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At one time considered Mahatma Gandhi's heir, this brilliant lawyer from Salem was regarded in pre-independence years as one of the top five leaders of the Congress along with Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. Of the five, Rajaji, Nehru and Patel were christened the "head, heart and hands" of Gandhi, in whose shadows they remained till his death. Ironically, all three of them were to have a tempestuous relationship, bound together only by their common goal and Gandhi's charm. However, they respected each other immensely. Nehru wrote about Rajaji in his autobiography of how Rajaji's "brilliant intellect, selfless character, and penetrating powers of analysis have been a tremendous asset to our cause".
Rajaji was perhaps the earliest Congress leader in the forties to admit to the likelihood of Partition. He even prophesied then, that Pakistan might break up in twenty-five years. Rajaji was known to be a fierce defender of his political ideals, and did not hesitate to contradict his closest aides and friends in public, whenever he sensed a threat to them. Later, C.R. became a strident critic of Nehru and the Congress. As a founder of the Swatantra party in the fifties, he attacked the 'permit-license Raj ' fearing its potential for corruption and stagnation, even while the tide was in favour of Nehru's socialistic pattern. He wrote in his newspaper Swarajya thus -
- "Encouraging competition in industry and giving incentives for higher production are good for the public as well as for the private interests. I want an India where talent and energy can find scope for play without having to cringe and obtain special individual permission from officials and ministers, and where their efforts will be judged by the open market in India and abroad. [...] I want the inefficiency of public management to go where the competitive economy of private management can look after affairs. [...] I want the corruptions of the permit-license-raj to go. [...] I want the officials appointed to administer laws and policies to be free from pressures of the bosses of the ruling party, and gradually restored back to the standards of fearless honesty which they once maintained. [...] I want real equal opportunities for all and no private monopolies created by the permit-license- raj. [...] I want the money power of big business to be isolated from politics. [...] I want an India where dharma once again rules the hearts of men and not greed."
Decades later, in 1991, India shifted from the Nehruvian system to globalization through economic reforms. The bureaucratic barriers imposed on the pretext of "protecting Indian interests", have been gradually removed, and the economy has since made rapid strides, quickly achieving one of the highest growth rates in the world. Since then, many political critics have reappraised Rajaji as a visionary whose intellect was under-utilized and neglected for political reasons.
After serving time in British prisons for his work in Gandhi's independence movement, he became a member of the Governor's Council in 1946. In 1948, after Indian independence was attained, he replaced Mountbatten, becoming the only Indian Governor-General of India, serving until 1950. When a government was installed with the new constitution of January 26, 1950, the office was replaced by that of President, first held by Rajendra Prasad.
Rajaji became a member of Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet, first without portfolio, then as Minister for Home Affairs. He was chief minister of Madras from 1952 to 1954. On leaving government, he was among the first recipients of the Bharat Ratna, the Indian government's highest civilian award.
Rajaji was also a profound thinker, in matters of spirituality and religion. A popular anecdote recalls his encounter with the Hindu spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda, during his student days. Swami was visiting a student hostel where Rajaji was staying, and he drew the attention of the inmates of the hostel to a painting of Lord Vishnu hanging over the wall and asked them as to why Vishnu in all his images, was always depicted blue in colour? Rajaji showed some amazing intellect by answering that the Lord has been ascribed the color of the infinite sky and the unlimited sea, which were both blue in colour. Rajaji received rich praise from the immensely pleased spiritual leader, for his profound understanding of the Hindu spiritual philosophy.
As a writer, besides his own material, he published English translations of many important Indian and Hindu works: Ramayana, Mahabharata, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads and Bhaja Govindam. He also translated the Ramayana into Tamil.
Kurai Onrum illai (meaning - I have no unfulfilled desires left, oh! God) is a very famous song in the semi-Carnatic music genre written by Rajaji and the most popular version, (widely acknowledged as soul-stirring) has been rendered by M.S. Subbulakshmi. Rajaji also composed a hymn "Here under this Uniting Roof" which was sung in 1966 at the United Nations by M.S. Subbulakshmi, again.
Rajaji died in December, 1972 after a short illness. The nonagenarian's public life, spanning nearly eighty years are perhaps best recognized by Mahatma Gandhi's rich tribute to him praising him as: "the keeper of my conscience".
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