[Shyama Prasad] Mookerjee is regarded as one of the founding ideologues of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and was the founder of the BJP’s predecessor, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. Like Ambedkar, Mookerjee’s inclusion in the Constituent Assembly and how it happened provides a window into the complex politics of the time and the disjuncture between Central and provincial politics.

Indeed, it might be noted that most accounts of the Constituent Assembly elide the backroom and provincial politics and focus only on the debates and drafting documents. There is fairly extensive correspondence among Congress leaders on the need to have Mookerjee in the assembly.

That story, however, needs to be taken back by a few months to the run-up to the 1946 elections. In October 1945, Vallabhbhai Patel wrote to Rajendra Prasad on the prospects of the Hindu Mahasabha and Mookerjee in particular in the elections:

I do not think that the Hindu Mahasabha can get any seat except in Bengal... My view is that except Shyamaprasad [Mookerjee] there is hardly any man whom we can accept and sacrifice our seat instead... If in an individual case we find that the Hindu Mahasabha has a 50% chance against the Congress we can settle with them and allow them that seat.

At around the same time, Nehru too was writing to Prasad about the electoral prospects of the Mahasabha, particularly in Uttar Pradesh:

There is practically no chance of a Hindu Sabha candidate winning against a Congress candidate... Both Pantji [GB Pant] and I feel therefore that it would be wrong policy and harmful for us to enter into pacts and arrangements with the Hindu Mahasabha. The most we might do is not oppose some outstanding personality like Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerji. There is no such outstanding person personality in the Hindu Mahasabha in the UP and the question does not arise here.

Earlier that year, when then Congress president Abul Kalam Azad had proposed a list of fifteen members for the Executive Council to aid the viceroy, Mookerjee’s name had figured along with Nehru, Patel, Prasad, Jinnah and Azad himself. Gandhi had then observed that the nomination of Mookerjee was both ‘necessary and graceful’.

When elections were held, the Mahasabha won only 2.7 per cent of the Hindu vote in Bengal and lost the three seats it had won in the 1937 elections. However, Mookerjee was elected unopposed from the Calcutta University constituency.

Mookerjee’s induction into the Constituent Assembly, however, was not without controversy. It also showed up the internal politics within the Congress and divergence of opinion between the party’s Central and provincial leadership. Since Mookerjee had been appointed the minister of industry and supplies in independent India’s first Union cabinet on 15 August 1947, it was imperative that he get elected to the Constituent Assembly within six months.

On 15 December 1947, Prasad, who was then the president of the Congress and also the president of the Constituent Assembly, wrote to Nehru that there were at least four ministers, including Mookerjee, Azad, KC Neogy and CH Bhabha, who were not yet members of the assembly.

On 6 January 1948, Prasad wrote to Bidhan Chandra Roy, the Congress prime minister (the term chief minister had not yet come into use) of Bengal, requesting him to ensure that Mookerjee got elected to the Constituent Assembly by 14 February. Prasad added that if there were no vacancies among the members from Bengal, one would have to be created. The same day Prasad sent an identical letter to Surendra Mohan Ghosh, the president of the Bengal Provincial Congress Committee.

On 10 February, Roy wrote to Prasad on the composition of the Bengal ministry where in a postscript he said Mookerjee would be elected to the assembly by 14 February. But he also added that Mookerjee was being elected in place of an SC member, which had ‘annoyed’ the SC inhabitants in the state.

While Roy was, at least publicly, raising a technical issue, the misgivings about Mookerjee were more openly raised by JC Gupta, an MLA from Bengal. He wrote to Prasad on 13 February noting that in the aftermath of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, a majority of the Congressmen in Bengal felt that there should be no place in Congress governments, both at the Centre and the provinces, for people who were not members of the party. On Mookerjee’s proposed election he wrote:

So far as I can sense the feeling of the majority of the Congress Assembly Party members in Bengal, unless Shyama Prasad Babu joins the Congress and signs the Congress pledge, however desirable he may be, after Mahatmaji’s demise Congressmen feel that they would be proving false to Mahatmaji if they elected a Hindu Sabha man.

He added more strongly, “In fact, the feeling is that a man belonging to the Hindu Mahasabha should be treated as a leper out of regard to the departed.” Gupta hinted that his letter had the sanction of Ghosh, the provincial Congress president. A day earlier, Gupta had written to Roy, asking him to call a party meeting to decide on Mookerjee’s nomination since the Congress had “suffered defeat when persons who were not known Congressmen were nominated on other considerations”.

The misgivings of the Bengal Congress members were ignored and Mookerjee was elected. However, the fact that Mookerjee had filled the place of an SC member had caused disquiet among the Congress’s Central leadership. On 16 February, Prasad wrote to Nehru that Roy ask one of his Bengal ministers, who was also a member of the Constituent Assembly, to resign so that his seat could be filled by an SC member so as to ensure that their caste brethren would have no grievance.

The same day Nehru wrote to Prasad that a ‘scheduled class vacancy’ should not be filled by a ‘non-scheduled class person’. The issue did not, however, die out with Roy writing to Prasad that he had ‘no powers over the members of the Constituent Assembly’ and that only the party’s Central Parliamentary Board could ‘call upon any members to resign’.

Prasad replied reminding Roy that he himself had agreed that a member of the Constituent Assembly from Bengal, Prafulla Chandra Sen (a future chief minister of the state), would resign and an SC member would find a place in the assembly. He also added rather testily that a ‘great misunderstanding’ would be caused if a vacancy was not created soon.

That the Bengal Congress and the Central leadership were not on the same page was apparent when Prasad had to write again to Roy on 10 March reminding him about the election of a Harijan (SC) to the assembly. The issue dragged on, and Prasad had to again nudge Roy in June that Sen had still not resigned his seat in the assembly and that SC members were ‘nursing a grievance’ about losing a seat when Mookerjee was elected. He added in a separate letter, ‘If our rules are not observed, work becomes difficult and discipline in the Congress organisation is damaged, if not destroyed.’

The protracted correspondence and the heartburn over the inclusion of Mookerjee in the assembly is illustrative of the complexities and the hurdles that had to be surmounted by Nehru and the rest of the Congress leadership to include members who were in opposition to their party. It also spoke to the divergence in views between the Central leadership and the strong regional leaders or satraps of the Congress, of whom Roy was decidedly one.

House of the People: Parliament and the Making of Indian Democracy

Excerpted with permission from House of the People: Parliament and the Making of Indian Democracy, Ronojoy Sen, Cambridge University Press.