The Election of 1937 and the formation of Congress ministries: Part I

The Election of 1937 and the formation of Congress ministries: Part I

  • The demise of the Civil Disobedience Movement around 1934 resulted in serious dissension within Congress, in the same way as it had happened after the withdrawal of NCM.
  • While Gandhi temporarily withdrew from active politics, the socialists and other leftist elements formed in May 1934, Congress Socialist Party within Congress.
    • Nehru never formally joined this group, whose ideology ranged from vague and mixed up radical nationalism to fairly firm advocacy of Marxian Scientific Socialism.
  • Soon divide within Congress centred on two issues:
    • Council Entry
    • Office acceptance
  • The rift came to a head, but was somehow avoided at the Lucknow Congress in 1936.
    • Both wings of the Congress, having mutual respect and trust in their commitment to the anti-imperialist struggle and aware of the damage to the movement that a split would cause, desisted from dividing the party.
  • The Congress decided at Lucknow in early 1936 and at Faizpur in late 1936 to fight the elections and postpone the decision on office acceptance to the post-election period.
    • At Lucknow Congress in 1936, majority of delegates led by Rajendra Prasad and Vallabh Bhai Patel with the blessing of Gandhi, came to the view that contesting election and subsequent acceptance of office under Act of 1935 would help boost the flagging morale of the Congress at a time when direct action was not an option.
  • AICC meeting in August 1936 in Bombay decided in favour of contesting election but postponed the decision on office acceptance until election was over.
  • The federal part of the Government of India Act, 1935 was never introduced but provincial autonomy came into operation from 1937.
    • Though new constitutional reforms fell far short of India’s national aspirations, Congress decided to contest the elections to the assembles in the provinces under the new Act of 1935.
  • The Congress decision to participate in the election of 1937 and accept office thereafter brought the capitalists closer to it.
    • Even skeptics like Mody, in the context of continually deteriorating economic conditions, now drifted closer to the nationalists.
    • But although business finance once again became a crucial factor behind the spectacular victory of the Congress in the election of 1937, the party was far from under capitalist domination.


  • Provincial elections were held in British India in the winter of 1936-37 as mandated by the Government of India Act 1935.
  • Elections were held in eleven provinces
    • Madras, Central Provinces, Bihar, Orissa, United Provinces, Bombay Presidency, Assam, NWFP, Bengal, Punjab and Sindh.
  • The 1937 election was the first in which large masses of Indians were eligible to participate. An estimated 30.1 million persons, including 4.25 million women, had acquired the right to vote (14% of the total population), and 15.5 million of these, including 917,000 women, actually did exercise their franchise.
  • The election manifesto of Congress reaffirmed its total rejection of the 1935 Act.
    • It promised:
      • the restoration of civil liberties,
      • the release of political prisoners,
      • the removal of disabilities on grounds of sex and untouchability,
      • the radical transformation of the agrarian system, substantial reduction in rent and revenue, scaling down of the rural debts, provision of cheap credit,
      • the right to form trade unions and the right to strike.
    • The Congress election campaign received massive response and once again aroused the political consciousness and energy of the people.

Election Result:

  • The results were in favour of the Indian National Congress.
    • It won 716 out of 1,161 seats it contested. It had a majority in most of the provinces.
      • The exceptions were Bengal, Assam, the NWPF, Punjab and Sind; and in the first three, it was the largest single party.
      • The prestige of the Congress as the alternative to the colonial state rose even higher.
    • Among the 864 seats assigned “general” constituencies, it contested 739 and won 617.
    • Of the 125 non-general constituencies contested by Congress, 59 were reserved for Muslims and in those the Congress won 25 seats, 15 of them in the entirely-Muslim North-West Frontier Province.
    • The Congress won only 73 out of 151 reserved seats for depressed class all over India.
  • The Congress won the election in 1937 by targeting the newly enfranchised voters who included sections of the industrial working class and sections of the peasantry, including some of the dalits.
  • The All-India Muslim League won 106 seats (6.7% of the total), placing it as second-ranking party.
    • The election results were a blow to the League.
    • The Muslim League fared badly even in provinces predominantly inhabited by Muslims.
    • After the election, Muhammad Ali Jinnah of the League offered to form coalitions with the Congress. The League insisted that the Congress should not nominate any Muslims to the ministries, as it (the League) claimed to be the exclusive representative of Indian Muslims. This was not acceptable to the Congress, and it declined the League’s offer.
  • The only other party to win more than 5 percent of all the assembly seats was the Unionist Party (Punjab), with 101 seats.

Question of office acceptance:

  • Against office acceptance:
    • Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhas Bose, the Congress Socialists and the Communists were totally opposed to office acceptance and thereby working the 1935 Act.
    • The Left case was presented effectively and passionately by Nehru, especially in his Presidential Address at Lucknow in early 1936.
      • Firstly, to accept office, was ‘to negate our rejection of it (the 1935 Act) and to stand self-condemned.’ It would mean assuming responsibility without power, since the basic state structure would remain the same.
        • While the Congress would be able to do little for the people, it would be cooperating ‘in some measure with the repressive apparatus of imperialism, and we would become partners in this repression and in the exploitation of our people.’
      • Secondly, office acceptance would take away the revolutionary character of the movement imbibed since 1919.
        • Behind this issue, said Nehru, lay the question ‘whether we seek revolutionary changes in India or (whether we) are working for petty reforms under the aegis of British imperialism.’ Office acceptance would mean, in practice, ‘a surrender’ before imperialism.
        • The Congress would get sucked into parliamentary activity within the colonial framework and would forget the main issues of freedom, economic and social justice, and removal of poverty.
        • It would be co-opted and deradicalized. It would fall into ‘a pit from which it would be difficult for us to come out.’
    • The counter-strategy that Nehru and the leftists recommended was the older, Swarajist one: enter the assemblies with a view to creating deadlocks and making the working of the Act impossible.
    • As a long term strategy, they put forward the policy of increasing reliance on workers and peasants and their class organizations, integration of these class organizations with the Congress, imparting a socialist direction to the Congress, and preparing for the resumption of a mass movement.
  • Pro-office acceptance:
    • Those who favoured office acceptance said that they were equally committed to combating the 1935 Act.
    • They denied that they were constitutionalists; they also believed that ‘real ‘work lies outside the legislature’ and that work in the legislatures had to be a short-term tactic, for it could not lead to freedom — for that a mass struggle outside the legal framework was needed.
    • But, they said, the objective political situation made it necessary to go through a constitutional phase, for the option of a mass movement was not available at the time. The Congress should, therefore, combine mass politics with work in the legislatures and ministries in order to alter an unfavourable political situation.
      • In other words, what was involved was not a choice between principles but a choice between the two alternative strategies of S-T-S and S-V.
    • The pro-office acceptance leaders agreed that there were pitfalls involved and that Congressmen in office could give way to wrong tendencies.
      • But the answer, they said, was to fight these wrong tendencies and not abandon offices.
      • Moreover, the administrative field should not be left clear to pro-Government forces. Even if the Congress rejected office, there were other groups and parties who would readily form ministries and use them to weaken nationalism and encourage reactionary and communal policies and politics.
      • Lastly, despite their limited powers, the provincial ministries could be used to promote constructive work especially in respect of village and Harijan uplift, khadi, prohibition, education and reduction of burden of debt, taxes and rent on the peasants.
    • The basic question that the ministerialists posed was whether office acceptance invariably led to co-option by the colonial state or whether ministries could be used to defeat the colonial strategy.
      • The answer, in the words of Vishwanathan was: ‘There is no office and there is no acceptance. . . Do not look upon ministries as offices, but as centres and fortresses from which British imperialism is radiated. . . The Councils cannot lead us to constitutionalism, for we are not babies; we will lead the Councils and use them for Revolution.’
  • Though Gandhiji wrote little on the subject, it appears that in the Working Committee discussions he opposed office acceptance and posed the alternative of quiet preparation in the villages for the resumption of civil disobedience.
    • But by the beginning of 1936 he felt that the latter was still not feasible; he was, therefore, willing to give a trial to the formation of Congress ministries, especially as the overwhelming mood of the party favoured this course.
  • AICC sanctioned office acceptance by overriding objections of Nehru and other CSP leaders.
    • Gandhi by taking one of his remarkable compromise positions endorsed the decision, while reposing his faith in non-violence and constructive programme from outside the legislatures.
    • Nehru‘s opposition hinged on the argument that by running the provincial governments, the Congress would be responsible for “keeping the imperialist structure functioning” and thereby would be letting down the masses whose high spirits the Congress itself had once helped in boosting up. Within a few years he was to be proved prophetic.

Formation of Ministries:

  • Congress Ministries were formed in 8 out of 11 provinces of India in 1937.
  • To guide and coordinate their activities and to ensure that the British hopes of the provincialization of the Congress did not materialize, a central control board known as the Parliamentary Sub-Committee was formed, with Sardar Patel, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Rajendra Prasad as members.
  • The Congress was now to function both as a government in the provinces and as the opposition vis-a-vis the Central Government where effective state power lay.
  • As Gandhiji wrote on the meaning of office acceptance in Harijan on 7 August 1937: ‘These offices have to be held lightly, not tightly. They are or should be crowns of thorns, never of renown. Offices have been taken in order to see if they enable us to quicken the pace at which we are moving towards our goal.’

Madras Presidency:

  • The Government of India Act of 1935 established 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 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.
    • 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 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.
  • 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 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.
  • Congress won 74% of all seats, eclipsing the incumbent Justice Party (21 seats).
    • 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.
  • 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 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 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.


  • These were the first elections in the province after its creation in 1936. The Sind Legislative Assembly had 60 members. The Sind United Party emerged the leader with 22 seats.
  • In the General constituencies, the Sind Hindu Mahasabha won eleven seats, the Congress Party eight seats.
  • Mohammad Ali Jinnah had tried to set up a League Parliamentary Board in Sindh in 1936, but he failed, though 72% of the population was Muslim. Though 34 seats were reserved for Muslims, the Muslim League could secure none of them.

United Provinces:

  • The UP legislature consisted of a Legislative Council of 52 elected and 6 or 8 nominated members and a Legislative Assembly of 228 elected members: some from exclusive Muslim constituencies, some from “General” constituencies, and some “Special” constituencies.
  • The Congress won a clear majority in the United Provinces, with 133 seats, while the Muslim League won only 27 out of the 64 seats reserved for Muslims.


  • In Assam, the Congress won 33 seats out of a total of 108 making it the single largest party, though it was not in a position to form a ministry.
  • The Governor called upon Sir Muhammad Sadulla, ex-Judicial Member of Assam and Leader of the Assam Valley Muslim Party to form the ministry. The Congress was a part of the ruling coalition.


  • GOI Act, 1935 created a bicameral legislature in the Bombay province.
  • Ambedkar’s Independent Labout Party party won spectacular victory in Bombay, winning eleven of the fifteen reserved seats. The Ambedkarites also did well in the Central Provinces and Berar.
  • The Congress fell just short of gaining half the seats.
    • However, it was able to draw on the support of some small pro-Congress groups to form a working majority. B.G. Kher became the first Chief Minister of Bombay.


  • In Bengal, the Congress was the largest party (with 52 seats).
  • But the Krishak Praja Party of A. K. Fazlul Huq (with 36 seats) was able to form a coalition government.
  • Fazlul Huq and his KPP had thrown here a major challenge to the Muslim League in the 1937 election; but soon after the election, they came to terms with the League by forming a coalition government with them.
  • Huq soon began to lose popularity, as he gravitated more towards zamindar and rich peasant interests and reneged on a number of election promises given to the tenant and poor peasant constituencies of the KPP.
    • He joined the League in 1937 and was given the honour of introducing the Lahore Resolution in 1940.


  • The Unionist Party under Sikander Hyat Khan won 67 out of 175 seats. The Congress won 18 seats and the Akali Dal, 10.
  • The Unionists after the 1937 election formed a coalition ministry in Punjab with Sir Sikander Hyat Khan as the premier.
  • But Sikander soon came to terms with Jinnah through what is called the Jinnah-Sikander Pact of 1937.
    • Although the alliance was full of tensions, this gave the Unionists some sort of legitimacy among the Punjabi Muslim population, while Jinnah found a springboard to further his mission to project Muslim League as the centre of South Asian Muslim politics.

Other provinces:

  • In three additional provinces, Central Provinces, Bihar, and Orissa, the Congress won clear majorities.
  • In the overwhelmingly Muslim North-West Frontier Province, Congress won 19 out of 50 seats and was able, with minor party support, to form a ministry.

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