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 HomeTamil Nadu Politicians - Kamaraj
Real Estate
Profiles of Indian Political Leaders
Kumaraswami Kamaraj
(July 15, 1903 - October 2, 1975)
Sometime in the early 1970s we had our first and only glimpse of Kumaraswami Kamaraj, one of India's great political leaders.

Accompanied by a small group of followers, Kamaraj was striding down a railway station platform in the city of Salem in the wee hours of the night.

By then, Kamaraj was already in the evening of his political life and had but a few years to live.

New York Times reporter J.Anthony Lukas, who covered India in the mid-1960s, described Kamaraj thus:

"A dark mountain of a man with a slashing white mustache, he looks like a cross between Sonny Liston and the Walrus in the illustrations for Alice in Wonderland."

Early Days

Born in 1903 in the town of Virudhunagar in Southern Tamil Nadu, Kamaraj is often referred to as a king maker of Indian politics.

Kamaraj's father Kumarasamy Nadar was a coconut merchant while his mother Sivakami Ammal was a housewife.

Kamaraj was born into a family of Nadars, the traditional toddy tapping community in Southern Tamil Nadu, and had little formal education.

Draw of Politics

Politics attracted Kamaraj at an early age after seeing Mohandas Gandhi at a meeting in the nearby temple city of Madurai.

Kamaraj quickly joined the Congress party and national resistance against the British colonists. For his protests against the British, Kamaraj was thrown into jail several times and spent eight years in prison.

In the early days, Kamaraj worked closely with his first mentor Sundaresa Satyamurthi, a lawyer from Madras (now Chennai).

Hailing from a low caste, Kamaraj naturally threw in his lot with the non-Brahmins, who were resentful of the domination of the Brahmins in state politics.

Kamaraj became Chief Minister of Madras in 1954, a post he held until 1963. During his stint as Chief Minister, he introduced the mid-day meal scheme for poor children, a step that was later significantly expanded by one of his successors M.G.Ramachandran.

Kamaraj became president of the Congress party in 1964 under the so called Kamaraj Plan, which led to several senior Congress ministers in Jawaharlal Nehru's cabinet and Chief Ministers resigning so that they could devote their energies to revitalizing the party.

After Nehru's death, as Congress party president Kamaraj worked behind the scenes to elevate Lal Bahadur Sastri as Prime Minister of India.

Kamaraj played a similar role in helping Indira Gandhi to become Prime Minister after Sastri died suddenly in Tashkent.

But Kamaraj's relations with Indira Gandhi soured quickly.

Within six months, relations between Kamaraj and Indira Gandhi became strained, primarily over the issue of devaluation of the Rupee. According to Ramachandra Guha, Kamaraj opposed devaluation because he "saw it as undermining the policy of national self-reliance."

In the 1967 state Assembly elections, Kamaraj suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a young student leader P.Sreenivasan of the DMK. Kamaraj got 47.98% of the total votes polled while his main opponent Sreenivasan secured 49.9% of the votes. Although Kamaraj won a bye-election sometime later, his reputation never recovered from the 1967 defeat.


Kamaraj is believed to have led a spartan life unlike most Indian politicians for whom politics is just an easy way to feather their nest.

Writing in The New York Times, the late Pulitzer Prize winning journalist J.Anthony Lukas described Kamaraj thus:

"Kamaraj's real achievement, then, has not been in remaking the party but in manipulating the diverse and disputatious elements within it. His genius lies in dealing with men as they are, not in changing them, and this ability is based on a realistc assessment of human nature."

Final Days

Despite the DMK-Congress (I) alliance, Kamaraj won the 1971 Parliamentary elections from the Nagercoil constituency with 58.37% of the total valid votes polled compared to 31.11% for his DMK rival M.C.Balan. Kamaraj was the sole victor for the Congress (O) in Tamil Nadu.

After the 1971 elections, the Congress (O) became completely marginalized in the country and Kamaraj's influence waned considerably.

A bachelor, Kamaraj died of a heart attack in Madras (now Chennai) on October 2. This simple man was honored with India's highest civilian award Bharat Ratna in 1976.

In its obituary, the New York Times described Kamaraj as being "in the front line of the freedom struggle against the British as well as in the reconstruction of free India."

The New York Times
India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha
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