won in the capital city of Delhi, which has its own parliament Aam Aadmi Party (Common People's Party, AAP) an unexpected success from the stand. Before that, Congress politician Sheila Dixit had led the government there for three terms. Now the Congress Party only won 8 seats, the BJP 32 and the AAP 28. Since the BJP could not hope for support from other parties, it preferred to remain in the opposition. With the support of the INC ("from outside"), the AAP formed a government which, however, failed after only a few weeks due to resistance from the other parties. Nonetheless, the AAP could still play an important role after the 2014 general election if it succeeds in gaining a foothold nationwide.

The foreign policy situation in India has not changed significantly in the past decade. Pakistan remains a problematic neighbor. Whenever governments make progress in easing the tension, there are unexpected setbacks. These include the November 2008 attack on Mumbai by terrorists from Pakistan, in which more than 170 people were killed. India left it at protests and is now trying to restore good relations with the Pakistani government.

India's relationship with China remained tense despite polite state visits as the border issue remains unresolved. China even laid claim to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, which is said to have belonged to Tibet. India continues to have a political friendship with Russia, while relations with the United States under President Barack Obama have developed less well than in previous years. Afghanistan is viewed with concern by India. It has invested a lot in building the infrastructure and training the army there and is therefore a thorn in the side of the Taliban, whose strength should be expected after the withdrawal of NATO troops at the end of 2014.

In terms of domestic and foreign policy, India expects problems in the near future, which, however, it will probably overcome due to its internal strength.