To regain lost glory, Congress needs a Kamaraj as its leader

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To regain lost glory, Congress needs a Kamaraj as its leader

Thursday, 25 July 2019 | BISWARAJ PATNAIK

Legendary statesman and kingmaker Kamaraj Nadar was born in Tamil Nadu on July 15, 1903. But he is not remembered today by any Congress super-brain. Kamaraj was a school dropout who grew up to stun political stalwarts with his robust commonsense.

Young kids of those days did not go to school because they did not get even survival food. When Kamaraj became Chief Minister, he first organised midday meals to tempt kids to attend schools basically to satisfy perpetual hunger and be inspired to study by the way. The school meal scheme, ingeniously pioneered by Kamaraj is paying dividends to all political parties today.

Kamaraj played the most crucial role in the country’s post-Independence history, especially after the death of India’s first and longest-serving Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. It was Kamraj who chose Shastri to succeed Nehru. After the death of Govind Ballabh Pant in 1961, Finance Minister Morarji Desai had considered himself the natural successor to Nehru.

 He had many loyal adherents in the Congress Parliamentary Party because of his seniority, reputation for integrity and administrative ability. But many Congress leaders did not support Desai as he was rigid and inflexible in outlook and had the reputation of being self-righteous, intolerant and kind of a right-winger. Shastri was mild, tactful and malleable, highly respected and known to be personally incorruptible. Kamaraj played his cards dexterously and evolved a novel concept of consensus.

Though Desai was against this formula, he was heavily outnumbered in the Congress Working Committee, which gave Kamaraj the authority to go ahead with his plan. Kamaraj consulted the members of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) and Chief Ministers; and, as the party boss, chose Shastri to succeed Nehru in 1964. Many supporters of Desai urged him to challenge the consensus and press the CPP to go for voting.

However, Desai, a disciplined Gandhian, bowed to the verdict but refused to be part of the Shastri Cabinet. A few months later, Indira Gandhi was persuaded by Shastri to join his Cabinet with a portfolio of her choice. She chose Information and Broadcasting. It needs mention here that a majority of members had chosen Kamaraj to become PM after Nehru. But he told them that keeping the party in divine fitness was more critical to nation building.

Later again, Kamaraj decided that Indira Gandhi was the best choice for PM in 1966 when Shastri died under strange circumstances in Tashkent. He had believed that Indira was young, full of energy and had all the personality traits to project India fittingly before the international community. The disgruntled Morarji Desai called for a battle of strength. But the Congress Parliamentary Party elected Indira defeating Desai by an impressive margin of 186 votes.

Kamaraj was born to a poor, least-respected liquor trader caste family of the then Madras State. He couldn’t study much because of domestic problems and had to abandon school early.  At a very young age, to help the family survive, he worked at an uncle’s cloth store as a helping hand. But interestingly, he had an uncanny ability to grasp the prevailing socio-political realities on the ground to know what social evils needed instant fixing.

He knew fairly early in life that the oppressive British Government had broken the backbones of ordinary Indians. So, he was keenly waiting for the right break to do something worthy as a nationalist. When he was barely 15, the Jallianwalabagh massacre happened in 1919. That very incident showed him the path of his calling.

He joined the freedom movement. Gandhiji visited Madurai in 1921; and the young Kamaraj became a more charged participant in the Noncooperation Movement. In 1930, Kamaraj was an active participant in the salt-related civil disobedience movement in Vedaranyam. He was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for that. Subsequently, he had to spend eight years in jails, including the longest spell of 32 months during the Quit India Movement. Kamaraj was elected to the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1937 and again in 1946. He was also elected to the Constituent Assembly and later to the first Parliament of Independent India in 1952. He became the Chief Minister of Madras in 1954 succeeding C Rajagopalachari, the first Indian Governor-General after Mountbatten.

His nine years as Chief Minister saw Madras undergoing tremendous industrial and agricultural progress. Madras became one of the best-administered States. People may have forgotten that Kamaraj gifted his State with such enviable projects like the Neyveli Lignite, Raw Photofilm in Nilgiri, surgical equipment factory at Guindy, sugar factories, bicarbonate factories, cement factories, Avadi rail coach and the Mettur paper mill. Further, for the water-craving farmers he put up eleven small and medium dam-based irrigation projects that ensured the State harvesting record grains and agro products in history.

In 1963, the Congress lost three important by-elections. Kamaraj, along with some other Chief Ministers, Sanjiva Reddy, S Nijalingappa and Biju Patnaik, suggested to PM Jawaharlal Nehru that senior leaders at the Centre and in the States better give up their posts and undertake organisational work vigorously to regain the lost Congress glory.

The suggestion was accepted and six Union Ministers, including Desai, Shastri, and six popular CMs, including Partap Singh Kairon of Punjab and Biju Patnaik of Odisha, quit their positions. In 1963, Kamaraj and Biju Patnaik had suggested to Nehru that Indira Gandhi be made Minister for External Affairs, but Nehru had said a big ‘No'.

Nehru trusted Kamaraj blindly and ensured he became Congress president in 1964 by a huge consensus. Kamaraj presided over three sessions of the Indian National Congress, Bhubaneswar (1964), Durgapur (1965) and Jaipur (1966). In the 1967 general elections, with the steep rise of the DMK in Madras, Kamaraj lost his own seat of Virudhunagar to a student leader.

This undermined his stature considerably. But soon he won from the Nagercoil parliamentary constituency in a by-election. However, with the Congress split in 1969, he decided to throw his lot with Morarji Desai, who had formed Congress(O) as his relations with Indira Gandhi had become strained by then. Not until the Narasimha Rao stint in the early 1990s, did the Congress come under a South Indian boss.

It has now gone permanently to a family in the Nehru lineage though called ‘Gandhis’ after the surname of Indira's husband Feroz Gandhy, an illustrious Parliamentarian from the Parsee community.

Kamaraj was posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1976 by the Indira Gandhi Government as a recognition of his high integrity, public morality and selfless services to the nation.

 If only the degenerating Congress of today just picked one of the core values of Kamaraj, they will be able to spring back to life, given its rich legacy and impressive history.

Sadly, Kamaraj, one of the greatest of Congress veterans, is permanently lost in oblivion today. His birthday is observed. No wonder, death anniversary can never be observed as it falls on October 2, the Mahatma's date of birth. Kamaraj died in 1975 leaving behind only 130 rupees, two pairs of sandals, four shirts, four dhotis, one old watch, six cooking and eating utensils and a few books!

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