KUMARASWAMY Kamaraj was an ordinary man with extraordinary qualities of head and heart. From humble beginnings, he rose to the highest position of helping make two Prime Ministers of India, first Lal Bahadur Sastri and then Indira Gandhi. The demise of Nehru was expected to create a political void leading to instability of sorts, but Kamaraj as Congress president played the man of destiny, settling the succession issue amicably through a democratic consensus. It was perhaps the crowning glory of his life.
When he enlisted himself as a soldier in the freedom movement, he was totally under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi and to the very end he remained Gandhian by conviction and practice. There were occasions when he had his differences with Gandhi in running party affairs in Tamil Nadu but his loyalty to the Mahatma remained unwavering. For him Congress was the creed. All through his life, he was guided by native commonsense and that made him a real leader of the masses. He spoke to them in a language they understood. His speeches were embellished with ideas and not with grandiose eloquence. He was a man of simple habits and permitted himself the sole luxury of smoking a cigarette of relatively costly brand. Even this luxury he enjoyed in privacy and rarely in the company of his intimate friends.
Kamaraj was a multi-faceted political personality, and power and position sat lightly on him. He was Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for nine years and that period was considered a “Golden Age”. For him, power was only a means to serve the people and he served them well. He was a down-to-earth planner and visualised and executed an infrastructure that was essential to satisfy the needs of ordinary folk. He made education free up to the highschool level and provided mid-day meals for schoolgoing children to prevent dropouts on account of poverty. Only during his Chief Ministership did every village of a thousand people get a school. He laid roads connecting rural areas to urban centres, creating easy access for village produce to reach town and city markets.
He paid special attention to the energy sector and electricity reached almost all villages in Tamil Nadu. The power generation helped many industrial estates to come up and grow. The industrialisation of Tamil Nadu started in right earnest. He ruthlessly cut the red tape of bureaucratic inertia and his watchword was action and result. He appointed efficient officers as Heads of Department where dynamism and quick decision were essential. He had talented and hard-working men in a compact Cabinet of eight to assist him and mention should be made of C. Subramaniam, M. Bhaktava-tsalam and R. Venkataraman. Not personal loyalty but commitment to serving the people was the criterion he employed to select his Cabinet colleagues. The Tamil Nadu administration became a model for other States and no less a person than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru openly acknowledged it.
Kamaraj was not only a great administrator. He was a strong organisation man as well. He rose from the grassroot level and, in his political life spanning more than half a century, there was no place in Tamil Nadu where he had not set foot. Under the tutelage of a great orator and parliamentarian, S. Satyamurti, he blossomed into full-fledged leadership. When he was elected president of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee, he knew every region as he would know the palm of his hand. He had a retentive memory and knew every important party member by name. During the evening years of Nehru, the Congress started losing its vitality and the Prime Minister in declining health was a worried man. He was impatient to rejuvenate the Congress and consulted Kamaraj who came up with a plan, which was christened the K-Plan. The plan reflected the sacrificial attitude of Kamaraj to public life. Senior leaders holding offices of power were asked to quit and take up organisational work. Kamaraj set an example by giving up his Chief Ministership.
Kamaraj’s elevation to the presidentship of the Congress at the instance of Nehru was a historical recognition of the man’s national stature and capacity to steer the ship of the party in critical times. The choice was historical in more senses than one. After Nehru, he not only saved the Congress from immediate disintegration brought on by leadership squabbles but proved to the world the vibrancy of Indian democracy. His later confrontation with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was a consequence of the inevitable power struggle between the organisation and the parliamentary wing of the party. It was also a reflection of the contradictory perceptions of the old guard and the new generation of leaders.
Kamaraj lost the battle to Indira Gandhi. The leaders who rallied around Kamaraj were a spent force; they wanted to continue their hegemony even after it had been played out. Kamaraj, a progressive, unfortunately aligned himself with the reactionaries, losing his colour and clout and getting politically marginalised. What is more, the Dravidian current in Tamil Nadu was so strong that it swept him off his feet in the 1967 elections. From then on he could not gather enough strength to meet the challenge. The political alignments and devices he tried desperately in Tamil Nadu did not work in his favour.
Kamaraj’s life was one of total dedication and selfless service to the people. As a freedom fighter, he played a self-effacing role, shunning the limelight and taking upon himself risky and arduous jobs. Yet he was one of the noted targets of British repression. Though unschooled, he learned a lot in the treadmill of experience. His understanding of men and matters was impressive and his incisive brain always went into the root of the matter. Even for elusive problems, he found easy and practical solutions. As an administrator he sometimes waived rules and regulations when it was a question of granting immediate relief to suffering people. He was easy to approach and even the lowliest felt at home in his presence. His hefty figure exuded humility and he carried a benign smile that disarmed his opponents and soothed the ruffled feelings of his detractors and critics. Basically, he was a consensus man, ever ready for reasonable compromises. There were occasions when he exhibited dictatorial streaks and stifled dissent; perhaps he felt they were needed to make mischief-mongers and trouble-makers fall in line.
Kamaraj showed little taste for the fine arts but saw to it that the state recognised and encouraged outstanding artists. He was frugal and lived a Spartan life. Wealth he desired for the nation, not for himself. For his aged mother at Virudhunagar, he sent a pittance of a hundred rupees every month. He visited her only when he happened to tour the area where she lived. He would stay with her for a few minutes, enquire after her health and take leave of her. He always stood by his political loyalists and evinced keen personal interest in the welfare of freedom fighters.
All through his political life, he had an excellent rapport with the press. He often invited eminent journalists to his house for a discussion on current matters. He used to say many things off the record and would listen patiently to the views of visiting journalists. He would not mind adverse criticism of his stand or policies by well-meaning journalists and he would ask probing questions to understand their point of view better. He was also aware of the power of the press and in spite of heavy odds, he was instrumental in running a Congress Tamil daily, Navasakthi, for several years. There were some eminent editors who targeted him in their writings. He would tell his friends that the editors had no personal grouse against him but were trying to present their point of view in the larger public interest. He was convinced a free Fourth Estate was essential for the healthy functioning of democracy. During the time of Emergency, he was greatly annoyed with censorship of the Press.
Some critics accused Kamaraj of keeping a coterie around him all the time and listening to their advice. No doubt he had some personal friends who were non-political and naturally he might have looked to them for non-partisan views on certain issues. Kamaraj had a mind of his own and it was rather difficult for anyone to pressurise him with their pet or slanted views.
He kept himself abreast of the latest developments, especially in the international arena. He was quite aware of his limitations in certain fields and was not shy about learning from others. As Chief Minister, he was credited with giving a patient hearing to the views of department officials to understand the nitty-gritty of administration. On some critical occasions, he would register his dissent by the eloquence of his silence.