Free-market ideas usually find a way to stage a fightback. It’s hard, if not impossible, to keep people away for too long from the quest for material prosperity. It would be wasteful to use a rare opportunity to remember C Rajagopalachari for his battle against the command and control economy, and the license-quota-permit Raj – his pithy coinage that captured the state’s stranglehold on India’s economic life.

Rajaji’s greatest contribution, which is often overlooked, was his pioneering spirit of dissent. Not many during the freedom movement and post 1947 have dared to disagree as frequently with Gandhi and Nehru. His advocacy of free enterprise is merely a subset of his dissenter spirit.

Rajaji detached himself from the Congress twice during the lifetime of his mentor Gandhi who called him his conscience-keeper. In 1925, Rajaji went on a three-year self-imposed exile running a Gandhian ashram in an arid village near Tiruchengode in Tamil Nadu, unhappy with Gandhi’s surrender to Swarajists.

In 1942 his rebellion was even more unequivocal and full-fledged.

Rajaji told Gandhi that the Quit India movement was an irresponsible act.

“Rajaji thought a fresh satyagraha foolish when the situation demanded dialogue and reconciliation with both the British and the Muslims,” writes Ramachandra Guha in The Makers of Modern India. “As he bravely (and as it turned out correctly) put it: ‘There is no reality in the fond expectation that Britain will leave the country in simple response to a Congress slogan’. Besides, by asking the British to leave, the Congress was issuing an open invitation to a colonizing power more brutal by far, the Japanese. Fortunately, said Rajaji, Britain ‘cannot add to her crimes the crowning offence of leaving the country in chaos to become a certain prey to foreign ambition’.”

Gandhi for his part directed his disciple to sever connection with Congress to carry on his campaign with all the zeal and ability he was capable of.

Rajaji at an Eid celebration.

Despite his numerous accomplishments, Rajaji viewed himself merely as a gadfly on the country’s body politic. Manikonda Chalapathi Rau, a Nehruvian thinker and longtime editor of the Congress newspaper National Herald described Rajaji as a dissenter in what seemed an unending wilderness.

Rajaji’s logic even while defending seemingly lost causes (in which he was a specialist) was not the sword of Goliath or King Arthur’s Excalibur, but the rapier which duellists would have employed in Louis XVI’s court.

Dissent’s moral compass

Today dissent is a much-discussed theme that dominates conversations in bookfests and seminar circuits. Popular, present day expressions of dissent such as award wapasi smell of acidically partisan churlishness. It is often indistinguishable from political opportunism. It neatly plays into the hands of partisans on the other side whose capacity to consume Koolaid often outpaces their preferred government’s ability to manufacture the metaphorical liquid of loyalty.

As a result, what we end up with is plenty of hot air that offers those in power the perfect smokescreen that prevents real scrutiny of the rulers’ sins.

Dissent can degenerate into a vanity project when not accompanied by intellectual courage, integrity and freedom from rancour.

In his religious faith, Rajaji found freedom from rancour, and the pursuit of dharma. Not pointless pacifism, but reconciliation, escaping bitterness and resentment remained constant features of his extraordinarily long public life.

According to Rajaji scholar Vasanthi Srinivasan, Rajaji was not a philosopher like Radhakrishnan, or a radical revolutionary like Periyar. He was a statesman, always searching for the golden mean. “He certainly did not endorse popular religion for propagating noble lies or false consciousness,” she wrote in her Hindu Spirituality and Virtue Politics. “Rajaji’s prudence is slightly different from that of the others’ it flowed from a ‘cultured’ engagement with popular Hinduism rather than coming to terms with it under duress or merely tolerating it. Culture to him was avoiding meanness, dishonesty and harshness; it was about being large-hearted and considering the feeling of others.”

He realised as early as in the 1930s that Hinduism was being politicised to yield religious nationalism. This he considered “harmful for both religion and nationalist politics”. He praised Hinduism’s catholicity and Vedanta’s practicality without elevating either as a universal or a world religion.

Rajaji the dissenter in retirement focussed on the follies of the Nehru government. Starting 1955, the exchanges between Rajaji and Nehru acquired greater sharpness.

The two critical factors in the successful working of a parliamentary democracy, Rajaji noted, were:

1. a broad measure of agreement among citizens about the objectives of the government.

2. a strong opposition, for when one party remains in power and dissent is dissipated among small groups, which do not and cannot coalesce, government will inevitably become totalitarian.

“Democracy ceases to exist if there is no provision for free criticism of the the policies of the government,” he wrote, when the idea of a new political movement was still far from his mind. “Windows to let in air are wanted, not glass mirrors which reflect what is inside but which shut out ventilation. Parliament and legislatures are there but parliaments in which opposition is overruled by brute majorities are not enough and are no substitute for public criticism.”

C Rajagopalachari with members of the Provisional Council, New Delhi.

The alternative

The primary platform for his dissenting voice was the Swarajya magazine he helped found in 1956 under the editorship of journalist friend Khasa Subba Rao. He envisioned the magazine in his own Socratic, gadfly mould that would be governed by a sense of truth and public welfare. The magazine could close down any time and start again any day without serious loss.

Swarajya’s mission statement laid down by Rajaji has scarcely been bettered when it comes to the Indian media space for its clear-sightedness, lucidity, and nobility of purpose: “There is before the country the great problem of how to secure welfare without surrendering the individual to be swallowed up by the State, how to get the best return for the taxes the people pay and how to preserve spiritual values while working for better material standards of life. This journal will serve all these purposes.”

His weekly rapier thrusts in the pages of Swarajya against Nehru and his policies offered more ammunition to those who suspected personal animosity and unrequited ambition.

In his two stints as the chief minister of Madras, pre-and-post Independence, Rajaji had demonstrated that an instinctive dissenter could also be a an able ruler. He was manoeuvred out of office in 1954 be means Rajaji reckoned underhanded.

In Chapati Rau’s assessment, when Rajaji left his last public office as the chief minister of Madras, he become one of the greatest dissenters of history, a kind of incorruptible Robespierre. “The Congress seemed impervious long enough to have exhausted even a Job’s patience,” wrote Chapati Rau. “But Rajaji was greater than Job.”

A bit of bitterness abetted by the wear-and-tear of the freedom movement did surfaced in Rajaji’s relationship with Nehru. In a 1951 correspondence, recorded by Rajmohan Gandhi, Rajaji’s grandson and biographer, Louis Mountbatten proposed Rajaji should serve as India’s High Commissioner to Britain in order to help Nehru. “You and Edwina are so intensely interested in Jawaharlal Nehru that, may I say, you have no eyes to see or mind to think about others. Rajaji is just a match-stick to light the cigarette… You throw the match-stick in the ash-tray without a thought after it has served its purpose…” responded Rajaji, adding that after serving as Cabinet Minister, Governor without power, governor general when the Constitution was to be wound up, minister without portfolio, home minister and now as the acting High Commissioner, he should perhaps cheerfully accept a senior clerk’s place somewhere and raise that job to its proper and honoured importance. But such displays of disheartenment were extremely rare.

Whither civility

Today’s Twitter and social media brand of anti-Congressism demands that Nehru be blamed for all of India’s ills. It is fashionable to cast him as a vain, Macaulayic villain who relentlessly chipped away at India’s civilisational self-esteem. Rajaji who engaged him the longest and most effectively in the battle of ideas would have strongly disapproved.

The British socialist Monica Felton has written not the the most exhaustive but certainly the warmest biography of Rajaji.

Even in 1955, Rajaji concurred with popular opinion that Nehru was the only possible leader of newly independent India, and that there would be chaos without him around. Felton quizzed Rajaji whether it was not a fact that Nehru saw himself not really as he was but as the image that other people had made of him. “No. To do that is the typical vanity of the famous. Jawaharlal is too honest with himself to commit this commonplace error,” Rajaji explained. “At the same time, anyone who has the task of leading a nation has to make other people feel that he is a great and outstanding man, someone they can naturally look up to…”

The formation of Swatantra Party, with Rajaji as the godhead, and its early electoral success forced Nehru to personally spearhead a campaign of calumny. The question of corporate donations (most of which went to Congress) and Nehru’s disparagement of Swatantra as a party of the rich, grated Rajaji immensely. Rajaji and Nehru’s epistolary exchanges; the war of ideas they waged in the manner of Parashurama and Bhishma on economics, China, Pakistan or Kashmir policy cannot ever be matched for intellectual robustness. Civility was never a casualty. Despite their pitched battles, Rajaji upon Nehru’s death in 1964 wrote what must rank as the most generous obituary message from a political adversary.

It read:

 “Eleven years younger than me, 11 times more important for the nation and eleven hundred times more beloved to the nation, Sri Nehru has suddenly departed from our midst and I emailn alive to hear the sad news – and bear the shock…I am unable to gather my wits. I have been fighting Sri Nehru all these ten years for what I consider faults in public policies. But I knew all along that he alone could get them corrected… A beloved friend is gone, the most civilised person among us all. God save our people.”  

C. Rajagopalachari with Maharaja of Kashmir and family, Government House, New Delhi.

The healing touch of friendship

Rajaji dissent was always carried a covering letter of friendship. He saw friendship as a political virtue. He advocated treating the Muslim League’s demand for a separate homeland in the spirit of friendship. Writing in Swarajya in 1960, he encouraged Indians to move beyond the misanthropy of anti-Pakistanis and fight the battle for friendship with courage. His pro-Pakistan stance won him no friends except support from saintly figures such as Vinoba Bhave.

Days before his death, in December 1972, holding the palm and stroking the head in blessing of M Karunanidhi, the then Tamil Nadu CM who was a fierce ideological adversary, and later an electoral ally, Rajaji is quoted by biographer Rajmohan Gandhi as saying, “I will never withdraw my friendship.”

Like all late-19th- and early-20th century Indian seers such as Sri Aurobindo and Ramana, Rajaji made a strong case for an “inner revolution” instead of wanting to reform the world. The easy-prosed Acharya that he was, Rajaji called for forging a national character based not on that or this “ism” but “goodness and hard work”.

Rajaji must remain relevant for those simple words alone.