Michael Brecher: Succession in India. A study in Decision-making. Oxford University Press.

Brecher is a well-informed student of the political scene in India, especially in Delhi. Most of this book is a study of the manner and consequences of the choice of Shastri as successor to Nehru when the latter died in May 1964. Nehru’s death was an event that had aroused much anxious speculation beforehand. Brecher has gone round Delhi buttonholing politicians and observers, and delving deep into newspaper files, to ascertain exactly what happened from hour to hour during the six days and nights between the death of Nehru and the elevation of Shastri. His conclusion is that the top ranks of the Congress party handled a grave crisis ‘smoothly’ and ‘maturely’.

Readers may be conscious rather of a smoothly mature freedom from inconvenient political principles. The trial of strength, quickly centring round the rival candidatures of Shastri and Morarji Desai, was one of personalities and factions, not of convictions. No serious pressure developed from the Left, in spite of Congress’s nominal commitment to socialist ideals. Brecher comments that in 1964 as in 1947 ‘continuity made for political stability, but at an enormous price’. True, the often-predicted take-over by the army did not occur. But one of the determining factors was the weight of the Chief Ministers of the States, who controlled local patronage, and one of the tendencies that developed subsequently was a weakening of central authority over the provinces. Another aspect of the Shastri régime which Brecher documents was the encroachment on the sphere of government decision by senior civil servants, bureaucrats cast in the British mould, loyal servants once of the British power and now of Indian conservatism and its foreign allies.

Brecher illustrates the consequences of the succession by discussing two of the many staggering problems inherited by Shastri; the food scarcity and the controversy over the replacement of English as the official language by Hindi, to which the Dravidian-speaking South violently objected. Shastri was prudent in not trying to emulate his predecessor’s style of enlightened autocracy, just as he declined to move into Nehru’s vast official mansion. His method was to try to sort things out, or let people talk themselves out, by patience, tact, and conciliation. But the problems of India are not to be solved by masterly inactivity, and Brecher is forced to wonder whether peace and quiet were not being purchased by the likelihood of worse trouble and deeper schisms later. He sees the basic difficulties over food: reduced central authority over the provinces, inability to force the better-off to share with the worse-off, and the impossibility for Congress to challenge the grain-dealers and speculators who are powerful elements in the business community on which the party’s whole organization rests.

The Kashmir war of 1965 rescued Shastri from public indifference, and made him a hero. But he died at Tashkent, and the problem of succession faced Congress again; more suddenly than in 1964, but less critically because there was now a precedent. Hence a more leisurely and systematic struggle for the premiership, which Brecher hurried back to India to watch at first hand. Kamaraj, the Congress President, wanted Mrs Gandhi, and played her cards for her with great skill. She herself had the advantage of her father’s name, and of belonging to Uttar Pradesh, the heart of Hindi-speaking India. Again the Chief Ministers counted for much, and most of them rallied to Kamaraj. Desai insisted on a ballot of the Congress parliamentary party, and got a surprising number of votes, 169 to 355; many of the rank and file may have resented the manipulation at the top.

Since then history has added a further chapter. A general election has taken place, and Congress has lost control of a number of provinces. Kamaraj himself was defeated in Madras, by a mere student. It is now clear that Congress cannot go on with the old game of shuffling and deception: it must commit itself to some progress by deeds as well as words, or else be seen as frankly conservative. Desai is now deputy prime minister. In his first struggle for power he spoiled his chances, as Brecher shows, by over-eagerness; in his second he failed again, but lived to fight another day. He now has one foot in power, and it may not be very long before he has the other there too.

Victor Kiernan