It is a matter for regret that Rajagopalachari or Rajaji has not obtained the recognition he deserved for his role in India’s freedom movement. There are very few books on this elder statesman. Gandhi had described him as his “Conscience Keeper” from which the author has adopted the title of her book. Undoubtedly he was the most powerful politician of Madras who was Chief Minister of Madras twice.He was also the first Governor of Bengal and the first Indian Governor-General
Rajaji refused to write an autobiography on the grounds that “one cannot help trying to show oneself in good light”. Comparing himself to a matchstick, he described his smallness as his strength and argued that one must realise the insignificance of one’s own life in the vastness of space.
Minoo Masani and Rajaji founded the Swatantra party which was perhaps the only ideological opponent to Nehru. It was in Bombay that Rajaji became the first politician to espouse the case for Pakistan and this led to his becoming Public Enemy Number One for several leaders including Gandhi. Actually his prescience was laudable as in the event India was dismembered and Pakistan was born in 1947. He is remembered for his vociferous opposition to linguistic provinces, religious outlook and above all his eternal bluntness. What Samuel Johnson said about Edmund Burke’s parliamentary conduct could be applied to Rajaji, “it was commonly observed that he spoke too often in Parliament; but nobody could say he did not speak well, though too frequently and familiarly”.
The book under review is the first extended study that portrays Rajaji as an intellectual and political thinker. It a thorough study of Rajaji’s ideas as expounded inhis books and in Khasa Subba Rao’s weekly “Swarajya”. Dr Srinivasan has succeeded in assessing the political milieu of Rajaji’s political era. The reader will be impressed by the depth of understanding,the great scholarship of Rajaji, his complete command over Tamil and English. Rajaji was noted for his precise,brief and highly effective language. Rajaji’s role in the revival of Hinduism is highly laudable. His versions of Ramayana and Mahabharata and the Upanishads, brought out by the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan continue to command our attention and capture our imagination. These books are the highest selling books of Bhavan.
The author calls Rajaji’s policies ”theocentric liberalism”. However, this combined with his native shrewdness led him to be described as the “Chanakya” or “Machiavelli” of Indian polity. She writes eloquently of Rajaji, “He was always arguing, persuading, cajoling,praising, criticising and acting on behalf of what he thought was the public good and the national interest, even though some of his views elicited only hostility and derision among his colleagues and intellectuals of that time.” He had a theoretical bent of mind but believed in no single theory, quoting Plato, Socrates,Burke,Cicero and other thinkers selectively and for the purposes at hand. Rajaji did not hesitate to change his views and sometimes incurred obloquy.She quotes Rajaji, “I venture to confess that I have an accomodating mind, but one that does not forget truth or the public weal at any point.”
Rajaji’s Swatantra Party was packed with fat and overfed Maharajas and capitalists and this led to a certain amount of ridicule. In spite of Rajaji’s scrupulous honesty and undoubted integrity he and his party were open to suspicion and he proved to be his own enemy.Nehru stated that Rajaji’s party belongs “ to the middle ages of Lords, castles and Zamindars.”
Conscience keepers, as a class, are kept at a safe distance since they give utterance to unacceptable ideas and make one repentant.They oppose what is politically wrong but acceped by the majority. They meet the fate of Socrates.In India we have had several conscience keepers like J.P for the Janata Party, quite recently Chandrababu Naidu for the N D A. It was Gandhi who called Rajaji his conscience-keeper, though Rajaji treated Gandhi as his Guru. The author states that Gandhi thought of a nationwide satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act after he visited Rajaji in 1919.
Vasanthi Srinivasan says that taking India’s border conflict with China in 1962 as an example, Rajaji asserted that non-violence was not an absolute value. Rajaji argued that Gandhi did not advocate a pacifism that rejected national borders and that he actually preferred armed resistance for good causes when there was no reasonable chance for non-violent resistance. According to her, Rajaji did not share Gandhi’s holistic approach that looked to religion for both the form and content of politics. Rajaji was more tuned to the fact that political contingencies may call for choosing the lesser evil and waiting for opportune moments to push for the greater good.
As the author mentions in her preface, Rajaji articulated how the Mahatma’s ideas and practices could be reconciled with the needs and aspirations of a modern nation-state in a manner and ideological orientation strikingly different from that of Nehru. Drawing upon his voluminous political writing, Vasanthi Srinivasan analyses Rajaji’s views on democracy, free enterprise, the market economy, foreign policy and social diversity. Courage and moderation were the hallmarks of his approach to politics.
In an interesting preface Ramachandra Guha and Sunil Khilnani write, “Srinivasan places Rajaji in a variety of different contexts—the economic argument of his time, religious debates, and the deep question of justice for India’s women and dalits…He was by turns subversive, conservative, and radical. Through a series of fascinating studies of his writings as well as his practice, Srinivasan elicits, for us, the fundamental coherence of Rajaji’s intellect and action…He sought to be a practitioner of that classically most prized and elusive of all political virtues—prudence, practical wisdom. This is a book that anyone interested in our intellectual and political history will be eagerly grateful for. It is also a book full of insights, oblique and explicit about our current political predicament”. It is impossible to disagree with Dr Srinivasan’s summing up—“Rajaji was vilified as a wily South Indian Brahmin, but he was in essence a theocentric liberal. There is much to be learnt from his political vision and practice:for there is more within his theocentric liberalism than is dreamt of in Indian political life today”
PS-The author of this book on Rajagopalachari, Dr. Vasanthi Srinivasan is a Ph.D. from Carleton University, Ottawa. She belonged to the faculty of the College of Humanities in Ottawa. She has specialised in comparative political thought and the link between technology and politics. She is presently a Reader in Political History at the University of Hyderabad, She is a recipient of a New India Foundation fellowship.
( P P Ramachandran is a Mumbai based Writer)
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- Book Review – Gandhi’s Conscience Keeper by Vasanthi Srinivasan - August 27, 2011