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Opinion: Why The Youth Should Revisit Politics Of The Kamaraj Era

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The news item ‘Remembering Tamil Nadu’s simple CM: The man who made children eat and learn published in The New Indian Express on 16 July 2019 prompted me to revisit the Kamaraj rule. My reasons for this were many. Of these the most important are the following: 

    • The Emergency, which was  thrust on the nation by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from 26 June 1975 until its withdrawal on 21 March 1977 (captured in a cartoon by Abu Abraham showing  President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed signing from a bathtub  Indira Gandhi’s Ordinance):
    • The Emergency  gave me a foretaste of living in a country devoid of the freedoms, liberties, and fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution which came into force on 26 January 1950 as a covenant of the people, by the people, and for the people, carefully crafted and drafted over a period of  about three years (9 December 1946 to 26 November 1949) with Dr B R Ambedkar as chairman of the drafting committee;
    • How the political stalwarts of the era of freedom movement, incarcerated by Indira Gandhi as a threat to the nation, and hence “anti-national” – now a cunning cliché and continuing threat to the dissenters of the Hindutva project of hegemonic homogenisation — when released from jails after the Emergency was lifted, defended vociferously the Constitution, lambasted Indira Gandhi for her misadventures and  the Emergency excesses; and dislodged her and the Congress party from power;
    • The amendment to the Constitution in 1978 to prevent misuse of emergency powers by the executive;
    • How the Narendra Modi led NDA government has shown appallingly since 2014 that for abusing executive powers and subverting democratic institutions there is no need for declaring a formal national emergency;
    • Most importantly, and much to Modi’s advantage, India’s overwhelming demographic shift to the youth, the  teeming millennials who I feel do not know much about the Modi era in Gujarat, and our freedom movement in which neither Modi nor his mainstay, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – an organisation unparalleled in its  panjandrums, scope and sweep, and unavailable to any other political party — had any role.

While India as a parliamentary democracy, at least in style if not in substance, survived the Emergency, Indira Gandhi did not survive for long after the Emergency was lifted: on 31 October 1984, she was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.  She was 67 years old. Her death marked the passing of the generation that brought India to independence and nurtured its development through “Nehruvian socialism”.

Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi


Indira’s son, Rajiv, who took over as Prime Minister after her death, began rebuilding the Congress party and the nation. He would have continued to do so but for his assassination on 21 May 1991, about seven years after his mother’s assassination.  He was campaigning in Tamil Nadu for Sriperumbudur Congress candidate Maragatham Chandrasekhar in yet another of the world’s largest democratic election to Indian Parliament. His end was even more poignant. He was only 46 years old, and had a dream about a new, developed India in the new millennium. 

A human bomb planted by the LTTE blew him into smithereens. People for a while feared that with his assassination the end of the Nehru dynasty that led India for all but five years since India’s independence, as well as its political machinery, the Congress party was imminent. But after a self-imposed political exile for a while which started soon after Rajiv’s death, in the late 1990s, Sonia Gandhi emerged on the national political scene to make real the dream of Rajiv’s India, of leading India into the new millennium as a developed democracy. She and son Rahul continued their work in a political era and a political climate which was different from Indira’s and Rajiv’s. That explains the Congress-led UPA governments for two consecutive terms from 2004 to 2014.

G.K.Moopanar. Image Credit: https://alchetron.com/G-K-Moopanar

Though Sonia Gandhi appeared on the Tamil Nadu political scene rather late, her role in promoting the “Kamaraj-rule” chant cannot be understood without reference to G. K. Moopanar. As a long-time Congress leader, he was a loyal follower of K. Kamaraj. His innocuous, and in some sense insensate incantation about reviving Kamaraj rule led to much hype, hoopla, and hullabaloo.

Moopanar and others founded the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC) in April 1996, in protest against the Congress (I) president and Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s decision to align the party with the AIADMK. In the May 1996 Assembly elections the nascent TMC, in alliance with the DMK, scored a big victory.

When Moopanar formed the TMC, he swore to usher in Kamaraj rule by fighting the regime of the AIADMK leader, J. Jayalalitha, which was notorious for corruption and fascism. That was probably the first time one heard of Kamaraj rule, long after Kamaraj’s death. However, Moopanar himself dashed all hopes of ushering in any such rule. In December 1997, rumor mills had it that the TMC alliance with the DMK was in jeopardy, as it happened shortly thence. Moopanar blamed it on the DMK’s alliance with the communal BJP.

When Jayalalitha announced that she would welcome any overture from the TMC for political alliance with the AIADMK, Moopanar commented that it was on the anti-AIADMK plank that the TMC was formed and the situation had not changed. In a related context, he declared that he had snapped his links with the Congress.

Party Flag of Tamil Maanila Congress (L-R) K. Kamarajar and G. K Moopanar. By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, https://dz01iyojmxk8t.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/10110249/index.php_.jpg?curid=54665109

By this time Moopanar’s incantation became grist to the news-hungry media. In October 2000, a section of the press reported that a joke making the rounds in Chennai was that Moopanar was seeing visions of the late Kamaraj in Jayalalitha.

In less than six months, the TMC contested the May 2001 Assembly elections as an ally of the AIADMK and the Congress (I).  As the AIADMK won enough seats on its own, Jayalalitha dumped her allies, including the TMC, and on August 30, Moopanar died.

Seen against the above background, Moopanar’s boasting of reviving Kamaraj’s rule was mumbo-jumbo. All the same, as Moopanar was also gone, others found political mileage in this mumbo-jumbo. That should take the curious readers to an overview of Kamaraj the man, Kamaraj the politician, and the political chicanery centering on his rule.  

Kumaraswami Kamaraj. Image Credit: Wikipedia

A school dropout of the sixth grade from the Nadar community, traditionally a depressed caste, Kamaraj (15 July 1903 to 2 October 1975) became the most prominent member of his community, and one of the most powerful and dynamic leaders in Indian public life. At the age of 16 or 17, he took part in the Vaikom Satyagraha against the exclusion of polluting castes from the temples. He also enrolled himself as a full-time Congress worker and was totally involved in Congress work and the freedom movement. From then on till his death he remained a Gandhian by conviction and practice. 

The reference to Kamaraj rule is to his administration since 1954 as Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu. He held that position until he resigned in 1963 to become president of the All-India Congress Committee. Kamaraj’s rise as the third Chief Minister was unparalleled. His predecessors were all educated, fluent in English, and belonged to the upper castes, while his successors, all from the Dravidian parties who had nothing to do with the freedom movement, came to power by beguiling the masses through celluloid chicanery. After Kamaraj became Chief Minister, Periyar E V Ramasamy called him a “pukka [or pachchai] Tamizhan” (pure Tamilian) and applauded him for the lack of Brahmins in his cabinet, which was probably in the fitness of the then socio-political scenario of the state.

As Chief Minister, Kamaraj advised his cabinet colleagues to face the problem, not to evade it; and find a solution, however small. He ruthlessly cut the bureaucratic red tape and his watchwords were action and result. Under his dispensation, the Tamil Nadu administration became a model for other States and no less a person than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru openly acknowledged it. 

Kamaraj visualised and executed an infrastructure that was essential to the needs of ordinary folk. He made education free up to the high school, provided mid-day meals for school-going children to prevent dropouts on account of poverty, established schools for every village of a thousand people, had roads laid connecting rural areas to urban centers, creating easy access for village produce to reach town and city markets. He paid special attention to power generation so as to ensure that electricity reached almost all villages, and helped many industrial estates to come up and grow, starting in earnest the industrialisation of the state. 

If Kamaraj’s rule was edifying, his role as a national leader was more so. At the insistence of Nehru, he became President of the All-India Congress Committee. Considering that Tamil Nadu had not had many leaders of national stature, particularly after Rajaji (C Rajagopalachari), I will say that this was a well-deserved accolade. 

Probably the most notable contribution of Kamaraj to national politics was The Kamaraj Plan to invigorate the Congress Party with new blood and clip the wings of those with vaulting ambitions that might have destabilised the party. In keeping with this plan, several important central ministers and state chief ministers belonging to the Congress Party resigned from office and engaged in grassroots work in the villages. 

By Balamurugan Srinivasan – originally posted to Flickr as Statue of Kamarajar, CC BY 2.0, https://dz01iyojmxk8t.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/10110249/index.php_.jpg?curid=7598538

How a school drop out from a traditionally ‘disprivileged’ caste with hardly any knowledge of any language other than Tamil, participated in nationalist agitations against the will of his family and community, strategically focussed on party (Congress) building, participated in elections and governments, became Chief Minister thrice is a marvel. He ruled the state so well as no one else had done before and after him, he became President of the All-India Congress Committee. How K.Kamraj, with a humble background, and as a strong organisation man and master of manipulative politics, saved the Congress from disintegration caused by leadership squabbles after Nehru’s death and turned a “kingmaker” by virtually appointing two Prime Ministers, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, is still a marvel.

There were several reasons for this. Kamaraj rose from the grassroots level, learning in the schools of hard knocks and in the treadmill of experience.  Hailed as “a sanyasi in white clothes,” he was a man of simple tastes, and self-effacing nature. Honesty, integrity, conspicuous absence of self-aggrandisement, high moral standards, and political sagacity, were his other qualities. As a man of the people, with a clean and rustic public image he merged well with the masses.

Kamaraj was, in the words of Nehru, a man “with extraordinary capacity, ability, and devotion to his task.” Nehru was against unveiling statues of living persons. But he made an exemption for Kamaraj as a notable example of a new type of leader. 

With Kamaraj dead and gone in 1975, and Moopanar, probably the only living loyal follower of him also dead and gone, one might ask why the fuss about reviving Kamaraj rule was. 

The first occasion for the fuss was a merger mela on August 13, 2002, at a venue christened “Moopanar Thidal” on the outskirts of Madurai, when the TMC rejoined (after Moopanar’s death!) the Congress (I). On that occasion, when Sonia Gandhi said, “let us bring back Kamaraj rule”, and the best tribute to Kamaraj in his birth centenary year is “to re-establish” his rule in the state, she was preparing a wish-list. What she meant by ‘Kamaraj rule’ was “re-establishing” Congress rule in Tamil Nadu. The TNCC president, E. V. K. S. Elangovan, and TMC president, Vasan, joined the chorus and added to her wish list banishing Dravidian rule from the State. 

Elangovan’s wish list also contained his party highlighting the misdeeds of the Dravidian rule for over 35 years. P. Chidambaram, a follower of Moopanar till the TMC struck an alliance with the AIADMK for the May 2001 elections, added more by projecting an alternative to the AIADMK and the DMK and wanted the Congress high command to initiate steps for forming the Third Front. In the Sattankulam bye-election in February that year, the Congress again made a song and dance of ushering in Kamaraj rule.

Important among the dramatis personae speaking, if not working, for Kamaraj rule were Sonia Gandhi and Kamal Nath from Delhi; and Chidambaram, Elangovan, and Vasan from Tamil Nadu. But I wonder if any of them with the probable exception of Chidambaram, ever knew Kamaraj.  

Given this scenario, and the fact that the Congress (I) was on a rapid downhill journey, the merger mela did not work. More so, after Kamaraj switched to the national politics and resigned as Chief Minister, the Congress Party did not win a single election on its own. The strong Dravidian current swept even Kamaraj, president of the Congress Party, off his feet in the 1967 Virudhunagar assembly elections in which he was defeated.  

In this sense, I will say Jayalalitha was right in dismissing Sonia Gandhi’s claim of reviving Kamaraj rule as a ‘pet dream’ as Tamil Nadu has continued to be in the grip of one Dravida Kazhagam or another. 

Important among the issues emerging from this write-up are the political imperative of reviving grassroots level political work from a national perspective and the ability of regional leaders to rise above narrow regionalism. This also shows how regional leaders should strive to be national leaders with a thorough knowledge of vital constitutional issues to grapple with, and repeated visits to the Constituent Assembly Debates should be imperative. There is no other way the nation can conjure up cohesive and strong countervailing forces to stop the Hindutva juggernaut.

The author was a Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies and is a media commentator on public affairs.

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