Rajaji had warned against ultra-conservative jingoism

C. Rajagopalachari (left) with Natwar Singh at the latter’s apartment in New York on October 12, 1962. The photograph is from Natwar Singh’s personal collection.  

2016 marked half a century since Indira Gandhi first came to power in 1966 in the shadow of the 1965 war and the demise of Lal Bahadur Shastri. But the political culture that would propel Indira Gandhi’s politics had been born earlier, more particularly in the Shastri period.

The move to militarism began during the Shastri era and lasted well into Gandhi’s arrival in power.

It was C. Rajagopalachari, or Rajaji, who criticised Lal Bahadur Shastri even as he was leading India during the 1965 war. Warning against jingoism and populism, Rajaji, one of the icons of the freedom struggle, had asked India to avoid ultra-conservative politics.

Writing a letter at the height of the India-Pakistan hostility in 1965, Rajaji had warned against the ‘fire-eaters’ — ultraconservatives — of the Indian capital and criticised Shastri for being obsessed with electoral politics.

Prescient worries

Former diplomat and Cabinet Minister Natwar Singh, who was posted in the Permanent Mission of India in New York, recalls the letter from the senior leader when he returned at short notice to his ancestral place in Rajasthan following a family tragedy.

On hearing about Mr. Singh’s return, Rajaji who had first met him in 1962 in New York, wrote lamenting the state of the nation. War hysteria fuelled by jingoism in public speeches and media utterances disturbed Rajaji.

Two groups

In the September 16, 1965 letter, he wrote: “Our PM is in the hands of two groups — one guiding his foreign policy, another his internal policy; he himself only concerned in winning the next elections for the Congress.” The criticism of Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Prime Minister who was facing Gen. Ayub Khan of Pakistan in the war, is revealing of Rajaji’s premonitions about the route ahead for post-colonial India.

Critical of Nehru

As the first Indian Governor General following Independence in 1947, Rajaji had seen Delhi’s politics from up close and had grown disillusioned with it, says Mr Singh. “Rajaji was more critical of Jawaharlal Nehru — in fact, excessively critical of Nehru’s politics as he sensed populism in Nehruvian politics. Rajaji believed that Nehru was worried about taking decisions fearing a public backlash,” said Mr. Singh.

But from the early 1960s, with tensions with China and later Pakistan spiralling out of control, Rajaji became a vocal critic of India’s diplomacy.

In 1962, just before the India-China war, Rajaji visited New York as part of a delegation from the Gandhi Peace Foundation, which also included The Hindu’s correspondent B. Shiva Rao, to campaign against nuclear proliferation. Within three years, in his September 1965 letter, he would be criticising India’s diplomacy in harshest possible terms.

“It is a tragedy that 460 millions of people are placed under charge of people whose knowledge of diplomacy is disgracefully below requirements just when the world has shrunk into a single puzzle,” wrote Rajaji as the India-Pakistan war began in 1965, ending in a pyrrhic victory for India.

Contemporary relevance

Mr. Singh says Rajaji’s thoughts are particularly relevant for contemporary India with the world undergoing big changes and, problems with Pakistan and China hardening. He believes that Rajaji was evolving an alternative, conservative political strategy through his criticism of the political leadership of Lal Bahadur Shastri and Jawaharlal Nehru. For Natwar Singh, Rajaji remained a “progressive conservative” unlike the ones that Rajaji felt were driving India in a populist, militarist direction, without caring about India’s role in the world.

“There are fire-eaters in Delhi even in this decade who believe India is strong enough to govern border people by force of arms and maintain the Indian economy for grand plans,” said Rajaji, warning against the ultra-conservatives, ‘fire-eaters’ of Delhi who wanted to deal with the problems of Kashmir and the Northeast by harsh methods. The term ‘fire-eaters’ historically referred pro-slavery activists in pre-civil war United States, who gave American conservatism an extreme dimension. Rajaji, a deeply religious person, praised the role of religion and mythology in the life of a nation, and had a nuanced conservative philosophy.

While writing his version of the epic Mahabharata, Rajaji would point out that a nation cannot grow without religion. “One may tour all over India, and see all things, but one cannot understand India’s way of life unless one has read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, at least in a good translation,” he said in the preface of his highly readable version, published by Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.

Contemptuous of ‘natives’

Despite his evident love for a religious way of life and dharma, Mr. Singh says, “Rajaji was not orthodox, He was secular in his own way who would be intolerant of fire-eater conservatives of Delhi.” In his quest for order in the “muddled world”, Rajaji believed that the good old Indian Civil Service of the Raj was better than the ‘brown people’.

In the backdrop of E. M. Forster’s 90th birthday on January 1 1969, both Rajaji and Mr. Singh engaged in conversation over the colonial struggle of India. Surprisingly, Rajaji was turned out sympathetic of India’s ex-rulers and wrote back, “I finished 89 in December 1967 and I am running 90. About the ICS people — my experience was that the Englishmen were on the whole better than brown people who suffered from an inferiority complex and overdid their arrogance.”

Rajaji who was the last governor general and the first Indian to occupy the post after Lord Louis Mountbatten, had come full circle by the end of the 1960s as Indira Gandhi became prime minister of India in 1966. Natwar Singh joined PMO of Indira Gandhi in the summer of 1966. Next year he met Rajaji for the last time. By then despite being ninety-plus, Rajaji had begun campaigning for the Swatantra party.

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Printable version | Sep 15, 2021 7:04:31 PM |

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