Post-Independence India has not produced many notable political memoirs. The country's two best-known works of this genre came during the freedom struggle. They did not even cover political events immediately preceding Independence. Mahatma Gandhi's The Story of My Experiments with Truth dealt with the period 1869-1921. Jawaharlal Nehru's Towards Freedom: An Autobiography was published in 1936.
Among the few post-1947 political memoirs was Congress stalwart Dwarka Prasad Mishra's Post-Nehru Era, which was not widely known despite its spicy anecdotes. Among the recent contributions to this class of literature, Lal Krishna Advani's My Country, My Life and former Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee's Keeping the Faith: Memoirs of a Parliamentarian caused a ripple, but no more. For the diligent researcher, however, all these works can yield details, enough to piece together chapters of political history.
Chidambaram Subramaniam, who passed away in 2000 at the ripe age of 90, might not have been a front-ranking national leader, either during the freedom movement or after. But he held important ministerial posts and played a notable political role in a crucial phase of post-Independence India's political history. The third volume of his political memoirs under review provides yet another re-look at the post-Nehru age, primarily its conflicts for power.
C. Subramaniam, or CS for short, during the inner-Congress conflict after the passing of Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri, cast his lot with Indira Gandhi and against the ‘Syndicate', the term by which the party's entrenched old guard came to be called. The book narrates the story right from the “gathering storm” to the “vertical split” in the party in the late 1960s.
CS does not quite regale the reader with the kind of inside stories that one may look for in a political memoir. He makes a bit of an exception, however, in the case of an eminent Congress leader whom the party still holds in reverence. The transformational power of political times finds an illustration in the CS' portrait of K. Kamaraj.
The author begins by recalling his takeover as the President of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) after the party's electoral rout at the hands of the emerging Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1967. One of his first tasks was to prepare for the elections to civic bodies. Kamaraj, according to him, came in the way. “I appointed an election committee for identifying the candidates... As Kamaraj was continuing as Congress President at that time, I thought it would not be proper [for me] to include him in the ... committee, over which I would naturally be presiding ... but he made his exclusion a point of grievance.”
CS goes on: “I saw a new Kamaraj functioning at the organisational level. Whereas as chief minister he was prepared to delegate most of the functions to me and other ministers, he thought he should have absolute control as far as organisation was concerned.” He sees the same kind of motivation driving Kamaraj and the party caucus into a confrontation with Indira Gandhi, leading to the Congress split. In the process, CS gives us fleeting, and not-so-flattering, glimpses of personalities like S. Nijalingappa. The most interesting personality portrait he provides, however, is that of the Communist-turned-Congressman Mohan Kumaramangalam. He recalls that, “way back in the early Forties, Mohan had returned to India from the U.K. and was a rising star in the Communist Party.” Kumaramangalam came to Coimbatore, where CS had “a flourishing law practice”, and spent a few days as his friend's houseguest. Says CS: “I was mildly amused when I realised that Mohan's sojourn in my house had a purpose. He had come to influence me to join the CPI.” Exactly the reverse was to happen in a not-so-remote future.
Of the policies and programmes CS piloted, the most important one — the Green Revolution — does not figure in this book; the second volume had taken care of it. Policies, with which CS is not generally associated, get more space in this volume. He claims: “It is a little-known fact that I had initiated the first step in the direction of nationalisation of major Indian banks.” He recounts that he had “sent a detailed note to Panditji [Jawaharlal Nehru] on the subject” way back in 1963. Another point CS makes is that, as the Union Steel and Mines Minister, he had moved for the nationalisation of the coking coal industry because of its “skewed structure.” The nationalisation of the entire coal mining industry came about later when Kumaramangalam held the portfolio.
What did the initiator of these nationalisation policies think of economic reforms? In a chapter titled ‘Sharing my thoughts', CS says the “reforms have come to mean different things to different people. What ‘reforms' means to the Confederation of Indian Industry is different from what the landless agricultural worker would expect from government policies.”
More topical, perhaps, are his thoughts on “law-makers as law breakers”. “As one of the few surviving members of the Constituent Assembly... I cannot help looking at the way the parliamentary business is transacted today with anguish,” he laments, listing out examples. Future memoirs, if honest, can yield more fascinating illustrations of a dysfunctional parliamentary democracy — though, hopefully, not a dying one.