History weighs heavy on India’s Grand Old Party. Each time the Congress faces a crisis, it searches for solutions in the past. One such solution is the Kamaraj Plan, which was proposed in this month 56 years ago by the then Chief Minister of Madras, Kumaraswami Kamaraj, to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as a blueprint to re-energise the Congress and the government.
According to Kamaraj’s proposal, leaders in government would quit their ministerial offices and take up organisational work, while those in the organisation would join the government. With the Congress decimated in the 2019 general election and rudderless since the resignation of Rahul Gandhi as party chief, the Kamaraj Plan is back in conversation.
‘Who after Nehru?’
In 1963, defeats in three successive by-elections were the immediate provocation for the Congress to worry about its situation. But the unease had set in earlier. The war with China the previous year had wrecked the morale of the leadership. Nehru’s standing as a statesman had taken a beating. The Opposition was advancing everywhere: the bypolls had brought three stalwarts, Acharya Kripalani, Rammanohar Lohia and Minoo Masani, to Lok Sabha. After a decade in power, fatigue had set in among Congress functionaries and the cadre. The question, ‘Who after Nehru?’, was beginning to sound ominous. That’s when Kamaraj, then 60, proposed to Nehru that he be allowed to quit office to take up organisational work. Under Kamaraj, the Congress had consolidated its position in Madras, but the leader who had his ear to the ground knew that the DMK was advancing and the Congress organisation might not be able to withstand the mobilisational and ideological challenge posed by the Dravidian Movement.
The proposal came up for discussion in the Congress Working Committee, where a large number of members, among them Chief Ministers and Nehru’s Cabinet colleagues, supported it. All Union Ministers and Chief Ministers put in their papers to Nehru, who then accepted the resignations of six Union Ministers — Morarji Desai, S K Patil, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jagjivan Ram, K L Shrimali and B Gopala Reddy — and the CMs of Madras, Orissa, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Kashmir. These leaders were to take up organisational posts and rejuvenate the Congress. Since then, the Kamaraj Plan is proposed as a remedy whenever the Congress party threatens to slip into a coma.
Kamaraj, his Plan, and after
Kamaraj was a self-made leader and a person of great integrity. He had built the party organisation in the Tamil-speaking regions of the Madras Presidency during the freedom struggle and, later, run the state government for nine years. A school dropout from a poor Nadar (a backward caste) family, he had risen from the grassroots as a Congress volunteer to head the party unit, and later, the government. Under Kamaraj, Madras became one of the most industrialised states in India. Nehru had immense respect for him.
The AICC resolution endorsed the Kamaraj Plan on August 10, 1963. Political scientist Rajini Kothari wrote in his classic work, Politics in India, that “the Plan, on the one hand, gave to Prime Minister Nehru an unprecedented opportunity to carry out a massive reshuffle of officeholders, but on the other hand asserted the principle of equal status of the party organisation with the government”.
Later that year, Kamaraj, who had quit as Chief Minister of Madras, was elected Congress president. In his presidential address delivered in Tamil to the Bhubaneswar Congress session in January 1964, Kamaraj emphasised the achievement of the Congress goal of socialism without authoritarianism and class conflict. Nehru, by now ailing, could not attend the AICC session. On May 27, 1964, Nehru passed away.
An astute Kamaraj knew that Nehru was irreplaceable, and the party needed a new leadership model to manage both power and its ambitious leaders. His first task was to ensure a smooth transition in the Prime Minister’s Office, which he skillfully managed by rallying the party behind his choice for PM, the non-controversial Lal Bahadur Shastri. His next step was to infuse vigour in the party organisation, and thereby, the government. He sought to steer the party towards a federal system of leadership and won the confidence of powerful state satraps such as Atulya Ghosh, Sanjiva Reddy, Nijalingappa and S K Patil.
Idea of collective leadership
Kamaraj also preferred a collective leadership for the party, and saw himself as a consensus-builder. His biographer and a former editor of The Indian Express, V K Narasimhan, wrote in Kamaraj: A Study, “As a strict respecter of parliamentary conventions, Kamaraj did not seek interference by the Congress president or the Congress Working Committee in the day-to-day decisions of the Government. What he wanted was full coordination between the Cabinet and the Party organisation with regard to major policies. He felt that policy matters should be thoroughly discussed in the Working Committee before decisions were taken by the Government.”
Kamaraj’s emphasis on collective leadership helped the Congress navigate a difficult time when it lost Nehru and Shastri in quick succession. Two wars and drought had left the economy in a bad shape. Kamaraj was instrumental in the Congress opting for Indira Gandhi as Shastri’s successor instead of a more experienced Morarji Desai.
Abandoning the Plan
Under Indira Gandhi, the Congress moved away from Kamaraj’s vision of collective leadership and consensus-building, and moved towards a leader-centric high command. It led to friction between Indira’s supporters and the Old Guard or Syndicate, leading to the split in the party in 1969. Kamaraj’s influence on the organisation had waned by then — the DMK had defeated the Congress in Madras state in the 1967 Assembly elections, and the Perunthalaivar (great leader) himself lost. It’s another debate if the Congress would have lost Madras had Kamaraj stayed on as Chief Minister — but without the guiding hand of Kamaraj, the Congress government in Madras failed to handle the anti-Hindi agitation that rocked the state in 1965 and the food shortages of 1965-66.
The Indira years undid the gains of the Kamaraj Plan and the Congress transformed into a party that revolved around the Nehru-Gandhi family. Rahul Gandhi’s suggestion of a non-Nehru-Gandhi leader follows in the spirit of the Kamaraj Plan. But does the Congress have a Kamaraj to steer the transformation?