10th December 1878: C. Rajagopalachari, last Governor-General of India, was born

Chakravarti Rajagopalachari, the last Governor-General of India and founder of the Swatantra Party — the first political party in India to openly espouse market-friendly economic policies — was born on December 10, 1878, in Thorapalli village in the Madras Presidency. Known as ‘Rajaji’ to friends, family and admirers, he was a writer, politician, lawyer and minister, played an active role in the Indian independence movement, and was close to both Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi.

Rajagopalachari’s father Chakravarti Venkatarya and mother Singaramma were Iyengars. When he turned five years old, he was admitted to a boy’s school in Hosur. He later studied arts atBangalore’sCentralCollege. While practising law atSalem, he became involved in the nationalist movement and was attracted to the Indian National Congress.  He later became a member and then chairman of the Salem municipality. He joined the Congress and in 1917 defended Varadarajulu Naidu against sedition charges. He took an active part in the anti-Rowlatt Act protests. He became a follower of Gandhi and was elected to the Congress Working Committee in 1921.

Rajagopalachari was the leader of a group called the ‘No-Changers’ that opposed contesting elections for the Imperial Legislative Council and other councils. The No-Changers found greater support with the Congress. Rajagopalachari was also involved in anti-untouchability campaigns. In his capacity as a prominent leader of the Madras Congress, he led a parallel ‘salt march’ in 1930 at Vedaranyam when Gandhi took out his Dandi march.

He later became president of the Tamil Nadu Congress Committee and the first premier of Madras Presidency. He took steps to remove restrictions barring lower castes from entering temples, provided debt relief to farmers, and introduced prohibition. His move to introduce Hindi as a compulsory subject met with lot of opposition in the state.

He resigned as premier to protest the British decision to involveIndiain World War 2 without consulting Indian nationalist leaders. Later, however, he advocated supporting the war effort on the allied side and preferred dialogue with the British to the Quit India Movement.

BeforeIndiagained independence, he was made industry, supply, education and finance minister in the central government headed by Nehru. He was appointed the first governor ofWest Bengalafter independence and took steps to deal with the refugee crisis and assured Muslims that he was committed to justice for all communities. Rajagopalachari served asIndia’s last Governor-General between June 1948 and January 26, 1950. He, however, did not stand for President as a section of the Congress was reportedly opposed to his candidature citing his reluctance to take part in the Quit India Movement.    

After Vallabhbhai Patel’s death in 1950, Rajagopalachari became the home minister, but left the post after 10 months because of differences with Nehru over key policies. He later became chief minister of theMadrasassembly. During his tenure, after sustained agitation by Telugu-speaking people, the state of Andhra Pradesh was carved out fromMadrasstate. Though initially not willing to split the state on linguistic lines, Rajagopalachari had to agree as the protests intensified. His attempt to bring changes in the primary education policy as chief minister was slammed by the Dravadian parties.  He eventually resigned from the post in April 1954.

In 1957 he left the Congress and two years later formed the Swatantra Party along with Murari Vaidya and Minoo Masani. The party was supported by some rulers of the erstwhile princely states. The term ‘license-permit Raj’ was coined by Rajagopalachari and ever since became a shorthand for business-unfriendly government policies. It would gain much wider respectability nearly two decades after Rajagopalachari’s death when the Congress government under P.V. Narashima Rao opened up the Indian economy.  

In his book Rajaji: A Life, Rajmohan Gandhi writes: “[I]ts tone being liberal as well as conservative, the new party [Swatantra] reached out to moderate Hindus and non-Hindus in ways not available to the Jan Sangh. CR’s [Rajagopalachari’s] identification of statism as the menace seemed to click with a number of traders, businessmen and farmers.

According to historian Ramachandra Guha, Nehru saw the Swatantra Party as a “reactionary right-wing formation” opposed to his own progressive socialism. “Through the 1960s, however, the Swatantra Party grew in influence. It was the second largest party in the fourth Lok Sabha, where its sharp-tongued leader, Minoo Masani, harassed and harried the prime minister — who now was not Nehru but his daughter Indira Gandhi,” Guha wrote in Outlook magazine in August 2008.

The Swatantra Party tied up with the DMK and Forward Bloc to form a non-Congress government inMadrasin 1967 and also won 45 seats in the Lok Sabha polls.

Rajagopalachari, who married Alamelu Mangamma in 1897, had five children, including

C.R. Narasimhan, who became a Lok Sabha MP; and Lakshmi, who married Mahatma Gandhi’s son Devdas Gandhi. Rajagopalachari’s grandsons include the writer Rajmohan Gandhi and theWest Bengalgovernor Gopalkrishna Gandhi.

Rajagopalachari, who was honoured with the Bharat Ratna in 1955, wrote and translated several works in English and Tamil. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Award for his retelling of the epic Ramayana. After his death in 1972, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi described him as “a sincere patriot, a man whose penetrating intellect and moral sense added depth to national affairs”.

Also on this day:

2001 — Ashok Kumar, Indian actor and Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner, passed away 

2009 — Dilip Chitre, Marathi and English poet and writer, passed away

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