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The wisest man in India


It appears that Rajaji's political career was characterised, above all, by a desire for reconciliation ... But in a society marked by the willing encouragement of conflict and antagonism, his was a rocky road indeed.

C. Rajagopalachari (second from right) and members of the Gandhi Peace Foundation meeting the then American President John F. Kennedy (centre).

THIRTY YEARS ago this week, The Hindu ran a full-page spread mourning the death, and celebrating the life, of a man named Chakravarti Rajagopalachari but also known as "Rajaji" and "C.R.". This extended obituary was embellished by as many as seven pictures. The pictures were: (1) Rajaji leading a group of Congress volunteers in 1930, en route to breaking the salt laws in Vedaranyam; (2) Rajaji opening a TB sanatorium in 1939, while serving as Prime Minister of Madras; (3) Jawaharlal Nehru introducing his cabinet colleagues to Rajaji when the latter took over as the first Indian Governor General in 1948; (4) Rajaji posing with his Cabinet colleagues while Chief Minister of Madras, in 1953; (5) Rajaji, again as Chief Minister of Madras, wishing Andhras good luck on the formation of their state in 1953; (6) Rajaji receiving the Bharat Ratna from the President in 1954; (7) Rajaji with John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1962, when he had gone there as the head of a Gandhian peace delegation.

This was a heroic attempt at chronicling in pictures the high points of Rajaji's political career. But, perhaps out of respect or deference, it omitted the low points. These included the last-minute denial of the office of President, in 1950, and his unceremonious exit, at his own party's command, from the office of Chief Minister of Madras in 1954.

Apparently, when Rajagopalachari's parents went to have his horoscope cast, the astrologer told them that the baby's future "includes the fortunes of a king, of an exile, of a guru, and of an outcaste. The people will worship him; they will also reject him. He will sit on an emperor's throne; he will live in a poor man's hut".

I don't know whether Rajaji himself believed in astrology. I somehow doubt it. But he had an uncanny knack of being wise before the event, and paying for it. In 1941-42 he proposed to the Congress that they work out an accommodation with the Muslim League. He was vilified for this: had he been listened to, perhaps we might have been spared the bloodletting of Partition. Then he opposed the Quit India movement, saying that the need rather was for constructive engagement with the British. The Congress big shots didn't listen — and indeed forced him to leave the party — but in retrospect he was proved right. By calling for a militant rebellion when the British were fighting a desperate battle for survival against Hitler and company, the Congress forfeited their trust. By sitting out the bulk of the war in prison, they allowed the Muslim League to go from strength to strength.

In 1951, as Home Minister in Nehru's cabinet, Rajaji warned the Prime Minister of the expansionist designs of Communist China. He wrote to Nehru that he felt "hurt whenever Pannikar (the Indian Ambassador in Beijing) tells us with extreme satisfaction that China is very friendly to us yet has no territorial ambitions. We do not want any patrons now, do we?" Eleven years later, by which time Rajaji and Nehru were in opposing political parties, India was invaded by China.

Those three acts cannot be undone, but in some other cases we might still take advantage of Rajaji's prescience. He was always for better relations with Pakistan, and for allowing the people of Kashmir to live with dignity and honour. And he was an early advocate of market-based economics, and a critic of what he memorably called the "license-permit-quota-raj".

It seems to me that Rajaji's political career was characterised, above all, by a desire for reconciliation. Reconciliation between Hindu and Muslim, India and Pakistan, India and England, North India and South India, low caste and high caste: these were the recurrent themes of his public life. In a society marked by the willing encouragement of conflict and antagonism, his was a rocky road indeed. As he once wrote to a Quaker friend, "those who are born to reconcile seem to have an unending task in this world."

Rajaji was a reconciler at the personal level too. Among the individuals whom he politically fought but later befriended were B.R. Ambedkar, K. Kamaraj, C.N. Annadurai and E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker "Periyar". When Anna died Rajaji was close to 90, yet he delivered a moving tribute at a memorial meeting called by the Sheriff of Madras. Periyar and Rajaji disagreed often, but it is said that it was to Rajaji that Periyar went for advice as regards his marriage. During Rajaji's last illness Periyar visited him several times in hospital, went to the cremation in a wheelchair, and told the press that his lifelong friend and adversary was "a leader unique and unequalled, who lived and worked for high ideals".

But there is more to life, especially to this life, than politics. Thus Rajaji was, at various times, a successful lawyer and municipal administrator, a gifted short story writer (in Tamil), and a superbly effective populariser of our epics. Rajaji liked to claim that "the best service I have rendered to my people is the re-telling of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata". These stories he told with a telling simplicity and directness, and without any theoretical gloss. For, as he said, "the Ramayana is mother's milk for India. It should be left to itself and not philosophised. Mother's milk should not be sent to the chemical analyst!"

Once, while asked to give a speech in memory of Gandhi by the Mysore Assembly, Rajaji warned the organisers that he had "a partiality for restraint in eulogy". This eulogy of Rajaji has not been restrained, but it must at least make an attempt to be rounded. It shall thus take note of his sometimes acid tongue, and, more seriously, of his consistent unwillingness to face the electorate. In 1952, much against Nehru's wishes, he set the unfortunate precedent of choosing nomination to the Upper House in order to become Chief Minister of his state. Then again, Rajaji had a somewhat conservative attitude towards women. He saw them as home-makers and carriers of our culture, but not really as independent agents in their own right. As Paula Richman points out, this attitude informs the depictions in his Ramayana of Shurpanakha and of Sita. Rajaji also abhorred the idea of women working. When a lady with small children approached him for a job, he remarked: "I wonder how a woman with children can be wanting work! Alas for civilisation and the pernicious habit of entrusting the education of children to professional men and ourselves seeking odd work to fill our time!"

Rajaji was not safe from human frailty or blindness. Still, seeing his life and career in the round, one might agree with the judgment of R.G. Casey, the bluff Australian who served as Governor of Bengal, that he "was the wisest man in India". At any rate, the wisest politician. And perhaps the best read one, too. In April 1956, a journalist named N.S. Muthana went to meet Rajaji at his house. He was struck by two things: the lack of distinction of this former Governor-General's abode — a modest single-storied structure which looks like any other building on that road"; and the range of his reading. Stacked on a desk in front of Rajaji were G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories; two books on modern biology; Lewis Mumford's Conduct of Life; Valmiki's Ramayana (in Sanskrit); and a few Tamil works. These would be read over the next few weeks: waiting, in a book-case along the wall, were 12 volumes of the speeches of Edmund Burke, and an edition of Shakespeare.

Ramachandra Guha's books include Savaging the Civilized and Environmentalism: A Global History.

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