A statesman and a visionary

Print edition : November 25, 2000
C. Subramaniam, 1910-2000.

C. SUBRAMANIAM - elder statesman and veteran politician who presided over key Ministries in New Delhi and in Tamil Nadu - passed away in Chennai on November 7. He was 90. A multi-faceted personality, a rarity in these days of specialisation, CS, as he wa s popularly known, is best-remembered as the man who provided the political leadership to the Green Revolution.

Born in a prominent family of farmers in 1910 in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu, CS was a 22-year-old student when he was first imprisoned for participating in the freedom movement. He was a member of the Constituent Assembly which drafted the Constit ution, and was a member of the Provisional Parliament until 1952. His academic record reflected his multifaceted personality. Although at the graduation level he majored in physics, he subsequently secured a degree in law. He practised as a lawyer until he was drawn into the freedom struggle when it was at its peak in the early 1940s.


CS joined the Cabinet of the then Madras State, headed by C. Rajagopalachari, in 1952 as Minister in charge of the important portfolios of Finance and Food. Later, he took charge of the portfolios of Education and Law. He became the president of the Tami l Nadu Congress Committee in 1967-68. In 1962, CS moved to New Delhi to become, first, the Union Minister for Steel (later the Ministry Steel, Mines and Heavy Engineering) under Jawaharlal Nehru.

Later, in 1964-65, he became the Union Minister for Food and Agriculture in the Cabinet headed by Lal Bahadur Shastri. The short span of three years, when he held charge of the Ministry, in his long life proved to be a most significant one. It was the pe riod when the threat of famine loomed over India, and the Indian people were said to be leading a "ship-to-mouth" existence. This was also a time when Indian agricultural scientists, most notably those under the leadership of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, were e xperimenting with the hybrid varieties of wheat, jowar and maize which promised a quantum jump in yields. Although science promised technical answers to the food problem, there was an urgent need for political leadership to implement such a programme. By all accounts, CS provided just that.

Dr. Swaminathan told Frontline that CS had an "enormous ability to absorb ideas, even from a child". More important, he is said to have had the ability to pick the best people for the job to be done. CS played a key role in enabling the speedy imp ort of the Mexican hybrid seeds. As Dr. Swaminathan recounts, CS ensured the implementation of the National Demonstration Programme in the 1964-65 rabi season. It was the most important "lab-to-land" project which ensured the success of the Green Revolut ion. Dr. Swaminathan says that for the first time, the experiments were conducted in plots belonging to poor farmers. Until then such experiments were confined to fields belonging to "progressive farmers, a euphemism for rich farmers". It is well known t hat CS played an important role in these efforts, despite opposition from the bureaucracy, particularly from within the Planning Commission.

CS provided the political leadership in the Ministry of Agriculture for the new technological package that promised a quantum jump in agricultural output and productivity. This package required a series of steps, going beyond the purely technical ones. I n the realm of technology, CS played a key role in redefining the role of agricultural research in not only the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, but also in the specialised agricultural universities.

The Green Revolution, essentially the modernising of agriculture, also envisaged a greater role for the markets. Markets for seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and other inputs quickly developed in the late 1960s. Institutional credit was also made available , especially to the "progressive" farmers. The Food Corporation of India (FCI), the National Seeds Corporation and credit disbursement arrangements were all initiated during this time. Obviously, if agriculture was to grow rapidly, arrangements had to be made also to make it a profitable activity, with remunerative prices. Thus, the Agricultural Prices Commission was established. The FCI was empowered to guarantee a minimum support price for the marketable surplus.

Indian agriculture thus underwent a qualitative change. It is one thing to comprehend these changes once they are history; it is another actually to experience them and play a role in shaping the way things unfold. CS played such a role. As a politician he spotted the winds of change. But more important, he acted. Dr. Swaminathan says that he brought a dynamism to the bureaucracy; he is credited with having brought some of the "best bureaucrats" into the Agriculture Ministry.

The ability to understand science - like Nehru, an appreciation of a scientific temper- was - and still is - not common among politicians in India. Dr. Swaminathan recalls that his own paper on reforms of the science administration in 1961 was appreciate d by CS, who circulated it among other Ministers. Indeed, much later, in 1998, as chairman of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, CS played a key role in organising a Science Summit "to use science to remove backwardness in people".

By the 1971 Lok Sabha elections, the Green Revolution had run long enough for the Congress, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, to capture the imagination of the people with the slogan of "garibi hatao". Meanwhile, CS had moved on, to become Minister of Planning and Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission (1971-72), which in those days enjoyed enormous prestige. Between 1972 and 1974 he was in charge of the Ministry of Science and Technology. Here he prepared a vision statement for Science and Tec hnology after holding wide-ranging consultations at several centres in the country.

His last ministerial tenure as a Congressman was between 1974 and 1977 when he held the Finance portfolio. He played a key role in presenting a paper on integrated rural development which led to the Integrated Rural Development Programme (IRDP). In assoc iation with the eminent scientist, Y. Nayadumma, CS conducted one of the earliest attempts at natural resource mapping in Karimnagar district in Andhra Pradesh. This was one of the first attempts to address issues in rural development by harnessing remot e sensing technology from space science.

He stayed with the Congress until the end of the Emergency but later joined the short-lived Charan Singh Cabinet as Defence Minister in 1979-80. He served as Governor of Maharashtra between 1990 and 1993.

For 20 years after retiring from "active political service" CS remained an active public figure. He was chairman of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. He also founded the National Foundation of India which aimed at addressing wide-ranging issues such as gender justice, regional imbalances and issues in information and communication technologies.

Awards and accolades came his way in plenty. The crown was obviously the Bharat Ratna, the highest national civilian honour, which he received in 1998. He was also the recipient of the U Thant Award and the Norman Borlaug Award (1996). He served on the b oard of governors of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines and wrote several books in Tamil and English.

CS was well known for being a person who would not mince words in any situation. He was one of the rare politicians who was available to the media with forthright views on issues relating to political corruption. In fact, he quit his position as the Gove rnor of Maharashtra because of a controversy over remarks he is said to have made about the style of functioning of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao.

In 1989 he took on the Rajiv Gandhi government on the Bofors scandal when the Congress leadership tried to argue that V.P. Singh, as Finance Minister in the Rajiv Gandhi Cabinet, was equally responsible for the howitzer deal. On Independence Day 1989, he wrote to the President asking for an enquiry since "grave lapses" in the Bofors deal had been "conclusively established". Although politicians usually do not criticise higher levels of expenditure on defence, CS, although himself a former Defence Minist er, argued that such expenditures are not only "unproductive" but are also likely to have a negative impact on the economy.

Until his death, CS maintained an austere lifestyle. As Governor of Maharashtra he is known to have discouraged ostentatious offical ceremonies, thereby encouraging ordinary folk to enter the Raj Bhavan in Mumbai without fear. He admitted that his patern al uncle, Chinnu, who joined the Ramakrishna Math order, played a key role in shaping his spiritual values.

Three months before his death, CS was at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, to release a souvenir on the occasion of its 10th anniversary. Dr. Swaminathan told Frontline that "although his health was failing, his mind was as acti ve as ever". Dr. Swaminathan, reminiscing about his five-decade long association with CS said: "He was a holistic person, what I would call a no-limit person."

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