December 25 is remembered in India not only as Christmas but as an important anniversary of some important Indians. Today is the birth anniversary of composer Naushad Ali (1919); of former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1924); and of the great sarangi player Pandit Ram Narayan (1927). Today is also the death anniversary of the great Indian leader, statesman, and writer C. Rajagopalachari (1972), or Rajaji as he was popularly known. In this article, I give a brief summary of Rajaji's life and accomplishments. Much of my knowledge of this remarkable man has been gleaned from Professor Rajmohan Gandhi's Sahitya Akademi-winning biography of his grandfather.
Today is the 47th death anniversary of one of the tallest leaders of the Indian independence movement, Chakravarti Rajagopalachari. Rajagopalachari, who was known also as Rajaji or CR, was a close confidante of Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel, Rajendra Prasad, and Maulana Azad (who, with Rajaji, were the Mahatma's top 5 Generals in the freedom movement) and the last (and first Indian) Governor-General of India. He was also the Chief Minister of Madras State and Governor of Bengal at different times in his long political career. At one point, he was Gandhiji's anointed successor (and so might have been our first PM) but that honour later went to Nehru after Rajaji disagreed with Gandhiji on the Quit India movement and did not participate in it. But Rajaji himself would likely not have wanted to be PM. He felt insecure as a national leader because of his poor command of Hindi, and in any case was never a mass politician like Nehru, despite his indisputable brilliance — he never won an election to any lower House (he refused to contest). Despite this, had Rajaji desired, he could have had any position he desired — for example, as Congress President (which he was asked to become many times) or the first President of independent India (for which both Nehru and Patel preferred him to Prasad) — but he never threw his hat in any ring; he would only serve if asked. Rajaji was such an old veteran of the freedom movement and of Indian politics that he not only fought political battles with Jawaharlal Nehru in his later life, but also fought with Nehru's father Motilal in the earlier part of his life (this was on whether or not Indians should serve in the British Provincial Councils, which at the time Motilal Nehru and others favoured, but Gandhiji did not.)
Like Nehru, Prasad, Patel, and many others, Rajaji left a highly lucrative career as a lawyer and lived in relative poverty for most of his life to be part of the freedom movement. He was known to be a brilliant lawyer and one of the sharpest legal minds in the country in the early part of his long and distinguished career, before he gave up practice as a form of non-cooperation with the British government.
Rajaji was also Gandhiji's sammandhi — his daughter Lakshmi married Gandhiji's third son Devadas Gandhi. Two of their children are quite famous — the biographer and writer Rajmohan Gandhi, and the diplomat and former governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi.
Rajaji lived to a ripe old age of 94, and led an active life until the very end. In addition to his contributions as a statesman and politician, Rajaji was also an accomplished writer. His abridged translations, both in Tamil and English, of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, are classics. He was also a regular contributor to the “Swarajya” magazine published by Kalki Krishnamurthy.
Rajaji was also a highly vocal critic of Nehru's and Indira Gandhi's socialist policies. He was the person who invented the phrase, “License-Permit Raj.” To oppose the Congress government's socialist policies, Rajaji formed the Swatantra Party (at the age of 81!) which advocated free market economics. Rajaji was a staunch opponent of communism all his life. Unlike the Jana Sangh, which was also opposed to socialism, the Swatantra Party did not discriminate on the basis of religion. The Swatantra Party contested general elections in 1962, 1967, and 1971, winning 44 seats in the Lok Sabha in 1967. Rajaji died in 1972, after which the party gradually dissolved without his leadership. Rajaji was considered universally as one of India's wisest statesmen. Rajaji was prescient enough to predict that Pakistan would split in 25 years, which happened in exactly the time he predicted.
Rajaji was a strong proponent of Hindi as a national language before independence, because he saw Hindi as a unifying force for an India still under colonial control; however, when he was CM of Madras State after independence, he opposed the mandatory imposition of Hindi and favoured English as a national language. He was also an opponent of Hindi during the 1965 anti-Hindi agitations in Tamil Nadu.
One of his weaknesses was his tendency to not yield his position on an issue even when there was overwhelming evidence that he was on the wrong track politically. One such instance was when, as CM of Madras State, Rajaji passed a new education bill, whereby elementary school students would study in schools half the day and spend the other half learning their parents' occupations. This caused a furore in Madras, as the Justice Party of “Periyar” E.V. Ramaswamy Naicker accused Rajaji of trying to perpetuate the caste system. Rajaji could have easily withdrawn the bill and defused the situation. But he stubbornly clung to his position, leading eventually to his resignation and his replacement as CM by K. Kamaraj.
Rajaji's tenure as CM of Madras State during 1952-54 was also marked by the division of the state into its Tamil-majority and Telugu-majority parts, and the formation of Andhra Pradesh as the first linguistic state in India after the death of Potti Sriramulu in 1952. This, of course, led to the creation of language-based states all over India, leading to the map of India that we see today.
Rajaji was a proponent of nuclear disarmament ever since the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and argued for world peace to his very end. To this end, he even met with US President John F. Kennedy in 1961 as part of a delegation from the Gandhi Peace Foundation that was headed by him with the active support of PM Jawaharlal Nehru, even though Nehru and Rajaji were on opposite sides of the political fence by then. As Rajmohan Gandhi recounts, Rajaji was asked by the President of the Gandhi Foundation, R.R. Diwakar, to head the delegation to the US. Rajaji responded in the affirmative, but specified that he would only do so “if the Indian government would support such a mission and if he was not expected to respond with silence or evasion to questions about India that might be put to him abroad. If Nehru was uneasy on this score, he would rather not go.” It is a measure of how much of a democrat Nehru was that he promptly agreed to both of Rajaji's conditions. Can we imagine something like this happening today — a government sponsoring its chief political adversary to go abroad, represent the country, and even allow them to publicly criticize the very government that had sponsored the trip? At the end of the meeting, Kennedy said that the meeting “had a civilizing quality on me.”
A few years earlier, in 1954, Rajaji also had the occasion to lecture then-Vice President Richard Nixon (in the Eisenhower administration) on the importance of nuclear disarmament when he came to India on an official visit. Nixon wrote about their meeting in his memoirs 36 years later that the meeting “had such a dramatic effect on me that I used many of his thoughts in my speeches over the next several years.”
All in all, Rajaji was a remarkable man - lawyer, politician, leader, statesman, litterateur. He was a mixed bag, and people will have different views on him, but there is no doubting his patriotism and his enormous contributions to India. He was honoured for his contributions by being conferred the very first Bharat Ratna in 1954.
Rajaji — A Life, by Rajmohan Gandhi, Penguin, 2000.