The Wisest Man In India

I don’t know whether Rajaji himself believed in astrology. I somehow doubt it. But he had an uncanny knack of being wise before the event, and paying for it.

The first and, as it happens, last time I wept at the death of a political leader was on the 26th of December, 1972. I was already distraught, for the previous day I had watched the last day of my first Test match, and India had lost. The morning after, the cricket news was not even on the front page. This was taken over, for the most part, by the death of Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, lawyer, scholar, philosopher and statesman, the man whom Mahatma Gandhi had called ‘the keeper of my conscience’.

Gandhi died before I was born, and Nehru died when I was only six. Rajaji was the one man left over from an age when the profession of politics still drew in men of character and integrity. Being a sentimental sort of fellow, I suppose I would have wept anyway, but the tears flowed more freely because the leader who had just died came from my own community of Tamil Brahmins.

My father subscribed to Swarajya, the Swatantra Party weekly where Rajaji spoke out in opposition to the socialist heresies of Indira Gandhi. My mother had bought Rajaji’s translations of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, which I read and re-read both for the lucid language and the extravagant colourfulness of their contents.

For the modernizing Tamil Brahman of those days, Rajaji was sui generis. This was a man who had been the first Indian Governor General, sitting where Robert Clive and Warren Hastings had once sat. This was the man who was related by marriage to Mahatma Gandhi, a man who had followed his Master in opposing Untouchability and promoting Hindu-Muslim harmony. What made these progressive views more palatable to families such as mine was that Rajaji was no left-wing atheist but a deeply believing Hindu. Rajaji further endeared himself to us by his superb understanding of the language of professional advancement, English.

Like Gandhi, Rajaji was a committed Hindu who yet had an abiding love for Christ and Christian values. He could not have minded dying on Christmas Day, but would not, I think, have wanted to so comprehensively push a Test match result off the front page. For unlike the Mahatma he liked outdoor sports. His own boyhood hero was a cricketer, B. Jayaram, a fellow student at Central College, Bangalore.

Jayaram was a greatly gifted left-handed all-rounder, of whom his British Principal wrote: ‘Had he the same opportunities as W. G. Grace he would have been as great, for he had an eye as quick and a wrist as supple as the Doctor’s’. (This was an opinion possibly shared by W. G., for while studying geology in London, Jayaram was chosen to play for the Doctor’s crack team, London County.)

I recently came across the full-page spread run on Boxing Day, 1972, by Rajagopalachari’s hometown newspaper, The Hindu. This extended obituary was embellished by as many as seven pictures. The pictures were: (1) Rajaji leading a group of Congress volunteers in 1930, en route to breaking the salt laws in Vedaranyam; (2) Rajaji opening a TB sanatorium in 1939, while serving as Prime Minister of Madras; (3) Jawaharlal Nehru introducing his Cabinet colleagues to Rajaji when the latter took over as the first Indian Governor General in 1948; (4) Rajaji with his Cabinet colleagues while Chief Minister of Madras, in 1953; (5) Rajaji, again as Chief Minister of Madras, wishing Andhras good luck on the formation of their state in 1953; (6) Rajaji receiving the Bharat Ratna from the President of India in 1954; (7) Rajaji with John F. Kennedy at the White House in 1962, where he had gone as the head of a Gandhian peace delegation.

This was a heroic attempt at chronicling in pictures the high points of Rajaji’s political career. But, perhaps out of respect or deference, it omitted the low points. These included the last-minute denial to him of the office of President of India in 1950; and his unceremonious exit, at his own party’s command, from the office of Chief Minister of Madras in 1954.

Apparently, when Rajagopalachari’s parents had  his horoscope cast, the astrologer told them that their baby’s future would include ‘the fortunes of a king, of an exile, of a guru, and of an outcaste. The people will worship him; they will also reject him. He will sit on an emperor’s throne; he will live in a poor man’s hut’.

I don’t know whether Rajaji himself believed in astrology. I somehow doubt it. But he had an uncanny knack of being wise before the event, and paying for it. In 1941-2 he proposed to the Congress that they work out an accommodation with the Muslim League. He was villified for this: had he been listened to, perhaps we might have been spared the bloodletting of Partition.

Then he opposed the Quit India movement, saying that the need rather was for constructive engagement with the British. The Congress big shots didn’t listen—and indeed forced him to leave the party—but in retrospect he was proved right.

By calling for a militant rebellion when the British were fighting a desperate battle for survival against Hitler and company, the Congress forfeited their trust. By sitting out the bulk of the war in prison, they allowed the Muslim League to go from strength to strength.

In 1951, as Home Minister in Nehru’s cabinet, Rajaji warned the Prime Minister of the expansionist designs of Communist China. He wrote to Nehru that he felt ‘hurt whenever Pannikar [the Indian Ambassador in Beijing] tells us with extreme satisfaction that China is very friendly to us yet has no territorial ambitions. We do not want any patrons now, do we?’.

Eleven years later, by which time Rajaji and Nehru were in opposing political parties, India was invaded by China.

Those three acts cannot be undone, but in some other cases we might still take advantage of Rajaji’s prescience. He was always in favour of better relations with Pakistan, and for allowing the people of Kashmir to live with dignity and honour. And he was an early advocate of market-based economics, a critic of what he memorably called the ‘license-permit-quota-raj’, a phrase which ranks with the ‘Hindu rate of growth’ in describing an entire epoch of India’s economic history, but which no one now remembers as originating in Rajaji’s mind.

It seems to me that Rajaji’s political career was characterized above all by a desire for reconciliation. Reconciliation between Hindu and Muslim, India and Pakistan, India and England, North India and South India, low caste and high caste: these were the recurrent themes of his public life. In a society marked by the deliberate encouragement of conflict and antagonism, his was a rocky road indeed. As he once wrote to a Quaker friend, ‘those who are born to reconcile seem to have an unending task in this world’.

There was more to this life than politics. Thus Rajaji was, at various times, a successful lawyer and municipal administrator, a gifted short story writer (in Tamil), and a superbly effective popularizer of our epics. Rajaji liked to claim that ‘the best service I have rendered to my people is the re-telling of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata’.

These stories he told with a telling simplicity and directness, and without any theoretical gloss. For, as he said, ‘the Ramayana is mother’s milk for India. It should be left to itself and not philosophized. Mother’s milk should not be sent to the chemical analyst!’

Once, while asked to give a speech in memory of Gandhi by the Mysore Assembly, Rajaji warned the organizers that he had ‘a partiality for restraint in eulogy’. This eulogy of Rajaji has not been restrained, but it must at least make an attempt to be rounded. I thus take note of his sometimes acid tongue, and, more seriously, of his consistent unwillingness to face the electorate.

In 1952, much against Nehru’s wishes, he set the unfortunate precedent of choosing nomination to the Upper House in order to become Chief Minister of his state. Then again, Rajaji had a somewhat conservative attitude towards women. He saw them as home-makers and carriers of our culture, but not really as independent in their own right.

As Paula Richman points out, this attitude informs the depictions in his Ramayana of Shurpanakha and of Sita. Rajaji also abhorred the idea of women working. When a lady with small children approached him for a job, he remarked: ‘I wonder how a woman with children can be wanting work! Alas for civilization and the pernicious habit of entrusting the education of children to professional men and ourselves seeking odd work to fill our time!’

Like his mentor Gandhi, Rajaji cannot be easily pigeon-holed into the convenient labels—liberal, socialist, or conservative—of modern political thought. Forced to choose, one would, very reluctantly, have to call him a ‘conservative’(lower case): but still, a rather special kind of conservative. A man who knew him well, the Australian diplomat Walter Crocker, provides this brilliant capsule summary of his personality:

Endowed with an exceptionally strong and quick mind, Rajaji was in spirit harmonious and without volatility or anything partaking of the theatrical. Vanity was excluded from his nature. Although he had so much affinity for traditional India, he knew the lore of the West, having a good acquaintance with the Bible and Plato and the English classics as well as with Jurispudence and Economics; and he knew the case for economic development. Although he was religious, and conservative, he was not conformist. He had the true conservative’s trait of combining scepticism about what man-made systems can do for human nature with the personal kindliness to individuals which socialists, dealing with human beings as statistical groups and abstractions, sometimes lack. And he had wit, that life-renewing gift.

Rajaji was not safe from human frailty or blindness. Still, seeing his life and career in the round, one might agree with the judgment of R. G. Casey, the bluff Australian who served as Governor of Bengal, that he ‘was the wisest man in India’.

At any rate, the wisest politician, and perhaps the best read one, too. In April 1956, a journalist named N. S. Muthana went to meet Rajaji at his house. He was struck by two things: the lack of distinction of this former Governor-General’s abode—‘a modest single-storied structure which looks like any other building on that road’; and the range of his reading.

Stacked on a desk in front of Rajaji were G. K. Chesteron’s Father Brown stories; two books on modern biology; Lewis Mumford’s Conduct of Life; Valmiki’s Ramayana (in Sanskrit); and a few Tamil works. These would be read over the next few weeks: waiting, in a book-case along the wall, were 12 volumes of the speeches of Edmund Burke, and an edition of Shakespeare.

Up Next: Part II – Rajaji and Gandhi

This essay first appeared in Ramachandra Guha’s book ‘The Last Liberal and Other Essays’ (2004). It is being reprinted with the permission of the author.

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