If some Congress ministers are replaced and deployed for party work, a new confidence could emerge in the party and the government
Fifty years are like a millennium in politics. To write about the India of 1962 is to invoke a different universe.
And yet that year compels recollection today. The rose bud fresh on his achkan, Jawaharlal Nehru led his party to a third impressive victory at the 1962 general elections and stepped into his third Prime Ministership. A seamless cruise to the next elections in 1967 lay ahead for the Congress.
But the months that followed that third return to power, were anything but smooth. Certain things are just not in a government’s control, like the behaviour of neighbours. China breached our borders in two simultaneous offensives in Ladakh and on the McMahon Line, shaking the nation’s equanimity. Also to be shaken, visibly, was Prime Minister Nehru .With a wan frankness he said in a TV interview for American viewers, “… there is no such thing [now] as non-alignment vis-à-vis China.”
Shaken, too, were faith in a neighbour’s intentions, faith in panchsheel and faith in the practicality of non-alignment. There was a clamour for other shake-ups too, like the replacement of Defence Minister Krishna Menon. The Prime Minister was hesitant to move someone he so admired from that sensitive Ministry. Amidst growing public restiveness Lal Bahadur Shastri told him: ‘Panditji jab chhoti ahuti nahin di jaati, tab badi ahuti deni par jaati hai …’ (When a small sacrifice is withheld, a bigger one gets to be demanded). Not much later, Menon was replaced by the no-nonsense Yeshwantrao Chavan.
Finance Minister Morarji Desai was blunt. “The people of India,” he said, “will have to submit to heavy taxation…” and with new taxes he introduced the compulsory deposit scheme and the gold control order. These were meant to and did feel tight, very tight. The country was uneasy, angry. Three by-elections to the Lok Sabha held in quick succession saw stalwart opposition leaders Acharya Kripalani, Rammanohar Lohia and Minoo Masani defeat the Congress.
And that is when while others in the party and the government despaired, one man stirred. Kumaraswami Kamaraj was also into his own third term as Chief Minister of Madras. Like a tectonic plate on the move, he pushed an idea formidably and irresistibly northward.
Kamaraj proposed, in 1963, to Prime Minister Nehru that all senior Congress leaders holding ministerial office resign and take up party work. Serial wins in elections were alright, he said, but continuous office incumbency was distancing leaders from the fears and feelings, thoughts and travails of the masses. Nehru saw the point and told Kamaraj he would like to be the first one to go. Kamaraj demurred and said “no, Panditji, you are unique, you must remain Prime Minister.”
In the event, six Union Ministers, including Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jagjivan Ram and Morarji Desai, and six Chief Ministers, including Kamaraj himself, Biju Patnaik and S.K. Patil resigned from their posts. The ‘freed-from-office-for-party’ Kamaraj became, inevitably, Congress president.
How much the Kamaraj Plan revived a dispirited party, polity and nation remains open to debate. Indrani Jagjivan Ram has some valuable negative insights to offer, in her recently published memoirs. But the Plan certainly prepared the nation to face the unexpected and the unwelcome.
At Kamaraj’s instance, Nehru brought Lal Bahadur Shastri back, as Minister Without Portfolio, virtually as Deputy Prime Minister. This made his succession by Shastri foregone, when it could otherwise have been fractious. Two years had barely elapsed when Shastri, too, was taken from us. As thousands waited for the plane bringing Shastri’s remains from Tashkent to land in Delhi, another aircraft descended at Palam airport. And from it emerged, the rough-hewn granite figure of Congress president Kamaraj, dressed in his simple un-starched khadi, angavastram resting on his left shoulder. The gathering at the airport would have clapped in relief and confidence, had the moment not been so deeply sad. At that point in time, Kamaraj simply personified the nation’s vishvas.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Kamaraj Plan, the scene of today compels comparison with that of 1962-63.
The basic systems of government and statecraft in a democracy are, essentially, the Cabinet, the government and its political leadership. Only an optimist in self-deceptive denial would say these are working well in today’s India. Cabinets are meant to be colleagueships. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh trustingly heads a moody coalition which is not a colleagueship.
Governments are there to govern. Staving off the Opposition’s relentless and mindless obstruction of Parliament’s functioning takes up the government’s time, saps its energy. Leadership is about commanding implicit trust, vishvas. The entanglement of senior figures in allegations of corruption has undermined vishvas.
Besides systems, there are imponderables that actuate the human condition, whether in a democracy or in other forms of government. These too are in distress.
With the monsoon playing truant, a serious water and energy crisis glowering at us, prices continuing to be volatile, and purchasing capacity sinking, our economy is in trouble. Investments and job creation in the private sector plummet. And, if this is not disabling enough, the northeast has been through the most bewildering ethnic tension. Who started the unheard-of internal migration that followed? The truth wears a hood.
The Government of India is prepared, doubtless, to meet certain contingencies. But there is no upper limit to preparedness. One more insufficient monsoon, a border conflagration, a terror attack of vast scale, a natural disaster of higher magnitude than “usual,” and we will be put to tests we are not really ready for.
So, on this 50th anniversary, one cannot but recall Kamaraj and his plan with nostalgia.
Clearly, status quo is untenable. But merely asking for a Kamaraj Plan II would be too pat and predictable. Had he been alive he would have himself acknowledged that his grand hope of drafting ministers into game-changing party rejuvenation did not work as dramatically as he would have liked it to. Those who gave up their offices tended to sulk into inactivity or waited for the day when they would be re-inducted into office.
We do not have a Kamaraj with us today but as 50 years ago, so now, the Congress has as its president one who has shown the power and impact of saying ‘no’ to office. If the Congress president and our Prime Minister were to re-deploy a dozen or more ministers for party work and replace them with a new generation of ministers with competence and credit, a new confidence and enthusiasm could emerge in the party and the government and, by extension, in the country, making it better placed to face the unwelcome and the unexpected.
This could be done in the States as well with differential effect.
But if the ‘re-jig’ (as the media is bound to dub the exercise) is to have abiding effect, a new work ethic will need to be inaugurated under which the ‘new brooms’ in the Cabinet apply their clean and strong bristles to rid the system of what Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan described as “widespread inefficiency and gross mismanagement of resources,” and corruption.
Reinforcement of vishvas
Simultaneously those re-deployed for party work will need to become the alert eyes and ears of the public, pro-active spokespersons within the party for the people they represent. This is where such an initiative will be an advance over the Kamaraj Plan. Popular outrage over mis-governance and corruption can, if addressed as it should be, lead to a moral dividend for India’s systemic benefit. Else, it will get co-opted by one-a-day political opportunisms. And if Parliament were to pass, as part of the change, a convincing Lokpal Act, we could see the return to national life of vishvas.
Kamaraj, the un-chaptered and un-versed chapter-turner, would have warmed to Basavanna’s wise 10th century aphorism: “What stands must subside; it is what moves on that stays.”
(The writer is former Governor of West Bengal.)