By Sudarshan Ramabadran

If rarity had a synonym in Indian politics and especially in Tamil Nadu, then Kumaraswami Kamarajar it would be. No one would have ever imagined that a leader who did not know English or Hindi could lead the Indian National Congress as its president. That was Kamarajar's prowess. A school dropout who became a freedom fighter, Kamarajar occupies the mind space of Tamilians with respect to the governance he provided in the state from April 1954 to December 1963. This is why in present-day Tamil Nadu, the term 'Kamarajar Aatchi' - also known as the period ruled by Kamarajar - is defined by the empowerment of the last man standing in any village in Tamil Nadu.

In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) once thought that Kamarajar would easily succeed Lal Bahadur Shastri to become the prime minister of India. While stating his limitations, CIA stated that Kamarajar enjoyed popular support within the Congress and Indira Gandhi would not even fit into the picture. "Kamaraj probably has the broadest support within the (Congress) party, but his limited formal education, and inability to communicate freely in either Hindi or English, would limit his effectiveness as a prime minister," a declassified CIA briefing paper stated.

When we look back at the lives of some of the great leaders of India, often we do not contemporise or draw parallels from their lives as we should. Remembering history may never be enough. Documenting historic leaders and imbibing invaluable lessons from them is the need of the hour. There are many instances from Kamarajar's life that are applicable, especially for gen-next.

There were several revolutionaries inspired to join the Indian freedom movement as a result of the dastardly Jallianwala Bagh attack. At the age of 16, Kamarajar was inspired to give his life to the freedom struggle and in specific, voice out in his own way against the British rule. Quite similarly, today's youth have varying perspectives and a variety of out-of-the-box ideas. We must enable them to voice their opinion on domestic and international issues. This is a necessity for the society and this is an invaluable takeaway from the life of Kamarajar.

The Kamaraj plan indeed became famous. As part of a master plan, he resigned and several ministers from the Congress followed suit, to revive the organisation and its priorities. There is an intrinsic lesson here too. Without strengthening one's core, one can never follow one's pursuits fearlessly. While we may look at an architectural marvel of a building and admire its design, if the foundation is not strong then the building will come crashing down. The same goes for ideologies and organisations.

In one of my favourite movies, V for Vendetta, there is this dialogue: "The people should not be afraid of the government, the government should be afraid of the people." When Kamarajar realised that the Congress stood completely disconnected from the masses, he proposed his unique plan of resigning and going back to the masses. How pragmatic this plan was remains open to debate, but at the time of its introduction it was aimed at identifying the core and strengthening it.

Kamarajar's statue is the only one of a political leader in Tamil Nadu which is adorned with clothing. The purpose of adorning the statue in Ramanathapuram with clothing was to prevent it from getting dirty each time anyone garlanded it. In fact, Kamarajar's entire public life was led in a clean manner. He not only gave Tamil Nadu a corruption-free rule but also ensured that none of his family members got undue benefits because of his presence in public life and service to the state as a capable administrator. As a result some of his cabinet colleagues also followed suit. Kamarajar died with just over Rs 200 in his pocket. During his tenure, his ministers got a hand pump set up in his aged mother's house so that she did not have to go to the street corner to get water, because he did not do that himself. 

Kamarajar was a leader who did not make money out of his people nor did he let his family members make money in that way. Such a far cry from today, when corruption is endemic in the socio-political sphere of Tamil Nadu.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi elucidated "minimum government, maximum governance" for the first time, as his government's focal vision, as a student of Indian polity, one of the leaders that came to my mind as being someone who implemented this was Kamarajar. His cabinet had 15 ministers and he initiated several reforms in the education and infrastructure sectors. Kamarajar was the architect of the mid-day meal scheme, which was of course later perfected by MG Ramachandran. Quite symbolically, in Chennai, one of Kamarajar's statues depicts him alongside a girl and boy child, holding their hands. No one else in Tamil Nadu's political realm has a statue like that.

Kamarajar enthused passion in whatever he wanted to do for the state of Tamil Nadu, and he minced no words about it. He famously proclaimed, "I was not educated. I don't claim that I went to university. But I do know geography. I know most of the areas of Tamil Nadu. I know where the rivers are and where the water tanks are. I know in which town people make a living which way. Are these things not geography and only the books which contain straight and curved lines?"

In addition to envisioning and implementing the mid-day meal scheme, Kamarajar was a pioneer in bringing primary education to children. His decisions were informed and based on empirical evidence. He mapped and identified villages that had no schools and soon initiated action to start primary level schools in these areas. Again his dictum was simple. "If children couldn't go to school, the school would go to the children."

Kamarajar was a no-nonsense and fearless leader. Cho Ramaswamy, in one of his columns in Thuglak, has written how he overruled a Railway minister from Delhi when it came to ensuring basic infrastructure was in place for the convenience of the people. It was in relation to the construction of a subway near the Reserve Bank of India building in Chennai when the said Railway minister raised concerns of having to get Jawaharlal Nehru's concurrence on the proposal. Kamarajar beamed and said, "Go ahead with the construction of the subway. I will talk to Nehru." Such was his conviction. Today the subway serves as a convenient catalyst for many commuters and visitors. But do we have the guts to take independent decisions irrespective of peer review and back them with all sincere efforts?

All in all, there was a sincere and honest political culture and sentiment that Kamarajar brought to the table. He saw politics as an instrument of service to the people alone. Today that Kamarajar culture and sentiment has to be revived. Kamarajar epitomised spreading Tamil culture in unique ways in every sphere, as opposed to the Dravida Kazhagam. Today those very ideas and ways of Kamarajar have to be instilled in relation to current issues in Tamil Nadu for us to see a promising future. The important question is, who will do this?

(The writer is senior research fellow, India Foundation and member, Tamil Nadu Young Thinkers Forum. Views expressed are the author's own)