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A purge with no losers

The Kamaraj Plan was the ultimate win-win for the Congress leadership

Written by Inder Malhotra |
March 19, 2012 2:46:29 am

The Kamaraj Plan was the ultimate win-win for the Congress leadership

Sheikh Abdullah’s earnest but unsuccessful effort to promote an India-Pakistan understanding over Kashmir (‘The Sheikh’s last stab’,IE,March 5) had coincided,literally,with the end of the Nehru era. But to send him to Rawalpindi was not the only major initiative the prime minister had taken during the tragic twilight period of about 18 months between the humiliating defeat at the hands of the Chinese and his death. He did a lot more,and did it with vigour,even though his iconic stature had eroded somewhat,without affecting his pre-eminence or his control over national decision-making (‘Defeated,not destroyed’,IE,October 31,2011).

One of the more significant of these acts,with far-reaching effect,was what came to be known as the Kamaraj Plan,aimed at revitalising the Congress organisation and the governmental administration so that they could meet head-on the mounting criticism of the entire opposition of the debacle in the high Himalayas.

K. Kamaraj was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu (then called the state of Madras) and generally admired for his competence,probity and spartan lifestyle. At that time he was greatly troubled by the rapid rise in his home state of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK),a regional party that had at one time stood for secession from India but later joined the political mainstream. Consequently,Kamaraj was toying with the idea of giving up the office of chief minister and heading the state party to counter the DMK. His worries about Madras were overtaken,however,by the trauma of the border war with China and the growing opinion against both Nehru and the Congress that had become both arrogant and dysfunctional because of its over-long stay in power. Nehru told the party repeatedly that it must reinvigorate itself because it was for the Congress to keep India “strong,united and on the right path”.

It was in this dispiriting atmosphere that Kamaraj suggested,at a meeting of the Congress Working Committee on August 10,1963,that those holding high position in the government at the Centre and in the states should give up ministerial posts and work for the party. He declared that he would be the first to do so,in any case. Nehru interrupted him to say that the first to leave the government would be he rather than Kamaraj whereupon there was a chorus of “No,no,no”. Kamaraj’s bright idea was welcomed,however.

Between the acceptance of the Kamaraj Plan and its implementation two weeks later,when Nehru announced the list of six Union ministers and an equal number of chief ministers who were to leave,a very important session of Parliament took place. During it,a cluster of otherwise disparate opposition parties moved the first and the last motion of no-confidence in the Nehru government. Historian Ramachandra Guha is entirely right in saying that between 1947 and November 1962,no one would have “dared” table such a motion.

The motion was defeated,of course,by a huge majority,but Nehru’s bitter critics were able to aim some sharp darts at him. A remarkable feature of the four-day acrimonious debate was the contribution of the then undivided Communist Party of India. It did not support the motion but used the occasion to demand the immediate resignation of the two “reactionaries” in Nehru’s cabinet,Morarji Desai and S.K. Patil.

These two had a pride of place in the list of ministers that were eventually sent out. Others included Lal Bahadur Shastri,staunchly loyal to Nehru,and Jagjivan Ram,leader of the Harijans,now called Dalits,whom the prime minister did not like. The remaining two were forgettable lightweights whose inclusion in the list was a source of much surprise. Among the state chief ministers eased out,the most notable was Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed of Jammu and Kashmir. His ten-year reign as the Sheikh’s successor in the sensitive state had become a byword for high-handedness and corruption. His departure was therefore welcomed by one and all.

In the perceptive words of Nehru’s official biographer,S. Gopal,Shastri was,in a sense,a “decoy elephant”,leading out those whom Nehru “wanted to exclude without seeming to be animated by personal reasons”. Gopal adds,again accurately,that Nehru wanted to see “out of office the finance minister,Morarji Desai,in particular”.

No one was more conscious of this than Desai,especially because he looked upon himself as Nehru’s “natural successor”,a view that many others shared. But he remained silent. Several years later he told Michael Brecher: “It (the Kamaraj Plan) seemed to have been motivated not only to get rid of me but also to pave the way for Mrs (Indira) Gandhi to the prime ministership (sic),just as Motilal had passed on the Congress presidency to him (Nehru)”. Nehru’s emphatic declaration that he wasn’t trying to “get rid of anyone” didn’t carry conviction.

However,at the time the Kamaraj Plan was mooted no one thought that succession to Nehru was imminent. Nehru himself had told a press conference at which I was present: “This prime minister is very much alive at the present moment.” So no one thought that Kamaraj and his plan would influence the succession profoundly.

There is still some confusion about the real origin of the Kamaraj Plan. Biju Patnaik,the dynamic chief of Orissa,who was also “Kamarajed”,claimed that the idea was his though Kamaraj was the one to articulate it. Nehru frequently had to deny that he had inspired the Kamaraj Plan,stating that he was “not a trickster”. The idea caught on,the prime minister said,because it had come from the “head of the most competent of the state governments”. He was a tad too effusive in adding that Kamaraj’s name had “got engraved in the history of India”.

While all this was going on,in distant Brussels,Belgian prime minister Paul Henry Spaak asked Indian Ambassador K.B. Lall to explain what the Kamaraj Plan was all about. “Mr Prime Minister”,replied good old K.B.,“it’s a masterstroke. All those our prime minister wanted to get rid of are thanking him profusely for having done precisely that.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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