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 defendant 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 -
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, when Indian independence was recognized, 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 that of President 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 spiritaul 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 praises 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 MS Subbulakshmi.
Rajaji died in December, 1972 after a short illness. The nonagenarian's public life, spanning nearly eighty years are perhaps best recognized by Mahama Gandhi's rich tribute to him praising him as the: "the keeper of my conscience"'.