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A progressive conservative

By K. Natwar Singh

Rajaji's character never showed to better advantage than during those periods when he was almost completely isolated politically.



Today is the 125th birth anniversary of Chakravarty Rajagopalachari, the man Gandhiji once saw as his ``only possible successor.'' Freedom fighter, statesman, scholar. Rajaji was all this and more, a sage in every sense.

MAHATMA GANDHI was the author, director, lead actor and producer of an amazing real life political drama called the Indian Freedom Movement. Among his many great qualities was his talent for spotting men and women of outstanding quality.

Among the navratnas (nine gems) of Gandhi, Chakravarty Rajagopalachari had his own very special position. At one time, he seemed the ultimate insider. He was among the handful of Congressmen who talked to Gandhi on almost equal terms. His intellect was sharper and more balanced than that of most of his formidable contemporaries. In 1927, the Mahatma had said of Rajaji, "I do say he is the only possible successor," S. Gopal, the historian, has called Rajaji, "an extremely conservative follower of Gandhi." Yet he was in his own way secular, well-versed in ancient and modern political thought, and not afraid to go against the current. His career was to know many vicissitudes. His character never showed to better advantage than during those periods when he was almost completely isolated politically from 1942 to 1945.

The broad outlines of his long life are well known. Although he became a member of the Congress Working Committee in 1919, he really came on the national scene when he took over as Premier of Madras in 1937. He showed administrative talent.

But his activities and conduct between 1942 and 1945 remain puzzling. He worked himself into a corner and in the process lost the Mahatma's confidence, which till then had been total and well known. Rajagopalachari had to resign from the Working Committee for suggesting a pact with the Muslim League and accepting the Cripps proposals. He even had a resolution passed in the Madras Congress Legislature Party asking for a Congress-League pact. The Tamil Nadu Pradesh Congress president served him a show cause notice. C.R. resigned from the Congress and did not participate in the Quit India Movement. He was to pay dearly for this later. It was in 1942 that Gandhiji changed his mind, and declared that, "Not Rajaji, but Jawaharlal will be my successor." It must have been a bitter blow and we will never know how Rajagopalachari felt, because he never wrote or spoke on such matters. He was a detached enough person to accept the dictates of fate and his own imperfections.

In 1950, the question who should be the first President of Republican India was not of academic interest. Nehru wanted C.R., but Sardar Patel had not forgotten 1942 and Rajaji's role. Nehru could not have his way. Another bitter blow. Here again we have no idea of C.R.'s innermost feelings.

Rajaji came into my life quite unexpectedly. I recall his affection and warmth of feeling for me with gratitude. Somehow, we hit it off and for me a rich and harmonious association followed. The impression he left on me after a week's stay in my apartment in New York in 1962 was indelible.

He was 85 when I got to know him. One had, of course, seen him. His dark glasses made recognition easy. Without them he would have gone unnoticed. He did not have a commanding presence, he was short and slim and had a striking resemblance to Voltaire. However, when he came to New York, his dark glasses had been jettisoned.

One of my treasured possessions is a book Rajaji gave me. It is The Voice of The Uninvolved authored by him, with an inscription which reads, "As a memento of the happy days I spent in your apartments in New York and in grateful memory of your hospitality and help, C. Rajagopalachari, New York, 12-10-1962."

He arrived in New York on a cool autumn afternoon in October 1962. He was leading the Gandhi Peace Foundation delegation to press a total ban on nuclear tests. The other members were B. Shiva Rao [Correspondent of The Hindu] and B.R. Diwakar [Information & Broadcasting Minister in the 1950s]. The combined ages of the three added up to an impressive 223 years. Being young and irreverent, I thought: "Fancy sending three stretcher cases to meet President Kennedy."

Rajaji's political relations with Pandit Nehru at the time were strained but their personal relationship remained unimpaired. The Prime Minister had instructed the embassies concerned to extend all facilities to Rajaji. Here was yet another typical Nehru gesture, proving that private decencies could be practised in the political arena. We were as usual short of foreign exchange, and the delegation was sanctioned limited hard currency. I was asked if I could put up Rajaji in my apartment. This I willingly agreed to do and Rajaji, Diwakar and Rajaji's personal physician, spent nearly a week at 404 East, 66th Street.

This was the great man's first ever visit outside India. He had been to Sri Lanka once but that was hardly abroad. I was curious to see how this sage of the old world would cope with the pace and mores of the new world. He arrived wearing a brown woollen achkan and to my great surprise woollen trousers. But the trousers he discarded. He found them too uncomfortable. It was back to dhoti.

Another member of the Embassy had kindly agreed to cook South Indian food for Rajaji in my kitchen. This was the only demand Rajaji made. I saw much of him at close quarters. What I saw I liked. In one week, he demonstrated with effortless ease and grace how the rishis (sages) in ancient India must have lived. His mind was complex but orderly. His intellect sharp, his curiosity childlike, his wit unexpected. I kept notes of my talks with Rajaji. Here are a few excerpts:

October 9, 1962. The conversation turned to the Partition of India. To provoke him I said, "Lord Mountbatten sold Partition to Panditji and Sardar Patel".

Rajaji: Now, let me tell you Natwar Singh — I sold Partition to Mountbatten. The Attlee Government had already made up its mind in that direction but did not know how to put it across in a concrete manner. Mountbatten asked me what he should do to break the impasse. I said Partition was the only answer. He first talked to Nehru and then to Patel. They both had seen what was going on and accepted reality.

Natwar: But Gandhiji was against it and he held out till the very end. Why did he suddenly give in? It came as a great shock even to the young like me.

Rajaji: Gandhiji was a very great man but he too saw what was going on. He was a very disillusioned man. When he realised that we all accepted Partition, he said, "If you all agree I will go along with you", and after that he left Delhi.

(Excerpted from the writer's book "Profiles and Letters", Sterling Publishers Private Limited, New Delhi.)

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