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Comrades, friends, rivals

It was a pity that Rajaji, Nehru and Patel, considered the `head, heart and hands of Gandhiji', could never really function together. In an essay on the Nehru — Rajaji relationship, RAMACHANDRA GUHA looks at how the two leaders, separated by upbringing and ideology, eventually fell out.



Nehru(left) and Rajaji ... united by a shared ideal and one "master".

IN the course of the past year or two, I have spent many absorbing days looking at the papers of C. Rajagopalachari, which are housed at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in Delhi. This vast collection contains letters from world statesmen as well as by unknown Indians. Sometimes the latter are as interesting and insightful as the former. Consider a letter to Rajaji written in 1953 by a mofussil Tamil named Anantharaman. This offers the view that Rajaji, Nehru and Patel were, respectively, the "head, heart and hands of Gandhiji".

This is most appositely put. For Rajaji was unquestionably the most intelligent of Gandhi's close disciples, Nehru arguably the most humane, and Patel the most disciplined and practical. The pity is that they could never function together except for a very brief while. The relationship between Nehru and Patel has attracted much attention. In this essay I focus on the no less intriguing relationship between Nehru and Rajaji.

During the freedom movement, Nehru and Rajaji were comrades rather than companions. They were separated by upbringing, and by a thousand miles of peninsula. One was an aristocrat educated at Harrow and Cambridge, the other a self-made man from small-town South India. In terms of ideology too there were differences: Nehru was more inclined to militant socialist views, Rajaji more oriented towards accommodation with the adversary. But they were united by a shared ideal — the freedom of India — and a shared devotion to their Master. (Notably, it was Rajaji whom Gandhi first designated as his successor, later changing his mind in favour of Nehru.) They met at Congress meetings, but did not seem to have been especially intimate. Still, the Tamilian had impressed Nehru enough to have him write in his autobiography of how Rajaji's "brilliant intellect, selfless character, and penetrating powers of analysis have been a tremendous asset to our cause".

It was from 1946 that the two men began to work more closely together. In the next eight years, while Nehru was Prime Minister in New Delhi, Rajaji was, successively, a minister in the interim government, Governor of Bengal, Governor-General of India, Minister without Portfolio and Home Minister in the Central Government, and Chief Minister of Madras State. In all these jobs he had direct and regular dealings with Nehru. But official business drew them closer at the personal level too.

While they worked together, Nehru did regard Rajaji more-or-less as an equal. They shared a cultivated interest in literature and the arts: it was only to Rajaji, and to no other Congressman, that Nehru could write recommending a recent book by a British anthropologist or praise the beauty of the folk traditions of India. After a visit to the North-East, the Prime Minister wrote to his Southern colleague about the "most lovely handloom weaving" he had seen there. He confessed to being "astonished at the artistry of these so-called tribal people. I think it will be disastrous from many points of view to allow such an industry to fade away". "Altogether my visit to these North-Eastern areas has been most exhilarating," wrote Nehru to Rajaji: "I wish they were better known by our people elsewhere in India. We could profit much by that contact."

Reading the correspondence between these two men, I was moved by the nobility of their vision for a free India. In different ways they both took heed of the message of their Master, working to reconcile competing points of views and alternate religious traditions. Particularly memorable was a handwritten letter of Nehru's that I came across. It was dated July 30, 1947, and it read:

"My dear Rajaji,

This is to remind you that you have to approach Shanmukham Chetty — this must be done soon.

I have seen Ambedkar and he has agreed ...

Yours

Jawaharlal".

This brief note requires some explanation. R.K. Shanmukham Chetty was a businessman in the South widely admired as being one of the best financial minds in India. Ambedkar was one of the most brilliant legal scholars in the country. But both had been lifelong enemies of the Congress, and long-time collaborators of the Raj. Now, a mere two weeks before independence, Rajaji and Nehru had spent years in prison for, they were approaching these old adversaries to join the first Cabinet of free India. It was a gesture remarkable in its wisdom and in its generosity. In the event, but only after overcoming the hostility of the other Congressmen, Chetty became Finance Minister, Ambedkar, Minister for Law.

In 1950, Nehru hoped desperately to be able to make Rajaji the first President of the Republic, but the Congress Old Guard thwarted him. After Vallabhbhai Patel's death in December 1950, Rajaji was asked to take over the crucial job of Home Minister. Not long afterwards, he left the Cabinet and returned to Madras. The ostensible reason was tired-ness, but he seems also to have felt that he was not being consulted enough. Anyway, his leaving Delhi was a tragedy, for Jawaharlal Nehru as well as for India. For, as the Australian diplomat Walter Crocker perceptively remarked, after the death of Patel the Prime Minister "needed the support of an equal. He needed, too, the criticism of an equal". Now Rajaji was as close to Gandhi, had sacrificed as much in the freedom movement, and was a man of conspicuous integrity besides. He was indeed "the intellectual and moral equal of Nehru". Had a way been found to retain Rajaji in Delhi, this would have, says Crocker, "ended the situation prevailing in which no one could, or would, stand up to the Prime Minister; the situation whereby he was surrounded by men all of whom owed to him their jobs, whether as Cabinet ministers or as officials". In October 1951, after Rajaji had left Nehru's Cabinet, the Prime Minister sounded him out on the job of Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and, when he refused, asked Lord Mountbatten to try and persuade him. Mountbatten duly wrote to Rajaji, and in exchange got a blistering reply: "My career is truly remarkable in its zigzag... . Cabinet Minister, Governor without power, Governor General when the Constitution was to be wound up, Minister without Portfolio, Home Minister and... now the proposition is Acting High Commissioner in the U.K.! Finally I must one day cheerfully accept a senior clerk's place somewhere and raise that job to its proper and honoured importance".

The job Rajaji did accept a few months later was that of Chief Minister of Madras. But the Prime Minister and he kept in close touch. In 1951, when Rajaji expressed his inability to attend a Congress session at Indore, Nehru, hungry for his company, pleaded with him to come. For his part, Rajaji wrote to influential English politicians to lobby to award Nehru the Nobel Peace Prize, for having "been able to help the cause of peace almost in a miraculous way without power and almost alone". In a speech in Madras, Rajaji again commended Nehru's work for peace in Korea and Indochina, without which "the world would have been entangled in a terrible disaster". In 1954, when Nehru extravagantly praised Rajaji in a speech in Chidambaram, the older man thanked him for his "affectionate and most gracious" words, assuring him: "You may ever be sure of a father's love from me and what a son you are!"



Old friends who become political adversaries.

Rajaji remained as Chief Minister until April 1954, when his party indicated that they wanted K. Kamaraj to replace him. Now he took sanyas from politics, settled down in a small house, read capaciously, and wrote his versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. But, in the end, philosophy and literature proved an inadequate substitute for public affairs. He was moved to comment from time to time on the nuclear arms race between Russia and America, with regard to which he took a line not dissimilar to that of Nehru. Then, when the Second Five Year Plan committed the Government of India to a socialist model of economics, he began commenting on domestic affairs as well. Here, however, he came to be increasingly at odds with Nehru.

Consider thus an article published by Rajaji in May 1958 under the title "Wanted: Independent Thinking". This examined the "present discontent about the Congress" from the perspective of one who "has spent the best part of his life-time serving the organisation and who owes many honours and kindnesses to it". He worried that "as a result of tacit submission on the part of the people of emancipated India, a few good persons at the top, enjoying prestige and power, are acting like guardians of docile children rather than as leaders in a parliamentary democracy".

"The long reign of popular favourites, without any significant opposition," wrote Rajaji, is "probably the main cause for the collapse of independent thinking" in India. But a healthy democracy required "an Opposition that thinks differently and does not just want more of the same, a group of vigorously thinking citizens which aims at the general welfare, and not one that in order to get more votes from the so-called have-nots, offers more to them than the party in power has given, an Opposition that appeals to reason... ." Such an Opposition, even if it did not succeed in ousting the ruling party, might yet control and humanise it.

A year later, and touching 80, Rajaji chose a public meeting in Bangalore to launch an all-out attack on the Prime Minister. This was followed by the formation in Madras of the Swatantra Party. This party focused its criticisms on the "personality cult" around the Prime Minister, and on the economic policies of the ruling Congress. In a series of articles published in his journal Swarajya, Rajaji took apart these socialist pretensions. The Prime Minister's "personal allergy" towards private enterprise, he commented, was both unwarranted and unfair. For "it is as patriotic to start and manage a good private business concern, be it in industry or in transport or in distribution, as to be attached to a public managed industry either as an official or propagandist patro-saint". But Nehru was moved instead by an admiration for Soviet Russia that was "taking different and various forms at national cost".

Rajaji also sharply attacked the "megalomania that vitiates the present development policies". What India needed, said he, "is not just big projects, but useful and fruitful projects... Big dams are good, but more essential are thousands of small projects which could be and would be executed by the enthusiasm of the local people because they directly and immediately improve their lives". Speaking more generally, "the role of the Government should be that of a catalyst in stimulating economic development while individual initiative and enterprise are given fullest play".

In September 1952, after Rajaji had left the Cabinet and returned to Madras, the American journalist and pioneering Gandhi biographer Louis Fischer wrote to him of his belief that "some straight talk to the power that is (Nehru), would do a lot of good, for I doubt whether time cures certain diseases... You are the one man who... could appeal to his mind... ." At that time, of course, Rajaji was still in the Congress; but now, seven years later, Nehru did not take well to these criticisms from an old friend turned political adversary. Sometimes he affected a cavalier attitude — when asked at a press conference about his differences with Rajaji, he answered: "He likes the Old Testament. I like the New Testament." This was spoken in June 1959, but as the months went by the mood turned very sour indeed. In December 1961 he told a group of newsmen that Rajaji "stands on a mountain peak by himself. Nobody understands him, nor does he understand anybody. We need not consider him in this connection. All his policies in regard to India, if I may say so, are bad-bad economics, bad sense, and bad temper." Eighteen months later Nehru claimed that the party Rajaji had started, Swatantra, was "a mixture of the rottenest ideas imaginable".

Sensitive observers mourned and worried about the gulf between the two. In May 1959, his biographer Monica Felton told Rajaji, "If I were the mother of you and the Prime Minister, I would bang your two heads together and tell you to stop arguing and to settle down and run things together." Another foreigner, Walter Crocker, thought their differences real, but by no means irreconciliable. Both loved freedom, both were deeply moral beings, and both were passionately committed to social and religious tolerance. Yet they fell out. "Here was great drama," writes Crocker, "two figures of Shakespearean scale in contest. And the drama was tragedy, for the contest was needless. Both men were required by India in the two crucial decades following Independence; and both men shared the blame, though perhaps not in equal measure, that there had been fission, not fusion between them."

The assessment of Nehru's own sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, was not dissimilar to this. As she wrote to Rajaji in June 1964: "It seemed such a bad thing that two men like yourself and Bhai who had contributed so much individually and jointly to our beloved India should be apart at a time of national crisis. But the moment passed and now it is too late."

This was written weeks after the death of Nehru. That event had occasioned a brief obituary published by Rajaji in Swarajya. I quote:

"Eleven years younger than me, eleven times more important to the nation, eleven hundred times more beloved of the nation, Sri Nehru has suddenly departed from our midst and I remain alive to hear the sad news from Delhi — and bear the shock... .

The old guard-room is completely empty now... I have been fighting Sri Nehru all these 10 years over what I consider faults in public policies. But I knew all along that he alone could get them corrected. No one else would dare do it, and he is gone, leaving me weaker than before in my fight. But fighting apart, a beloved friend is gone, the most civilised person among us all. Not many among us are civilised yet.

God save our people."

These words might serve as a epitaph to the relationship between these two remarkable men. Or one might choose instead the story of Edwina Mountbatten's visit to Madras in early 1953. Told about the visit, Rajaji drew up a punishing programme, where Lady Mountbatten would have to visit Corporation slums, meet social workers, open a high school, have tea with Army wives, see the temples at Mahabalipuram and dine at the Raj Bhavan. When this schedule was sent back to Delhi, it provoked a panic-stricken telegram from the Prime Minister: "Programme sent by Mary Clubwalla for Edwina's visit to Madras is rather heavy. She has not been very fit. There is no mention in programme of her visit to you. This is main purpose of her going to Madras."

This, read intelligently, might even be the most generous compliment ever paid by Nehru to a fellow Indian. If Edwina is to have stimulating conversation in India, he is saying to Rajaji, and if it is to be with someone other than myself, then it must only be with you.

Acknowledgement: This essay is based, in the main, on Rajaji's own writings and on unpublished correspondence between him and Jawaharlal Nehru. It also draws on books on Nehru by Sarvepalli Gopal and Walter Crocker, and on The Rajaji Story by Rajmohan Gandhi.

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