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The King Maker

The events which have distinguished the period of Kamaraj’s Presidentship have been the death of Jawahar Lal Nehru, India’s Prime Minister for nearly 17 years and later the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, who was Nehru’s successor for about 19 months. It was the confident prediction of many a competent foreign observer that India would fall to pieces and the constant refrain, during the final phase of Nehru’s life was, “Who after Nehru?” Nehru, unfortunately, did not let his successor grow and, in fact, the field was so covered with by-standers that it was a problem to discover the successor and any guess could at best be a bad guess. India could really have fallen to pieces; there were simmering regional and personal jealousies and a break-up was not such a remote possibility. It is, however, to the genius of Kamaraj and to his national outlook that instead of putting himself up as a candidate for the exalted office which he could have easily done or instead of taking sides, he assumed the role of a king-maker and used his rough and ready genius of getting things through by adopting the consensus method of propounding the party view. The consensus turned out to be more in the nature of expression of Kamaraj’s earlier assessment and what he had set out for himself to do. There was an element of mystery in his approach but the method worked. After doing the arithmetic in his own way, Kamaraj profoundly announced that he had consulted the party members of Parliament, party leaders, and others and the consensus in the party seemed to be that they wanted Lal Bahadur Shastri as the next Prime Minister. The choice having been made known to the nation, the nation nervous about a breakdown or at least in unseemly wrangle in line with the Indian traditions of succession, heaved a sigh of relief and rushed to acclaim the wise Kamaraj; Kamaraj, the Iron Man who had so adroitly and firmly succeeded in imposing his choice on the warring groups and on the ambitious strong heads of the Party. Kamaraj’s prestige naturally rocketted high; he had managed things with consummate skill and had rendered service not only to the Indian nation at a critical period in its democratic history but to South Asia facing the menacing challenge from China. India, with its dimensional democratic structure, was the only rightful challenge to China and its continuity in strength was essential to the democratic forces of the world.

The second test came soon enough. After 19 months, Lal Bahadur Shastri, suddenly and most unexpectedly, died at Tashkent where he had gone on a peace mission. Kamaraj was then on a routine visit to Madras when this very bad news was broken on him but so vivid and analytical has been his grasp of situations and in particular, of major situations that during the few hours of waiting for the plane, he assessed the merits and demerits of the various contenders, analysed the likely repercussions in India and abroad of their selection and came to the conclusion that Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the least controversial candidate and the charming daughter, of Jawahar Lal Nehru could best suit the situation. 'The choice' was made in Madras in those few fateful hours when a plane was being arranged for the President to reach Delhi.

On reaching New Delhi, Kamaraj started holding parleys with various groups, members of Parliament, Chief Ministers and others. He soon discovered that the old consensus method was not likely to work this time, his colleagues in the interval had become prudently suspicious and may not allow him this time, another exercise into the unknown to them and the known to Kamaraj. But the strong man, having already made up his mind at Madras, was undaunted and was not to be dislodged from his set aim, by his party men with their vacillating views. He set about the business in getting through his choice the other way. If party members of Parliament were not amenable to the old consensus method, surely the method could be changed.

There is nothing immutable in politics. Kamaraj, in his adolescence, had been a juggler; he had entertained his friends with the egg trick, with the "bidi” trick and with all manner of tricks. If his party men did not want his consensus method, surely he was not to be outwitted on that score. There could be many other variants and if one approach had become stale and suspect, a refreshing one could be found. Kamaraj, therefore, started organis¬ing and master-minding the Chief Ministers of States who looked upto him for patronage and had to look up to him for their party tickets in the forth-coming General Elections. Kamaraj assessed that M.Ps. for their re-election were dependent, in diverse ways, on the Chief Ministers who had hold on them or at least on a number of them. The idea worked. Morarji Desai stuck to the last and was the sole contender. Morarji Desai had been India’s Finance Minister but had been Kamaraj under the Kamaraj Plan. He had, however, a sizeable following and knowing from the earlier occasion Morarji’s ambitions, Kamaraj had deliberately pitted against him a lady and that too a charming young lady, with the Nehru touch, the Nehru prestige and the Nehru background. Forces of gallantry in support of an attractive young lady and old Nehru reminiscences were bound to come into play on such an occasion. Over and above that, she was Nehru's daughter and claimed acquaintance with and some knowledge of world leaders. Nehru still had hold on the affections of the people and Kamaraj prudently sought to channelise that sentiment also in favour of Mrs. Indira Gandhi; that worked pointedly against Morarji Desai, if not a Kamaraj foe, at least a rival to be smothered.

The day of contest came. Kamaraj, knowing the last minute shiftiness of some of his party colleagues and knowing the political necessity to curb effectively the forces surrounding Morarji Desai, went imposingly to Parliament, though he was not a member of that body. His stern and commanding presence was a reminder to the doubtful that the Party chief and the dispenser of party tickets was very much in their midst and was watching over their last minute shifts and man oeuvres. The result was as Kamaraj expected and had worked for; even the voting was as he had calculated. It is not generally known that in the number of votes he had calculated for Mrs. Indira Gandhi, there was an error of a bare four votes. The voting over, when some of his adherents commented on the votes secured by Morarji Desai, Kamaraj coolly pulled out a paper from his drawer. His party men were aghast at the devastating accuracy of his analysis of the likely voting strength of the contestants. It was indeed a proof, if proof were needed, of his consummate political skill and of his deep intuitive and uncanny knowledge of human beings, of their outer facade and inner reality.

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