POLITICIANS in India are generally expected to have their own vote bank — either based on caste or ideology — which will thrust them into the parliament every five years. But surprisingly, there have been a small set of technocrats with no political base at all who have made a lasting change in the country’s economy and wellbeing.
One such remarkable politician, C Subramaniam was perhaps the last surviving links with the Nehru era. For somebody with little campaign charisma, CS had always been a minister for his political career.
This farmer’s son from Pollachi is remembered for his contribution to nation-building activities to the extent that every Indian eating a full plate of food today should think of this man’s foresight and courage.
As a school-going student and later in Presidency College and Madras Law College, patriotic CS responded to the call of Mahatma Gandhi and plunged into the freedom movement.
Starting as a protege of C Rajagopalachari and after having served Kamaraj and Rajaji cabinets in Madras state, CS was a quick learner and quick decision-maker. A great administrator, his greatest skill was as a talent scout and forming the right team to solve the problem at hand. It was during his stint as education minister in Madras that the mid-day meal scheme was introduced. A huge enrollment in primary school during his days led to Tamil Nadu being a well-educated state later.
Nehru, the talent scout, spotted him and took him to Delhi. He would have been a chief ministerial candidate for Madras very soon but the shrewd politician CS made a brilliant and timely move to Delhi, just when Congress was floundering in Madras state unable to handle the anti-Hindi agitation of the DMK. It was literally a political graveyard for his colleagues at home in the next elections.
CS impressed Nehru with his work in Mines and Steel but unfortunately, Nehru was at the tail end of his life. Shastri with his ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ motto succeeded him and was a pro-farmer politico.
Agriculture in India at that time was in tatters. Nehru’s mega-dams had not really started to work and famines were frequent. The hassle of feeding the increasing population was the biggest onus of the new government. Helpless Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri even called upon all Indians to skip one meal each Monday.
Shastri offered the agriculture ministership to several stalwarts who politely declined, knowing the Himalayan task ahead of them. It is said the prime minister-designate called on C Subramaniam and gave him the charge of overhauling the agro scenario at 10 in the night. No surprise if Subramaniam felt he had been downgraded.
CS, as usual, wanted to get at the root of the problem and not just prepare a temporary solution till the next drought. The magic wand he realised was to change the very base of agriculture in India and obtain high-yielding seeds. He reached out to leading agro scientists worldwide, including (later Nobel laureate) Norman Borlaug, an American agronomist who had developed semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties, which would later be credited with saving over a billion lives worldwide from starvation.
It was a time when every Indian politician would see a suspicious American hand in every new development that came from the West. There was a huge hue and cry and there were hundreds of farmer demonstrations across the nation. Capitalists to communists, everyone opposed the Green Revolution for different reasons. Even his ministerial colleagues had to be satisfied with a live demonstration.
But CS had been convinced and nothing could stop him. He even tilled the five-acre garden he was entitled to as a minister and sowed the wheat seeds. It had been centuries before wheat had been sown in the seven walled cities of historical Delhi but they did a rather decent job by showing double the yield of an equivalent Indian farm crop.
In 1966, India imported 18,000 tonnes of both the Lerma Rojo 64 and Sonora 64 varieties as seeds — the largest purchase and import of any seed in the world at that time. Opposition waned away when the first year of the Green Revolution showed an increased harvest despite a famine, but the next normal year wheat yield had increased by 25 per cent over the average. The country soon became a net exporter of wheat.
CS went on to head other ministries with equally good results. However, though a senior minister, he would remain silent during Indira Gandhi’s Emergency and its excesses. Though he won his parliament seat in 1977 by over 2,00,000 votes, his prime minister Indira Gandhi was swept out of power.
CS was one of the few ministers who deposed before the Shah Commission and earned Indira Gandhi’s displeasure. That put an effective end to his political career. The nation finally remembered him as the Father of the Green Revolution who had put enough food on their plate and he was given the highest civilian award of Bharat Ratna.
— The writer is a historian and an author