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A forgotten hero

By Ramachandra Guha

K. Kamaraj is now almost overlooked.

SOLID BACKING: K. Kamaraj ensured Indira Gandhi's candidature. PHOTO: THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

THIS column is about a once mighty politician, a nurturer of Indian democracy who — outside of Tamil Nadu, at any rate — is now almost wholly forgotten. This was K. Kamaraj. Born in 1903 in a low-caste family, Kamaraj dropped out of school to join the national movement. He spent close to eight years in jail, spread out over two decades and six prison sentences. His status among the people was consolidated by his lifestyle — he lived austerely, and never married. He climbed steadily up the party hierarchy, and served as President of the Tamil Nadu Congress as well as Chief Minister of Madras before heading the party at the national level.

Morarji or Desai?

Kamaraj was a thick-set man with a white moustache — according to one reporter, he looked "like a cross between Sonny Liston and the Walrus ... ". Like the boxer (but unlike the Lewis Carrol character) he was a man of few words. The press joked that his answer to all questions put to him was one word in Tamil: "Parkalam (We shall see"). His reticence served him well, never better than after Jawaharlal Nehru's death on May 27, 1964. The next day, Kamaraj began consulting with Chief Ministers and party bosses on the best person to succeed Nehru. An early name to consider was Morarji Desai, the brilliant administrator from Gujarat who had made it clear that he wanted the job.

In four days, Kamaraj met a dozen Chief Ministers and as many as 200 Members of Parliament. From his talks it became clear that Desai would be a controversial choice: his style was too abrasive. The person most MP's seemed to prefer was Lal Bahadur Shastri, also a fine administrator, but with a more accessible persona, and from the Hindi heartland besides. It helped that Nehru had come increasingly to rely on Shastri in his last days. These factors all weighed heavily with Kamaraj, who was concerned that the succession should signal a certain continuity. He also felt that the Congress should present a united front and choose its leader "unanimously".

Desai was persuaded to withdraw his candidature. On May 31, the Congress Working Committee approved the choice of Lal Bahadur Shastri. The next day the name was ratified by the Congress Parliamentary Party and the day following, Shastri was sworn in as Prime Minister.

Less than two years later, Shastri succumbed to a heart-attack in Tashkent. Once more Kamaraj went in search of a successor. Once more, Morarji Desai threw his hat in the ring. Once more, Kamaraj rejected him in favour of a candidate who would be more widely acceptable.

Then, it was Mrs Gandhi

The person whom the Congress President had in mind to succeed Shastri was Mrs. Indira Gandhi. She was young — having just turned 48 — attractive, known to world leaders, and the daughter of the best loved of Indians. To soothe a nation hit by two quick losses, she seemed the most obvious choice.

The Chief Ministers consulted by Kamaraj quickly endorsed Mrs. Gandhi's name. So far, so good — except that Morarji Desai decided he would contest for the leadership. So New Delhi now became, as one reporter recalled, "the cockpit of concerted canvassing, large-scale lobbying, and hectic horse-trading". Mrs. Gandhi and Morarji Desai met with major leaders, while their seconds stalked the rank-and-file.

In terms of experience as well as ability Desai should have been the favourite. Jawaharlal Nehru had once written of him that there "were very few people whom I respect so much for their rectitude, ability, efficiency and fairness as Morarji Desai". It is doubtful whether he would have written about his own daughter in quite that fashion. But the words I have quoted are from a private letter; Desai and his supporters were not privy to it.

Even if they were, it is unlikely that it would have helped. With Kamaraj and the Syndicate so solidly backing Mrs. Gandhi, and other Congressmen having their own inhibitions as regards Desai, Nehru's daughter commanded majority support in the Congress Parliamentary Party. When that body voted to choose a Prime Minister on January 19, she won by 355 votes to 169. Kamaraj had "lined up the State satraps behind Mrs. Gandhi", wrote one Delhi journal, because "the State leaders would accept only an innocuous person for Prime Minister at the Centre".

That view was excessively cynical. For, as in May 1964, Kamaraj had worked to choose not the "best" leaders but the leader who would best signal continuity and stability. Western observers had long held that with Nehru's death India would disintegrate or at least abandon democracy. On Shastri's demise the predictions were repeated. In truth, many Indians were fearful of the future of their nation as well. Two wars in quick succession — against China in 1962, against Pakistan in 1965 — and successive failures of the monsoon (in 1964 and 1965) had led to rising prices and scarcities all around. And yet the country came through, helped by the resilience of its people, the robustness of its institutions, and the composure of its leaders, among whom one must single out the Congress President. Now, more than ever, it mattered that he was a man who would rather listen than speak, the better to understand the sentiments of his partymen, and to act in their and the nation's interests.


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