A spirited fighter

Print edition : September 02, 2000
P. Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, 1952-2000. SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN T.S.SUBRAMANIAN

PHANINDRANATH Rangarajan Kumaramangalam, Union Minister for Power and Member of Parliament from Tiruchi, died in New Delhi on August 23 aged 48.


Kumaramangalam, or "Ranga" to his wide circle of friends, was an ebullient personality and a spirited presence in Delhi's political life till virtually the end of his life. As an individual who had traversed the ideological spectrum in over 15 years as a n active politician, he had left his imprint in numerous places and developed strong and enduring personal associations that transcended ideological commitments. For the media, he was the most articulate and accessible of politicians, transparent in yiel ding information and candid in explaining himself.

Yet, few were aware that he was, since first undergoing a series of examinations in April, combating a disease that was rapidly debilitating him and would soon claim his life (see separate story). Associates recall how Rajesh Pilot's death in June had be en an occasion for a renewal and reaffirmation of the bonds between many of the politicians who had entered public life in the 1980s. Ranga, they say, had looked particularly depressed then, but nobody read any deeper anxieties in his mood. Although his wide circle of friends and associates had the entire week since he slipped into coma to adjust to bitter reality, his death still came as a devastating blow.

Tiruchi received the news of Ranga's passing with much sorrow. The general reaction of people at large was that in just over two years since winning from the constituency, Ranga had done more for Tiruchi than others had done for decades earlier. On Augus t 23, Tiruchi observed a spontaneous hartal.

RANGA was born on May 12, 1952 as heir to a distinguished political lineage. His grandfather P. Subbarayon had been a Minister in the provincial governments in Madras and was a leader of some prominence in the Justice Party before he transferred his alle giances to the Congress. He was later to serve in the Union Cabinet under Jawaharlal Nehru.

The more powerful influences came evidently from Ranga's parents. The redoubtable Mohan Kumaramangalam was an important theorist and organiser of the undivided Communist Party of India and Ranga's mother, Kalyani Mukherji, was herself a committed party a ctivist. An uncle of Kalyani's, Biswanath Mukherji, and his recently deceased wife Gita, retained long associations with the CPI. Biswanath's brother Ajoy Mukherjee was a prominent leader of the Congress in West Bengal and later spun off a core group of loyalists to form the Bangla Congress. He was Chief Minister in a United Front government that comprised the Left parties, including Jyoti Basu as his deputy, in the turbulent late-1960s.

Two of Mohan's brothers achieved distinction in their own ways. General P.P. Kumaramangalam was the Chief of the Army Staff between 1967 and 1970 and Gopal Kumaramangalam was chief executive of important public sector undertakings. Mohan's sister Parvati was married to the CPI leader from Kerala, M.K. Krishnan, and was herself an important party functionary, having once represented Coimbatore in the Lok Sabha.

Mohan Kumaramangalam drifted away from the CPI after the party split. His quest for a new political identity coincided with Indira Gandhi's rediscovery of socialism in the late-1960s. Mohan Kumaramangalam became one of the principal advisers to the Prime Minister in her populist phase and assumed charge as Union Minister for Steel in 1971. A political career of considerable promise came to a tragic end in May 1973, when he was killed in a plane crash near Delhi. Ranga then was a mere 21. In her memoirs published in 1991, Raj Thapar, a one-time political associate of Mohan Kumaramangalam, recounts how Ranga took his loss with stoic calm. As mourners gathered at the family residence in Delhi, he delivered a spontaneous eulogy to his father, focussing pri ncipally on his deep and abiding respect for the political values of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Ranga was by now deeply involved in student politics, as one of the founding members of the National Students Union of India (NSUI). By 1973, he had also been elected a member of the All India Congress Committee. In 1977, armed with a degree from Delhi U niversity, he shifted base to Chennai to begin a practice in labour law. He also acquired a reputation as a labour union leader of substance and commitment. In 1980, when the Congress recovered from the temporary eclipse in its fortunes, Ranga began grav itating once again towards an active political role. He was given the Congress ticket from Salem for the 1984 Lok Sabha polls and won by a mammoth margin. He was subsequently to win this seat in 1989 and 1991.

P.V. Narasimha Rao appointed him Minister of State for Law, Justice and Company Affairs in July 1991. Despite his personal sense of loyalty to Narasimha Rao, Ranga felt himself increasingly at odds with the policy regime that was being introduced in the garb of "economic reforms". Early in 1992, he penned a personal communication to the Prime Minister, expressing his deep reservations about the direction and pace of the reforms. This was followed by rumours that he had put in his resignation as Minister . Ranga was obviously serious even as a Minister about his trade union base and had observed that the perceptions of his constituency were uniformly adverse towards the economic policy package introduced under Narasimha Rao.

That particular crisis was surmounted with Ranga yielding to the admonitions of his senior ministerial colleagues and staying on. He retained his proximity to the Prime Minister and was a key figure in efforts to resolve the burgeoning controversy over A yodhya. During his four-year long political exile in the mid-1990s, Ranga did seek, through meetings with chosen mediapersons, to bring to light some hidden facts about that dark chapter. By all accounts, he seemed to have worked in good faith towards a peaceful and honourable way out of the conundrum that the Congress had got itself into over Ayodhya. But his efforts were undermined and subverted by the pursuit of parallel agendas by others within the Narasimha Rao administration. Ranga was obviously t raumatised by the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, and by all that followed that frenzied act of violence. Disillusioned with the Prime Minister, he seemed only to be waiting for the opportune moment to register his protest.

In the event, he chose the wrong moment. Four northern States where Assemblies had been dissolved after the Ayodhya demolition, went to the polls in late-1993. Initially, it seemed that the outcome would be little short of disastrous for the Congress. It was wiped out in Uttar Pradesh and came a poor second in Rajasthan. Ranga lost little time in sending a missive to Narasimha Rao, questioning some of the decisions he had made as party president and demanding the resignation of the Congress Working Comm ittee (CWC) and the central election committee of the party.

The timing was all askew. The election results from Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh were coming in even as Ranga's letter reached its destination, registering dramatic and most unexpected victories for the Congress. The critical mass of dissent simpl y failed to coalesce and Narasimha Rao moved rapidly to consolidate his position. Ranga was dropped from the Council of Ministers. He had to wait for over a year, until Arjun Singh unfurled the banner of revolt in December 1994, to set in motion his camp aign for an alternative leadership in the Congress.

In May 1995, Ranga, along with Arjun Singh, N.D. Tiwari, Sheila Dixit and others, participated in the founding meeting of what came later to be known as the Congress(T). The party came into existence with a fund of goodwill from sections that had grown increasingly frustrated with the traditional leadership of the Congress. But it had no organisational base to speak of and its efforts to work out seat sharing agreements prior to the 1996 general elections failed to yield dividends. Like most other lead ers of the party, Ranga suffered a crushing defeat in 1996 from the constituency he had represented for 12 years. And though Arjun Singh and others of similar bent managed to retain their relevance through their assiduous courtship of Sonia Gandhi, Ranga was becoming increasingly politically isolated.

What followed was sheer effrontery. The Congress under Sitaram Kesri's faltering leadership pulled the plug on the United Front government in December 1997 and then seemed rapidly to be collapsing into a state of chaos. Sonia Gandhi emerged dramatically from the sidelines to assume a leadership role for the 1998 campaign. His dream scenario now a reality, Arjun Singh began to lead his flock back into the Congress fold. But Ranga had already made his decision. Perhaps unaware of Sonia Gandhi's intentions and in despair at the state of the Congress, he cast his lot with the Bharatiya Janata Party in December 1997.

It was for the BJP a moment of triumph. In winning the allegiance of a Kumaramangalam, the BJP had broken through a territorial barrier and surmounted an ideological chasm. Though compelled to shift constituency to Tiruchi in deference to the BJP's main ally in Tamil Nadu, Kumaramangalam nevertheless won in 1998, though by a narrow margin. As a poster-boy for the BJP's new image as a responsible party of governance, he was almost axiomatically entitled to a Cabinet berth in the Vajpayee government. He w on a second term from Tiruchi in the 1999 general elections, and put in well over two years as Union Minister.

Having cut himself adrift of all his initial ideological moorings, Ranga was as Cabinet Minister, a vigorous spokesman for privatisation of the power industry. He cracked down ruthlessly on industrial action by power sector workmen early this year. He wa s often under pressure on public platforms to account for his political volte-face. But he invariably pulled off the task with good humour and gentle irony. His friends were prepared to concede that he had possibly been badly scarred by the years of political isolation in the mid-1990s. In a context where principles were being eroded and pragmatism was the governing virtue, he was entitled, they say, to take any decision that would restore his relevance. They regret though that after his reinvent ion, Ranga proved to have altogether too brief a lease on life.

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