Political pragmatist

Print edition : October 23, 2009

The idea of conscience involves some degree of sincerity with which one examines the moral credentials of his or her wants, omissions and commissions. Psychologists say feelings of remorse, shame, dismay, torment or guilt are major elements of a `functioning conscience. Simply put, it is an individuals system of moral values, the sense of right and wrong in his or her conduct.

THE term conscience-keeper refers to a person whom an individual listens to when in doubt about moral values but not necessarily agrees with. Conscience-keepers thus seek to guide but keep a respectful distance from the individuals or the systems involved in decision-making. They often think differently from the latter on the moral content of issues, and disagree with the individuals or the systems concerned either in public or in private, giving them the option to choose between two competing values.

There are many references to such conscience-keepers in contemporary Indian politics. Jayaprakash Narayan played the role of the conscience-keeper of the Janata Party government at the Centre in the late 1970s. V.P. Singh was described as the conscience-keeper of the United Front government in the mid-1990s. N. Chandrababu Naidu exercised his prerogative as a conscience-keeper of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government by extending support to it from outside. Some observers have recently credited Rahul Gandhi with playing such a role for the second United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government. Governors and Presidents have been called conscience-keepers of the state, especially those not belonging to the party in power.

It will be interesting to know why and when Mahatma Gandhi called C. Rajagopalachari, or Rajaji, his conscience-keeper. No other Indian leader has described a contemporary as his or her conscience-keeper. The publishers of Vasanthi Srinivasans book appear to have borrowed the phrase from the popular perception of Rajaji for the purpose of its title even though the focus of her research is on his contribution to Indian politics both before and after Independence. A Reader in Political Science, University of Hyderabad, Vasanthi Srinivasan received the second New India Foundation Fellowship in 2005 for writing the book under review. She has not dwelt on the occasion when Gandhi actually used this label to describe one of his close associates. But historical nuggets such as this sometimes help us understand the contribution made by individual leaders better than serious biographies.

Gandhi was overscrupulous in subjecting his conscience to self-scrutiny whenever he confronted a moral doubt in his personal and public life. He called Rajaji his conscience-keeper only once. That was in May 1933. Gopalkrishna Gandhi, West Bengal Governor and editor of an excellent anthology of Gandhis writings, in response to my specific query, furnished this information through historian Ramachandra Guha. In her preface, the author of the book under review too makes a reference to the remark made by Gandhi.

In September 1932, Mahatma Gandhi went on a fast for seven days, which resulted in the Poona Pact. The fast was meant to urge caste Hindus to give up untouchability so that B.R. Ambedkar could be persuaded to give up his demand for separate electorates for Dalits.

In May 1933, Gandhi undertook a 21-day fast as he was shocked by the increasing evidence of insincerity or moral lapses on the part of workers engaged in Harijan service. Attributing their weakness to imperfection in himself, Gandhi undertook the fast to make himself, through prayerful communion with God, a worthier instrument of service. The announcement of the fast led to appeals from his admirers and well-wishers to abandon the idea. The British authorities released him from prison fearing he may die while in custody.

It was on the eve of this fast that Gandhi referred to Rajaji as the keeper of his conscience. Rajaji had sent him a long telegram attacking the very basis of his fast (Harijan, 6-5-1933). (See Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. LV, Chapter 125, pages 120-122.) It is not known what Rajaji had written in that telegram, but Gandhi apparently ignored his and others appeal to give up the fast. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (Vol. LV - April 23 to September 15, 1933; Publications Division, Government of India, 1973), in Appendix IV, includes Gandhis talk with Rajaji on May 4, 1933, as translated from Gujarati. During this talk, Rajaji made a number of reasoned arguments to persuade Gandhi to give up his fast, which he called unscientific. But Gandhi was adamant and fielded every objection advanced by Rajaji.

It requires some effort to understand why Gandhi might have considered Rajaji his conscience-keeper, especially when the latter considered Gandhi his master or mentor. Vasanthi Srinivasan mentions that Gandhi conceived of the first nationwide satyagraha against the Rowlatt Act after he visited Rajaji in Madras (now Chennai) in 1919. A dream he had when he stayed at Rajajis house led to the conception of the satyagraha; a sheer coincidence and not a result of any dialogue with Rajaji. But this itself does not explain why Rajaji was considered his conscience-keeper.

It is possible that Gandhi considered Rajaji his conscience-keeper because of the latters questioning spirit, which had many a times moulded Gandhis opinion on men and matters.

In 1927, Gandhi said in Karaikudi that Rajaji was his only possible successor. He was to revise this view later in favour of Jawaharlal Nehru. Rajmohan Gandhi, a biographer of both Gandhi and Rajaji, mentions that Rajajis lack of proficiency in Hindi, the marriage in 1933 between Rajajis daughter Lakshmi and Gandhis youngest son, Devdas Gandhi, and the growing differences between Rajaji and himself were the reasons for Gandhis decision to avoid naming Rajaji. Gandhi probably did not wish to invite the charge of nepotism.

Gandhi with Rajaji at the Basin Bridge railway platform, near Chennai, before his departure for Wardha by the Grand Trunk Express in 1940.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Explaining the differences that cropped up between the two leaders, the author begins with Gandhis offer of unconditional assistance to the British during the First World War, when he thought the empire was good, whereas Rajaji wanted to offer only conditional assistance. At the time of the Second World War, Gandhi insisted that non-violence was the only way to combat aggression, including that of Hitler. Here, he was in a minority. In 1940, as the war intensified, Rajaji persuaded the Congress Working Committee to depart from the position of the Mahatma who was set on civil disobedience and pass a resolution that the Congress would prosecute the War as an ally if Britain granted freedom after the War and if an all-party government were formed right away.

Gandhis argument was that even if the British were to succeed with violence, they would be no better than Hitler; and that non-violence would be more effective against a Japanese invasion than armed resistance. The British, however, rejected Rajajis proposition and the Congress quickly went back to the Mahatmas guidance. Rajaji agreed with Gandhi that the world should abolish wars and move towards peace but the path to it was to be found in education in the highest sense, in international cooperation, and not in finding alternative weapons to defeat one anothers ambitions and aims.

Rajaji was the principal associate of Gandhi who lived the longest after Gandhis assassination. Those who wish to know whether Rajaji would have continued to play the role of Gandhis conscience-keeper had Gandhi been alive for a longer period will find the book useful. Vasanthi Srinivasan says that taking Indias 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.

Vasanthi Srinivasan says that Gandhi may have questioned this interpretation. According to her, Rajaji did not share Gandhis 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.

In the context of the storm created by Jaswant Singhs recent book on Jinnah, it may be of interest to reflect on Rajajis formula of self-determination for select Muslim-majority provinces, and for facilitating the historic Gandhi-Jinnah talks in 1944, which led to great excitement then. (Incidentally, Jaswant Singh has said that his next book will be on Rajaji.)

When Rajaji asked Gandhi to accept the demand for Pakistan even if he did not believe in it, because Jinnah would later on realise the disadvantages of Pakistan and forgo the demand, Gandhi said:

It is not fair to accept as true a thing which I hold to be untrue and ask others to do so in the belief that the demand will not be pressed when the time comes for settling it finally. If I hold the demand to be just, I should concede it this very day. I should not agree to it merely in order to placate Jinnah Saheb....

According to Vasanthi Srinivasan, more than making a false promise, as Gandhi put it, Rajaji was exploring another strand of Gandhis practice, one that tries to melt and persuade an opponent through reasonable and sporting offers. Rajaji, she says, thought that the core of Gandhis philosophy was that there was no limit to what friendliness can achieve, a difficult ideal in practical politics. If Rajaji struggled to work out a compromise with the British and the Muslim League so that India could honourably participate in the War and resist Japanese aggression when necessary, it was because he took practical politics even more seriously than moral idealism, she writes.

Interestingly, the conscience-keeper in Rajaji managed to persuade a reluctant Gandhi to return to negotiation after the Quit India Movement and agree to his formula of self-determination for select Muslim-majority provinces, which Gandhi had, in principle, refused to endorse in 1942. The Rajaji formula, articulated in 1943, required the Muslim League to cooperate with the Congress in forming a provisional national government, in return for which the Congress would abide by a plebiscite on the question of Pakistan to be held in contiguous Muslim-majority districts in the north-west and the east after the transfer of power. In the event of separation, mutual agreements for safeguarding defence, commerce, communications and other essential purposes would be entered into.

As one perceptive observer at that time put it, it [the formula] expressed Rajajis belief that Pakistan was not possible but if Hindus conceded it, the Muslims will in time cease to want it. Gandhi was persuaded to accept the viability of the formula and it was referred to Jinnah, who rejected it, aiming at a larger territory than what it offered. Curiously, however, Jinnah had to accept the final Partition in 1947, with territorial division almost similar to the Rajaji formula. The importance of the book lies in establishing a link between Rajajis pre-Independence views on Pakistan and his post-Independence plea for a joint defence pact with Pakistan in response to an offer in this regard from Pakistan in 1959. Nehru rebuffed the offer saying joint defence against whom. Vasanthi Srinivasan says that the Chinese gave an unforgettable answer to the rhetorical question in October 1962. Rajaji persisted with his proposal for joint defence even after Indias war with Pakistan in 1964.

The author quotes Monica Felton, a contemporary biographer of Rajaji (I Meet Rajaji; 1962), that Rajaji had recalled that Jinnah had the least objection to it when he rejected the Rajaji formula. Rajaji had outlined the components of such a pact in an article in Swarajya on November 13, 1965.

As the author mentions in her preface, Rajaji articulated how the Mahatmas 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. Consequently, in the post-Independence period, she says, Rajaji found himself saying no many more times than he had done with the Mahatma.

Drawing upon his voluminous political writing, Vasanthi Srinivasan analyses Rajajis views on democracy, free enterprise, the market economy, foreign policy and social diversity. She argues that a principled statesmanship, which balanced individual freedom and civic virtues, lay at the root of Rajajis political vision. Courage and moderation were the hallmarks of his approach to politics. She refuses to accept the label of a conservative to describe Rajaji and instead calls him a theocentric liberal. She laments that Rajajis political contributions have been pretty much treated like chutney on a leaf, to be tasted or left alone by scholars of Indian political thought.

The book deserves appreciation for rediscovering that neglected flavour and assessing its impact in the context of politics and life in India.

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