Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

C. Rajagopalachari: The icon India needs today

He was a leader far ahead of his time and that did not help him politically

Ever since Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, he and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have tried to appropriate several icons from the modern Indian history. M.K. Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, Subhas Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel have all been fought for. It is largely the Congress party’s refusal to own the legacy of these leaders (with the exception of Gandhi) that allows the BJP to claim some sort of inheritance. But there is at least one great icon who has been there for the taking and yet the BJP has not made an aggressive push to appropriate him: Chakravarti Rajagopalachari.

The Mint-Centre for Civil Society op-ed series on the book Liberalism In India: Past, Present And Future concludes today—on the eve of Rajagopalachari’s 138th birth anniversary. Liberalism In India has been written in honour of the late S.V. Raju who was a committed member of the Swatantra Party founded by Rajagopalachari in 1959. Widely referred to as “Rajaji", Rajagopalachari, an avowed Gandhi loyalist, held many important positions, including that of the governor-general of India. He served in the Jawaharlal Nehru cabinet first without portfolio and later in the role of home minister. He would return to Madras to serve as the chief minister of the undivided state from 1952-54.

While the context is liberalism, Rajagopalachari was a complex personality, difficult to bracket within neat ideological templates. “Forced to choose", historian Ramachandra Guha said he would “very reluctantly… call him a conservative". Raju himself said: “Rajaji the founder (of Swatantra party) was a liberal insofar as issues relating to the economy were concerned but conservative on many social and societal issues." His advocacy of private enterprise, for instance, coexisted with Gandhian view on prohibition. However, if one were to look at Swatantra Party’s 21 founding principles, the debate is settled in favour of Rajagopalachari, the liberal.

Similarly, Rajagopalachari’s realism in opposing the Quit India Movement at the time when British were involved in World War II was at odds with the activist-like zeal he would later exhibit in campaigning for global disarmament. But one particular pursuit was unequivocal: his opposition of socialism. An octogenarian Rajagopalachari was forced to come out of political retirement to launch Swatantra Party once he was fully convinced that Nehru’s policies had taken a decisive turn towards statism.

The first proponent of minimum government in post-independence India, Rajagopalachari is credited with coining the phrase “permit-quota-licence raj", the consequences of which Indians continue to endure till this day. He was particularly impressed with the way West Germany, France and Japan rebuilt their economies after the disasters of World War II. In the 15 February 1960 edition of the journal The Indian Libertarian, Rajagopalachari lamented: “How one wishes we borrowed their economic common sense and not only their money." Special praise was reserved for the conservative fiscal policies of Antoine Pinay who had till a month before served as the finance minister of France.

Deficit financing of the budget, believed Rajagopalachari, was nothing but a euphemism for inflation. He said: “The party in power and in possession of the public exchequer and the Mint can buy votes by subsidies and grants but these when paid out by deficit-financing destroy the foundation of security and prosperity, viz., a stable currency." To him, political freedom and social justice could not exist without economic freedom.

Rajagopalachari’s arguments are reflected in B.R. Shenoy’s academic critique of Nehru’s penchant for planning and state intervention. Shenoy’s was a remarkable feat in not just presenting the lone dissent to the second Five-Year Plan from among the government’s advisory panel of 20 economists, but also in audaciously going against the grain of logic supported by the heavyweights of the time ranging from Joan Robinson to Gunnar Myrdal. No wonder, Shenoy was sometimes described as “the only liberal economist between Athens and Tokyo".

Shenoy’s intellectual heroism of those years is common wisdom today. If the likes of Shenoy were difficult to find in the discipline of economics, politicians were still behind the curve. This lets one understand how far ahead of his time Rajagopalachari was. Raju noted that being far ahead of one’s time did not necessarily benefit Swatantra Party. But before failing, the party did achieve some notable gains. The high point was winning 44 seats in the 1967 Lok Sabha election to become the largest party in the opposition. More importantly, the party culture allowed the members and the legislators to have independent views on most subjects under the Sun. The draconian concept of “chief whip" and the provisions instituted in anti-defection law rule out the exercise of such wonderful democratic practices in our democracy today.

Constant criticism by Rajagopalachari turned Nehru bitter. In December 1961, notes Guha, Nehru called Swatantra Party “a mixture of the rottenest ideas imaginable." But this divide of later years did not stop Rajagopalachari from writing a gracious obituary after Nehru’s death in Swarajya, the magazine he had started back in 1956.

Rajagopalachari was a man of many talents. Apart from being a politician and a lawyer, he also translated the Mahabharat and Ramayan into English. To cap it all, he was an outstanding composer of Carnatic music.

Although no political party is in a hurry to appropriate him, Rajagopalachari is the icon India needs the most today. Despite the positions in which Rajagopalachari served, it can be said with certainty that India could not gain enough from the man when he was around.

Is it time for Indian leaders to borrow more generously from C. Rajagopalachari’s ideas? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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