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Kamaraj’s formidable power

Kamaraj was in a pivotal position to shape the transition that began with Nehru’s stroke

Written by Inder Malhotra |
April 2, 2012 2:11:12 am

Kamaraj was in a pivotal position to shape the transition that began with Nehru’s stroke

On August 24,1963,at a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC),Nehru announced the names of the Union ministers and state chief ministers that were to leave the government to work for the party organisation under the Kamaraj Plan (‘Purge With No Losers’,IE,March 19). The sensation this caused was huge and lasting.Yet,the even greater significance of the committee’s next meeting on October 9 was lost on almost everyone.

There is no gainsaying that the Kamaraj Plan had thoroughly shaken the earlier hierarchy in the ruling party. It was no wonder some of those excluded from the government felt aggrieved because they thought this might affect the succession to Nehru when the time came. No one was more disturbed than Morarji Desai who,after Govind Ballabh Pant’s death,was the most senior in the Nehru cabinet,and considered himself to be Nehru’s natural successor — a view shared by the Congress right-wing. Yet,even he was not agitated unduly,because at that time succession to the prime minister seemed rather distant.

In the changed situation,the prestige and perhaps power of the party organisation was almost certain to increase. Consequently,talk had already begun within party ranks that either Desai or Lal Bahadur Shastri should be the next Congress president. Such an idea was unthinkable for a whole decade since 1954,when the PM shed the presidency of the party that he had taken over three years earlier after forcing Purushottamdas Tandon to resign. In the famous words of the Gandhian leader,Jayaprakash Narayan — who had enthusiastically welcomed the Kamaraj Plan — the Congress president’s position had then been reduced to that of “a head clerk”. Narayan was glad that this state of affairs was ending. (There was,however,one exception that proved the rule: Indira Gandhi who was Congress president for a year in 1959. Far from being a non-entity,she had forced her father,much against his qualms,to dismiss Kerala’s first duly-elected communist ministry in clear violation of constitutional proprieties.)

The election of the next president of the Congress was not on the working committee’s agenda. However,towards the end of the proceedings,Atulya Ghosh,veteran leader from West Bengal,whispered to Nehru that although his (Ghosh’s) name was circulating as a possible Congress president,he was not interested in the job and would suggest that Kamaraj be elected,for he would invest the post with authority and dynamism. Desai demurred that it was too early to take up the issue,but the consensus among the leaders present was that Kamaraj was the man of the moment. Atulya’s proposal was carried “unanimously” and with apparent ease.

What was not known to the country and perhaps to most members of the CWC was that Atulya’s suggestion was not a spur-of-the-moment affair but a carefully worked out scheme. Some days before October 9,Congress leaders from non-Hindi-speaking states — Kamaraj (Tamil Nadu),Sanjiva Reddy (Andhra),S. Nijalingappa (Karnataka) and Atulya Ghosh (West Bengal) — had met secretly at the temple town of Tirupathi. S. K. Patil (Maharashtra) was not present but was privy to,and in agreement with,the decision taken by the “Tirupathi Conclave”. Its constituents were collectively nicknamed “The Syndicate”.

According to the account of discussions at Tirupathi left behind by Sanjiva Reddy,the Syndicate’s decision was that Shastri should be elected Congress president (and Desai “stopped at all costs”),but if Shastri declined,Kamaraj should be chosen. Shastri indicated that he would like to avoid an unpleasant contest with Desai. Kamaraj’s name was therefore proposed and accepted promptly.

That was but the first step in a carefully calibrated plan. Since Kamaraj was to take over as president at the Congress session at Bhubaneshwar in January 1964,the Syndicate was determined to see to it that the CWC to be elected there was dominated by him and his cohorts. It managed to get elected a slate of seven members of CWC,thus blocking an attempt of C.B. Gupta,one of Desai’s main supporters,to gain an elected seat on the committee. As a wily politician himself,Gupta knew that Kamaraj would never nominate him to one of the seats to be filled at the Congress president’s discretion.

It was during the voting at Bhubaneshwar that the Syndicate’s strength became strikingly manifest. Nearly 470 members of the All India Congress Committee were entitled to vote. Of them,the maximum number (347) voted for Indira Gandhi,who was high on the Syndicate’s list. The minimum votes that the dominant group received was 268. The maximum C.B. Gupta could muster was 160. This does not mean that all the elected members of the working committee were the Syndicate’s nominees. What is true,however,is that candidates unacceptable to it were kept out.

The Bhubaneshwar session was still on when Nehru suffered a stroke. This brought the succession issue much closer than expected and simultaneously gave a big boost to Kamaraj’s influence and authority. His plan had already upset the seniority pattern in the cabinet that could have been used to claim legitimacy by aspirants to succeed Nehru. With his enhanced power and all-India stature,Kamaraj was in a pivotal position to shape events in the transitional era that had begun. He amply demonstrated his ability to do so by masterminding the smooth answer to the agonising question: “After Nehru,Who?”

That historical moment was still some months away. An immediate problem had to be solved first. Because of his illness,the PM had to curb his hectic activities and transfer some of his responsibilities to others. The idea of dividing these between home minister G.L. Nanda and finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari proved inadequate. Appointment of a deputy prime minister was unacceptable not only to Nanda and TTK,but also to many others. Nehru then decided to bring in Shastri as a minister without a portfolio. Even to this there was resistance,and the announcement had to be delayed. On the day before the decision to recall Shastri was clinched,newspapers reported,“the Congress President had with Nehru the longest meeting permitted to the latter since his illness”.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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