13 March 1937: British activist Agatha Harrison on progress in India

From our correspondence.

Agatha Harrison was a Quaker, welfare activist and pacifist who worked closely with Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian League towards Indian independence. She acted as an intermediary for Gandhi while he was on hunger strike, and was the first academic tutor in Industrial Welfare at the London School of Economics. When she died suddenly in 1954, Krishna Menon – India’s first post-independence High Commissioner to London – said: “She had no office or title, and no flags were lowered for her, but all over India people honour her name.”

13 March 1937

The Situation in India

SIR, I have just returned from India, where I had the opportunity of being on the spot while the elections were taking place. The editorial comment in your issue of March 6th—that “the meaning of the Indian provincial elections has not yet begun to dawn on public opinion” here—is all too true.

You rightly say that the recent elections in which Congress has secured such striking results are a “plebiscite” on the new Constitution. With a majority in six out of the eleven provinces, and forming the largest single party in another three, Congress must be reckoned with seriously. When Mr Gandhi came to the second Round Table Conference in 1931 he was ridiculed, and ever since the range of this party has been belittled, and attention focused on its diversity rather than on its unity. So, in this country, we face the present situation ill-prepared; knowing little of the history of the growth and scope of the movement; almost nothing of its leaders, save Mr Gandhi and Mr Nehru.

In the third week of March Mr Nehru, the President, has summoned a meeting in Delhi of the All India Congress Committee to consider the question of office acceptance. In preparation for this, “reasoned recommendations” have been called for from local, district and provincial Congress committees “outlining the course of action to be taken up by Congress members of the legislatures to further our policy of rejection of the Act as a whole and to impede further development of the federal scheme.” Once again, attention here tends to be diverted from the main issue and concentrated instead in forecasting possible spilts “that may occur when the meeting takes place. Surely this time would be better spent in studying the basis on which these men and women have been returned to power.

On April 1st the Government of India will inaugurate the India Act. On the same day Congress has called a nationwide hartal, or general strike, “in order to demonstrate effectively the will of the Indian people to resist the imposition of the unwanted constitution…” The Government of India and the Congress are faced with a grave position; one that calls for great qualities of statesmanship on both sides; and for men and women in this country to be watchful and informed.

Agatha Harrison.

A snow-laden Gandhi in Union Square, New York. Photo: Getty Images.

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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain