Battle of ballots is nothing new in the Congress 

Even a towering personality like Kamaraj had to sweat it out before rising to the top

October 01, 2022 12:41 am | Updated 08:40 am IST - CHENNAI

Bhaktavatsalam (left) who has been elected Leader of the Legislature Congress Party in Madras, with Indira Gandhi, who was deputed by the Congress Parliamentary Board as the observer, and Kamaraj (with back to the camera) at Rajaji Hall where the election was held.

Bhaktavatsalam (left) who has been elected Leader of the Legislature Congress Party in Madras, with Indira Gandhi, who was deputed by the Congress Parliamentary Board as the observer, and Kamaraj (with back to the camera) at Rajaji Hall where the election was held. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Even as a contest looks likely for the post of president of the All-India Congress Committee, Tamil Nadu faced famous electoral battles within the organisation, on several occasions in the past, for president of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee (TNCC) and leader of the Congress Legislature Party (CLP).  

Even K. Kamaraj (1903-75), who dominated the State politics for over 35 years until his death in October 1975, had to face contests in 1940 and 1954 to become the TNCC chief and CLP leader before occupying the post of Chief Minister, according to documents available with The Hindu Archives. 

S. Satyamurti (1887-1943), Kamaraj’s political mentor and one of the powerful orators, despite being one of the towering figures of the Congress during the pre-Independence era, had suffered defeats in the elections to the post of TNCC president in 1936 and 1939. On the first occasion, at the polling held in Vellore in December 1936, Satyamurti, the then sitting president, lost to C.N. Muthuranga Mudaliar by 45 votes. The winner secured 104 votes and the loser polled 59 votes, according to a news item published in The Hindu on December 6, 1936.

In the polling that took place at the Congress headquarters in Royapettah in January 1939, Satyamurti tasted another defeat, this time at the hands of Omandur P. Ramaswami Reddiar. He polled 90 votes against Reddiar’s 125. After this loss, Satyamurti vowed to make his follower Kamaraj the TNCC chief the next year.  

In February 1940, the election was held on the premises of the Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha at T. Nagar. There were two contestants — Kamaraj and C.P. Subbaiah of Coimbatore. The former polled 103 votes, winning by three votes.  

Fourteen years later, when C. Rajagopalachari, also known as Rajaji, decided to quit as the Chief Minister, Kamaraj, who was the then TNCC president, chose to enter the fray for the post of CLP leader. He was opposed by C. Subramaniam, who was Finance and Food Minister in the outgoing Ministry. It was M. Bakthavatsalam, another senior leader, who proposed the name of Subramaniam, whereas Kamaraj’s name was proposed by P. Varadarajalu Naidu., who was hailed as the Bal Gangadhar Tilak of south India.  

On March 30, 1954, the election took place at the Rajaji Hall on the Government Estate. Against the actual strength of 144 members (including 26 of the Legislative Council), 134 took part in the polling. Kamaraj secured 93 votes against 41 obtained by Subramaniam. It was to the credit of the winner that Subramaniam was not only retained as Minister but also given the portfolios he had held earlier. Besides, Bakthavatsalam, who was not a Minister in the Rajagopalachari’s Cabinet, was made no. 3 and given the portfolios of Agriculture and Industries.  

In late September 1963, Kamaraj decided to resign as the Chief Minister following the implementation of his own plan (Kamaraj Plan), which required senior Congressmen to step down from ministerial positions for taking up organisational work.

When everyone was under the impression that Bakthavatsalam, who had by then become no. 2 in the Kamaraj Cabinet as the Minister for Finance and Education, would get elected unopposed, R.V. Swaminathan, an old Congress hand from the south and who became the Union Minister of State for Agriculture in January 1980 when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister, decided to take on Bakthavatsalam.

A report carried by The Hindu on September 25, 1963 described Swaminathan’s move as a “sudden development” and quoted him as saying that he wanted to “break the monotony of unanimous elections.”  

The election took place again at the Rajaji Hall. Indira Gandhi herself was as a party observer, deputed by the Congress Parliamentary Board. Bakthavatsalam bagged 128 votes whereas Swaminathan got 22. Unlike Kamaraj who took Subramaniam and Bakthavatsalam into his Ministry, Bakthavatsalam did not accommodate Swaminathan in his Cabinet. 

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