The Noah's ark nationalism of the early Congress was forced upon it by its circumstances. As a talking shop with no permanent organization and no proven ability to mobilize the Indian people that it claimed to represent, it tried to show it was representative by being inclusive, by actively trying to incorporate representative members of all of India's human species. Upto and including the Lucknow Pact, this strategy of negotiated inclusion was the default mode of Congress nationalism.
India's Muslims were a special prize for the Congress for two reasons. One, the Congress realized from its inception that it did not include within itself the leaders of Muslim political opinion and two, the Morley-Minto 'reforms' of 1909 had granted Muslims reserved seats and separate electorates, thus laying the foundations for a dangerously self-referential and separatist Muslim politics. The Lucknow Pact of 1916 was an attempt by the Congress to work out, given the reality of separate electorates, a common scheme of political representation that would reassure Muslim politicians that their community would not be swamped by majority politics and at the same time bring the Congress the priceless right to claim that the political leadership of India's Muslims supported the Congress in its nationalist demands.
It is this strategy of negotiated inclusion that was killed off by the enormous success of the Khilafat-Non-Cooperation movement. Gandhi's ability to fill the streets, to enthuse the middle classes, to inspire plebeians, to organize, finance and control all-India agitation, transformed the Congress and its sense of itself. Even in 1916, the pact between the Congress and the League was a treaty between unequal organizations. The Congress, even that time, was immeasurably larger, more experienced and more resourceful than any other political formation. But after Khilafat-Non-Cooperation the Congress became Gulliver and it found it impossible to take the Liliputian parties that littered the Indian landscape, specially the self-appointed grandees of Muslim politics, seriously. After 1916, thirty years were to pass before the Congress negotiated seriously again with a Muslim party, and those were the Cabinet Mission negotiations, undertaken in extremis to head off the partition of India.
In between times the Congress negotiated, but only on its own terms and it only negotiated surrenders. After Non-Cooperation, the Congress refused to allow that any organization or movement outside its fold or leadership could be separately representative of any section of the Indian people. Its official position was that it had the Indian people and history on its side, that it embodied nationalism. Even when Congress politicians did participate in institutional politics or negotiate treaties in the Twenties, they did so as Swarajists, not Congressmen, as inauthentic proxies, easily repudiated.
This seems hubristic but closely examined, it wasn't. The Congress in the Twenties didn't really believe that it represented the Muslims, but it had begun to believe that perhaps mobilization was a better route to roping in wary political constituencies such as the Muslims rather than negotiations with elitist organizations. From the late Twenties this was certainly Nehru's position and it wasn't an unreasonable one. The Congress may not have had the Muslims at that time, but neither did any Muslim party. The League was dormant, the Khilafat Committee, thanks to Ataturk's abolition of the Sultanate, had fallen through one of History's many manholes and there were no new candidates in sight.
There was another reason why the Congress was disinterested in the nitty-gritty of political power-sharing, in Jinnah's elaborate 14 Points or in conceding anything of substance during the all-party conferences of the Twenties. The reason was this: the Congress after Non-Cooperation based its political strategy on one central principle: the party was not to waste its political capital by engaging in institutional politics. However vague the idea of swaraj, this much was certain: it meant a lot more than dyarchy. To participate in the structures of dyarchy would be to trivialize the project of swaraj, to fritter away the great prestige that mass mobilization had earned the Congress.
The Congress was to hoard its capital till it was ready to engage the raj in pan-Indian agitation. Congress politics became a decennial game of chicken. Gandhi and the Congress bet the house every ten years or so and waited for someone to call their bluff, if bluff it was. The raj was the bank. Gandhi's aim was to bet against the bank, raise the stakes till every other player was crowded out, leaving just him and the dealer. He nearly, but never completely, succeeded.
The charge of 'totalitarianism' unfairly levelled at the Congress by its enemies at this time was provoked by the Congress's insistence that it was the only legitimate representative of the Indian people and, therefore, the only authentic negotiating partner for the colonial state. This wasn't an unreasonable position from the standpoint of a dominant party that needed all the leverage it could get against the raj, but at a time of increasing communal violence in the Twenties, when the gap between political Muslims and the Congress showed no signs of narrowing, the Congress's unyielding disdain for small political actors and the unilateralism of the Nehru Report, both infuriated and frightened its puny rivals and earned it quantities of political ill-will.
We see this denial of legitimacy to other political actors in the disdain shown by the Nehrus for Jinnah and his negotiating position which sent this Muslim Achilles glowering into his tent for many years, but we see it in an extreme, almost comic form, during the Round Table Conference. When Gandhi relented and agreed to attend, he basically sat at the table and said that everyone else at the table, all the other Indian delegates who didn't belong to the Congress, were non-representative, that they represented sectional interests without any demonstrable following and that he alone, as Congress's representative, stood for all-India. Further, he insisted that the communal problem be resolved by an implementation of the Nehru Report, a proposal that was unanimously opposed by the invited representatives of the Muslims, the depressed classes, the Indian Christians, the Anglo-Indians, and the Europeans. Ironically, the colonial state was using the same strategy of 'zoological' representation that the Congress had once used to bolster its nationalist credentials, to discredit its claim to speak for the nation.
But it wasn't clear that the raj's strategy was working. At the end of the Salt Satyagraha and the Civil Disobedience movement, the Congress' reach and strength, the very real resonance of its nationalist rhetoric, had been triumphantly demonstrated. The Communal Award, with its malignant attempt to generalize the principle of separate electorates, was a threat to the Congress's political vision but Gandhi saw off its greatest danger, the extension of separate electorates to Dalits, by ruthlessly pressing Ambedkar with a fast-unto-death till Ambedkar agreed to give up separate electorates in exchange for more reserved seats. So in late 1932, the Congress was a nationalist behemoth, its rivals were a disorganized rabble and its strategy of monopolizing the Indian political space seemed not to have done it any irreversible harm. Put another way, this strategy may not have won it many political friends, but the Congress had shown that it didn't need them to influence People.
On the debit side of the ledger was the unchanged deficit of Muslims. The alienation of the Congress's Khilafatist friends, the sectarian violence of the Twenties, the lack of Muslim participation in the Civil Disobedience movement, all indicated that on this front, the Congress had a problem that it needed to address. With a new colonial constitution in prospect, the wooing of the Muslims couldn't be put off. The question was how'
Would the Congress work the new reforms and seek to win Muslim electoral support through direct campaigning in the Muslim seats' Or would it revert to the Lucknow Pact strategy and seek to make Muslim friends through a strategy of power-sharing through coalition' Or would Nehru's and Gandhi's shared feeling that engagement with colonial institutions would corrupt the purity of Congress nationalism prevail, and would the Congress implement some form of Muslim mass contact outside electoral politics' Would the Congress insist that if Mother India was to give birth to a republic, nothing less than a virgin birth would do' Or would the Congress accept that the colonial state was its necessary partner in the dance towards decolonization, that the Congress couldn't continue to act as if Mother India was part maiden, part Virago, who would dance earth-shaking dances on her own at a time of her own choosing'
In an extraordinary series of decisions, the Congress chose all these routes between 1935 and 1942... and none of them. How it managed that, will be the subject of another column.