A Congressman from another age

Print edition : August 19, 2000
S. Nijalingappa, 1902-2000. SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN RAVI SHARMA

SIDDAVANAHALLI NIJALINGAPPA, elder statesman, Gandhian, freedom fighter, first Chief Minister of Mysore and president of the Indian National Congress at the time of its epochal split in 1969, died on August 8 at the age of 97.

T.A. HAFEEZ

Although history will associate him principally with the momentous split in the Indian National Congress in August 1969, Nijalingappa was a symbol of much larger causes. He was an astute politician who embodied the values of the freedom struggle, whose i ntegrity was beyond reproach, for whom loyalty to cause and party was the basic ingredient of political leadership. Never known to compromise, Nijalingappa held strong views until the very end, especially on the creeping malaise of corruption in high pla ces, the decline in moral values, and the growing influence of caste and community factors in politics.

Nijalingappa has a special place in modern Karnataka. He was an influential proponent of the idea of constituting the Kannada speaking areas, which were until 1956 scattered between the princely states of Mysore and Hyderabad and the erstwhile presidenci es of Bombay and Madras, into a single State. This demand was articulated even at the risk of offending senior leaders in the Congress, who tended to look at the demand for States reorganisation as a fissiparous device. The State of Mysore came into exis tence in 1956 as a homeland of the Kannadiga community and Nijalingappa was, in recognition of his services to the cause, elected its first Chief Minister.

Born to a peasant family on December 10, 1902 at Helaguvagalu village in Bellary district, Nijalingappa lost his father, Abbalur Adavappa, when he was still a child. He was brought up initially by his mother, Neelamma, and later by his uncle Rudrappa of Dodda Siddavanahalli village. The name of the village stuck to his name. After completing his Bachelor of Arts degree from Central College, Bangalore in 1924 he joined the Law College in Poona (now Pune), from where he graduated in 1927. With his wife Mu rugamma, he settled down to a legal practice of great success in Chitradurga. In the intervening years he had attended the All India Congress Committee session in Belgaum and thrown in his lot with the party that was spearheading India's freedom movement .

Many aspiring politicians in the erstwhile princely state of Mysore began their careers with the anti-Congress Mysore Praja Paksha, which was the Mysore version of the Justice Party of Madras. But Nijalingappa's first and only party was the Congress. His successful legal practice was the first sacrifice he had to make to his political commitments, when his licence was cancelled by the Mysore High Court for the "offence" of participating in the Forest Satyagraha of 1939.

Nijalingappa is credited with building up the Congress movement in Mysore State. His first encounter with competitive politics came with his election to the Mysore Representative Assembly from Chitradurga. This was at the time when he was holding charge as president of the Mysore State unit of the Congress. With his reputation reaching far beyond the State's borders, he was asked in 1946 to head the faction-ridden Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee, which then had its headquarters in Hubli. He held th e post for eight years. Thus began his long political association with the northern Kannada speaking areas, outside his home domain in the princely State of Mysore.

It was during his tenure as president of the Karnataka Pradesh Congress that Nijalingappa entered the Constituent Assembly from the Bombay State in 1946 and the Lok Sabha from Chitradurga in 1952. He also made his debut then in the party's highest delibe rative body, the Congress Working Committee (CWC).

Nijalingappa's tenure in the Lok Sabha was cut short by the formation of the linguistic State of Mysore in November 1956, when he was elected Chief Minister, though not a member of the Legislative Assembly. In 1957 he steered the Congress to victory in t he Assembly polls, and became the first elected Chief Minister of the unified State of Mysore. Although he had to quit the very next year on account of factional pressures and make way for his rival B.D. Jatti, he retained an active role in both State an d national politics by becoming the president of the Pradesh Congress.

He was defeated in the 1962 Assembly elections from the Hosadurga constituency by the Praja Socialist Party candidate G.T. Rangappa. He returned, nonetheless, three months later as the unopposed winner of a byelection from Bagalkot and became Chief Minis ter for the third time, replacing S.R. Kanthi. He improved on that victory, leading the Congress to another electoral triumph in the Assembly elections of 1967. His new tenure as Chief Minister, though, was shortlived as he left for New Delhi in early 19 68 to take over the presidentship of the Indian National Congress from K. Kamaraj.

THIS six-year tenure as Chief Minister is well remembered in modern Karantaka. Nijalingappa is credited with commencing and completing the Sharavathy hydro-electric project, implementing a number of irrigation schemes in northern Karnataka and the nation alisation of the Kolar Gold Fields. He was also responsible for grooming two proteges, Veerendra Patil and Ramakrishna Hegde - the Lava and Kusha of Karnataka - who later became popular Chief Ministers of the State.

Nijalingappa's tenure as Congress president was to prove stormy. The initial cordiality with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who thought he would be more accommodative and amenable than other contenders for the party president's post, soon wore thin. In Au gust 1968, just a few months into his tenure, he and a group of senior Congress leaders - including Atulya Ghosh, Kamaraj, N. Sanjeeva Reddy and S.K. Patil - crossed swords with Indira Gandhi over the Soviet action in of Czechoslovakia. Although Indira G andhi and Foreign Minister Swaran Singh had stopped with expressing their sense of "regret" over the development, the regional party bosses who were beginning to coalesce around Nijalingappa as the so-called "Syndicate" insisted on a more critical stance . This was of course, only a foretaste of the bitter parting of ways to come.

Political analysts now believe that the group which came to be known in the days of the Congress split as the "Syndicate", really began to take shape in 1963, when the party began to reckon with Jawaharlal Nehru's failing health and his frustrations in t he aftermath of the war with China. Senior leaders such as Kamaraj, Nijalingappa, S.K. Patil, Atulya Ghosh and Sanjeeva Reddy, had built up enormous organisational clout by then and formed an informal lobby of king-makers within the party. Their role in the aftermath of Nehru's demise may not have been decisive, since Lal Bahadur Shastri had already been anointed as heir by India's first Prime Minister. But following Shastri's untimely death in 1966, their influence was telling.

Kamaraj and Nijalingappa among others played a key role in choosing Indira Gandhi as Prime Minister in 1966. As a relative novice in politics, it was assumed that she would be easier to manage than the wilful Morarji Desai. With the Congress facing inten se political turbulence as a consequence of the economic crisis of the mid-1960s, Indira Gandhi proved acquiescent. But she was clearly restless with the cautious political attitude of the party bosses and their relative social conservatism. Her own plan s involved bringing a younger generation of the party, then known as the "Young Turks", into positions of prominence, to neutralise and finally eliminate the older bosses' influence.

Nijalingappa's views on the relationship between the parliamentary and organisational wings of the party were clear: "No one can take the view that the necessity for the party organisation after the election is only to give its imprimaturs to what the Pr ime Minister (Indira Gandhi in this case) says and to glorify the leader. Such an attitude is clearly inconsistent with democracy. In a democracy no one can take away the right of a party to formulate policy or even to change the leader." Needless to say , these views were not particularly congenial to Indira Gandhi, who by 1969 was beginning to feel her way towards a degree of political autonomy. Tensions began brewing over matters of policy, between the Prime Minister's inclination to renew the Congres s' flagging socialist commitments and the organisational leaders' preference to hold firm to the middle ground. But it was the presidential election of 1969 that precipitated the final rancorous split.

The showdown came in August 1969 at the Glass House in Bangalore's Lalbagh, when the party's Parliamentary Board adopted Sanjeeva Reddy as the nominee for the presidential elections. Indira Gandhi went along with the party bosses' choice but when it came to the crunch, refused to issue a party whip requiring all Congresspersons in the electoral college to vote for Sanjeeva Reddy. Her espousal of the doctrine of "conscience vote" won eager supporters both within her party and sections of the Opposition, mainly the Communist parties. In the presidential elections V.V. Giri emerged the victor much to the delight of Indira Gandhi's followers. A decisive trial of strength had been won and the "Syndicate" had been pushed back on the defensive.

In November 1969, Indira Gandhi dismissed four junior Ministers owing allegiance to the "Syndicate", and Nijalingappa removed two of the former's close supporters from the CWC. Later that month, after a two-day session of the CWC, Indira Gandhi was expel led from the Congress. The grand old party was split down the middle and its members sat apart in the Lok Sabha. Indira Gandhi emerged victor in the numbers game that followed with more MPs and CWC members preferring to throw in their lot with her. The f action led by Nijalingappa came to be known as the Congress (Syndicate) and later as Congress (Organisation) or Congress (O). After the split, a bitter Nijalingappa addressed Indira Gandhi in words that in retrospect sound eminently reasonable: "You seem to have made personal loyalty to you the test of loyalty to the Congress and the country."

Unlike many leaders who fell out with Indira Gandhi and later sought a rapprochement, Nijalingappa opted for retirement. He did take an active interest in public life though, becoming chairman of a working group on cooperative farming. He was also activ ely associated with charitable trusts formed in the memory of Sardar Patel, Sucheta Kripalani and Lal Bahadur Shastri.

INTO his 90s, Nijalingappa did attempt to make a new political beginning, drawing together concerned individuals in a public forum that would act as a watchdog over political morality. The late Rajesh Pilot was one of the notable participants in this eff ort. He made a rare visit to Delhi in December 1996, to participate in the golden jubilee observances of the first sitting of the Constituent Assembly. At meetings with the press, he freely unburdened himself of a sense of "absolute disgust" at the curre nt state of political life. Universal adult franchise, he said, had ensured that participation in politics was not confined to the traditionally dominant groups. But the political articulation of the disadvantaged was not taking the right course: "Commun ity and caste have become the ruling passion. This can only be removed through enlightenment and education. But no political party today is working against communalism and casteism."

Nijalingappa lived a life of spartan simplicity. He spawned no political dynasty and his sons and daughters continue to lead lives of resolute ordinariness. "I was born ordinary, grew ordinary and have lived in an ordinary manner," he said on the occasio n of his 65th birthday, when he was ironically, still the Chief Minister of Mysore State. He was not a politician of charisma, but his transparency, humility, democratic instincts and honesty made him a leader of exceptional stature.

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