20.6.15

Book review - Rajaji A Life


Chakravarthi Rajagopalachari - popularly known as
Rajaji - remains one of the stalwart leaders of the Indian freedom movement. His memory is not as firmly etched in the average Indian's mind like say Gandhi's or Nehru's or even Maulana Azad's except maybe in the South. I've always had a hankering to go find out more about this man whom Gandhi called "keeper of my conscience". My maternal grandparents were cadres of the Satyagraha movement that Rajaji spearheaded from Salem, TN. This slender personal connection was also a driver in me picking up Rajmohan Gandhi's Rajaji A Life.

The book does a good job of tracing Rajaji's life from his childhood all the way to his last days. Rajaji lived to the ripe old age of 93 and was a great national leader, a statesman of exceptional caliber and a politician with strong democratic roots. His roots were in the South as was his political base. The book does a good job of painting a detailed picture of his activism, both political and social. in the course of his life, Rajaji lead salt satyagrahas, established ashrams, spun khadi, became a Premier of a major province under British rule, was the first and only Indian Governor General of India and went on to form a major political formation as an alternative to the Nehru Congress in his old age. His politics remained that of a benevolent ruler and was more conservative than Nehru, his primary rival for the love of the Indian people. The author spends quite a bit of time going over details of Rajaji's political career and this book shines at that.

Particularly interesting to me was Rajaji's role as the premier of Madras Presidency in the years before the Second World War. The book goes a long way in describing the workings of a government elected under a viceroyalty which had to work with the people it abhorred and was trying to win freedom from. The balancing act of maintaining law and order while actively trying to kick out British rule was a tough one, but Rajaji's efforts put to the lie British claims that Indians were incapable of self-governance.

The book also spends quite a bit of time in side-stepping Rajaji's rather conservative views and the his self-righteousness in going about declaiming them. Prohibition and satyagraha jump to my mind. His rather heavy handed efforts to impose prohibition are excused away with short term gains and his efforts to impose Hindi in the Madras presidency explained by the need for unity in the national movement. I was a little put off by the conservativeness Rajaji displayed at every turn of his political career. The author is his grandson and does a good job of blending in personal narrative with letters and other documented material, but even then Rajaji's natural tendency to assume he knew best can rankle the reader.

Another mystery has been why Rajaji ended up being a regional powerhouse and not the national leader he deserved to be. Rajaji was one of Gandhi's first pupils and an ardent one at that. The book went some way in clearing up for me the roots of the power struggles that saw Rajai, once Gandhi's conscience-keeper, ousted from his primary role to be replaced by Nehru. The primary reason seems to be his belief that governance and not imprisonment was the correct way to wrest freedom - a view that I sympathize with. This saw his stature fall quite a bit among the leadership of the national movement - particularly in the north - who courted arrest during the time of Rajaji's premiership in Madras. Another struggle was also his natural tendency to play diplomat with everyone which probably rankled the more reactionary forces in the Congress leadership.

In recent days, Rajaji has received renewed attention. There is a e-magazine which titles itself SwarajyaMag and claims to follow in the footsteps of Rajaji.'s own Swarajya. The only similar features seem to be a conservative bent in the writing and a vitriolic hate of the Nehru legacy. To me this seems like a disturbing corruption of Rajaji's legacy. Granted he was opposed to the license-raj that Nehru setup - and rightly so - but to take that to an extreme personal animosity feels both short-sighted and unproductive.

This book though remains a remarkable work. It collects intimate material, highlights both through newspaper articles and other documents the exceptional life that Rajaji led. Totally worth a read. 3.5 stars.

I leave you with these words of Rajaji which first introduced me to him.