The Prime Ministers

The little colossus

dec2014-img-27Janardan Thakur started his career in journalism with the nationalist Patna daily, The Searchlight, in December 1959. In his long and distinguished career spanning the reign of each Prime Minister since Independence, Thakur reported from the thick of some of the most momentous contemporary events at home and afar—JP’s ‘total revolution’, the Emergency, the bristling emergence of Sanjay Gandhi, the fall and rise of Indira Gandhi and then the rise and fall of Rajiv, the Kremlin of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, Ronald Reagan’s re-election in an America swinging Right, VP Singh’s ascent as a messiah with tainted magic and the rasping run to power of the BJP. Thakur’s journalism, from the very start, broke traditional moulds of reportage and writing, going beyond the story that meets the eye and into processes and personalities that made them happen. His stories on the Bihar famine of the mid-1960s and the manmade floods that ravaged the State were a sensation. He was perhaps alone in predicting defeat for Indira Gandhi in 1977 and again singular in exposing the corroded innards of the Janata Government that followed. A Jefferson Fellow at the East-West Center, Hawaii, in 1971, Thakur moved to New Delhi as a Special Correspondent for the Ananda Bazar Patrika group of publications in 1976. He went freelance in 1980 and turned syndicated columnist. In 1989-91, he was Editor of the fortnightly Onlooker, and The Free Press Journal. Thakur authored All The Prime Minister’s Men, probably the most successful of the crop of books that followed the Emergency. His All the Janata Men, the story of the men who destroyed the first non-Congress government in New Delhi, was equally successful. He passed away on July 12, 1999.

ONE of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s first major decisions as Prime Minister was to offer the third position in the Cabinet to Morarji Desai, who had been the main aspirant for the top job. Shastri must have known the result: Desai would refuse. There was no way a stubborn man like him would take a position lower than Gulzarilal Nanda, who had been just a parliamentary secretary in Bombay when Desai was not only a minister in the 1937 government but had been a minister for years since 1946, before becoming the chief minister. Shastri had succeeded in his manoeuvre to keep Desai out. As the little man had once said, “I am not as simple as I look.”

“There is considerably more guile in the little man than his manner indicates, and the appearance of mediocrity is often an advantage for a politician,” wrote Welles Hangen, author of After Nehru, Who?

Shastri may have been devoid of charisma, he was certainly very ordinary and unimpressive in looks, maybe a little too polite (as though politeness is a disqualification), but he had a very good grasp of the problems and the maladies that bedevilled the country, and if he had lived longer he may have put the country’s politics and administration much straighter than they were. Shastri knew that people considered him mediocre, and he had once spoken about it: “Although I am mediocre, yet I find that a mediocre like me is able to produce something new and original, not in a very high sense, but whatever new things are suggested in the ministry, well, they generally come from me, and the officers who are far, far abler than myself go on with their routine way of thinking and perhaps routine way of working…” Shastri was a nuts-and-bolts man who got into the intricacies of people’s minds and their problems, and he had the humility and the patience to see things from the others’ point of view. These were the qualities which established his credentials as an accomplished trouble-shooter of Jawaharlal Nehru. Whether it was a problem in Trivandrum or in Guwahati or in Kathmandu, or at the Hazratbal Shrine in Srinagar, Shastri was the man to soothe ruffled feathers. Everywhere he went with the full confidence of Jawaharlal Nehru.

‘The little sparrow’ had no enemies. He was simply incapable of making one, either in politics or in personal life. He had the patience of Job; he could tire out people bent upon fighting. People around Shastri were often amazed at his gentle art of soothing frayed tempers. One of the best examples of this was his mission to Kerala, the way he handled the fight that had erupted between the then chief minister, Pattom Thannu Pillai of the Praja Socialist Party, and the deputy chief minister, R Sankar, who belonged to the Congress.

dec2014-img-30The story is best narrated by Home Ministry officials who had accompanied Shastri to Trivandrum, as the state capital was called until some years ago. For a whole day and well into the night, Shastri sat in the Raj Bhawan meeting scores of people, one by one. The official team, which included LP Singh of the Indian Civil Service who was then the Additional Secretary in the Home Ministry, was exhausted with what had seemed like a never-ending process. Singh had suggested: “Sir, you now know the whole problem inside out. You know the lines on which a solution has to be attempted. So why not place it before them and be done with it, instead of listening to scores of people telling you the same things over and over again, and wearing you ragged in the process?” Shastri just smiled and said, “You know the people here feel so strongly about these matters that it just keeps welling and bubbling within them. If I were to choke them off and say I know all about these matters, would they be in the mood to listen to me? Now you see what is happening. Each ones comes and tells me, Shastriji, you don’t know this fellow. He is a rogue and should be put behind bars, and in the process he will bang the table. I just keep murmuring, O, I never knew. Thank you so much for telling me. And when he goes out his admirers are waiting for him in the lawns and they gather round eager to know what has transpired. And the leader will again bang the table and get a tremendous kick out of telling them: I told the Home Minister this and that and that and so on. When he has got all this steam off his chest and some of the bitterness out of his system, do you not think he will be in a better frame of mind to listen to me and consider my suggestions?” LP Singh smiled and shrugged and said, “Sir, you know best.”

And so for three days and almost three nights, the Home Minister sat in the Raj Bhawan listening to hundreds of angry politicians. On the fourth day, having listened to everyone, when he finally put forth his suggestions, they all agreed. That the agreement broke down again later was a different matter.

When Shastri became Prime Minister, LK Jha became his Principal Secretary. A few years before he died, LK Jha had shared with me some of his old memories. He recalled how fond Shastri was of ‘walking and talking’ in the compound, between the office block and his residence. Jha was often beside him as he walked, and he remembered how one day a momentous decision was taken. Shastri had been averse to going to Tashkent. “What’s the use?” he had said. “They will ask us to move to the cease-fire line and I don’t want to do that. Instead of saying no to them there, why not just stay put here?” The then foreign minister, Sardar Swaran Singh, had been persuading Shastri very hard, but he was refusing to budge. That day, during the walk in the compound, LK Jha got his chance to make his point. “I said, Shastriji, with the withdrawal of our troops to the cease-fire line, the line becomes an international boundary and neither side can then have any claims to the other side except by mutual negotiations. Wouldn’t that be something worth having?”

THIS had made sense to Shastri and he said, “Then accept it. We will go to Tashkent. But the Army Chief must come, and the Defence Minister must come too, because I don’t want the Army to feel that they risk their lives in battle and gain some territory and then we ask them to pull back.”

dec2014-img-28“A number of things about Shastriji had amazed me,” Jha said. “For example, I discovered that he had taught himself proper English by studying the works of Bertrand Russell in jail. Russell had made a tremendous impact on his thinking. While Shastriji had read Russell to improve his own English, the writings had changed his pattern of thought on many fundamental issues. When he became the Prime Minister, Russell wrote him a letter asking him to join his Peace Foundation. He had asked me to draft a reply. Tell Mr Russell, he said, that I am in agreement with him in what he is doing, but as the Prime Minister of India, I may have to do certain things which would not be in keeping with the ideals of his Peace Foundation. So I would rather not join it.”

Jha recalled that when Shastri went to London for the first time, he said he wanted to meet Bertrand Russell. Prime Minister Harold Wilson said he would invite Russell. “He’ll come over and see you.” But Shastri told him, “No, I must go to him. He is my mentor.” And so Shastri went on a ‘pilgrimage’ to meet the great philosopher.

Unlike most leaders of his time, Shastri was not rooted to any ideologies, either of the left or the right. He had described himself to Welles Hangen as a Gandhian Socialist, which the writer thought was a “practically meaningless term”. Industrialist GD Birla who had known most politicians of that era closely, had said: “He (Shastri) is not leftist, but not a rightist either. He’s a good, clean man who has no great ideas about economics.” Most people saw him just as a ‘faithful echo of his master’, who could not take any decisions for himself without referring it to Nehru. “A loyal, colourless party wheel-horse who does what Nehru tells him,” remarked one editor, who obviously did not know the latent potential of the man.

One of the major concerns of Shastri as Prime Minister was the need to reform the administration, and check corruption. He was incapable of condoning corruption, “He put character above ability and integrity above efficiency,” wrote Frank Moraes. “Nehru, on the other hand, with his fetish about efficiency, had often turned a blind eye to things he chose to ignore. A classic instance was that of Sardar Pratap Singh Kairon, a highly efficient Chief Minister of Punjab who was notoriously venal. For many years Nehru tolerated and defended him, until a judicial commission finally pronounced him guilty of several malpractices, and he met a gangster’s end, waylaid and shot in his car not far from Delhi.”

OF all the personalities Hangen wrote about in his book, he found Shastri the most ‘authentically Indian’. He was closest to the mind and soil of the country, and reflected both the strengths and weaknesses of a homespun Indian.

Some called him ‘an apostle of self-effacement’. So meek and humble was Lal Bahadur’s appearance that when Hangen went for his first interview with him, he wondered if he was not meeting an office messenger. “He could easily be mistaken for a minor clerk,” he wrote. Shastri was the most “unpretentious government official” he had ever met. Hangen was surprised that Shastri, who was then the Home Minister, virtually running the country, said ‘please’ to telephone operators and ‘thank you’ to the peons. He would have been even more surprised if he had seen the deference with which he treated his officers—he would not only get up from his chair but go round the table to shake hands with them before settling down to work. The scene at 1, Motilal Nehru Place where he then lived, Hangen noted, resembled a metro railway station at rush hour!

When Shastri travelled out of Delhi on official tours, he avoided staying in VIP government guest houses. When he lost the Home Ministry because of the ‘Plan of Mr Kamaraj, he wrote in a letter to a trusted officer, Rajeshwar Prasad: “I shall be going to a smaller house. We have reduced one vegetable dish, as well as milk, and have started washing some of our clothes ourselves. I am using Ramji’s (his son-in-law, Vijay Nath Singh) car and shall put in petrol myself. We shall have to be careful in respect of other things also. I have left office twice before also and this is the third time…It is natural for you to be concerned. It is perhaps better not to think too much about what
may come. I believe that whatever He does, we should accept cheerfully.

Hariye na himmat, bisariye na Ram ko Jahi vidhi rakhen Ram, tahi vidhi rahiye

(Do not lose heart and forsake Ram/ In whatever manner he chooses to keep you/ In that manner should you learn to live)…”

dec2014-img-29Shastri’s beginning had been very humble, very poor, like the beginnings of a majority of Indians even today. After the death of his father, a school teacher who later became a minor government employee, his mother had taken him and his two sisters to live with Shastri’s maternal uncle. His uncle helped him get his early education. The turning point in Shastri’s life came in 1920, when he heard Mahatma Gandhi’s appeal to the students of Benares to boycott government schools and colleges. Shastri decided there and then that he would quit his studies and join Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement. The 16-year-old Shastri went home and told his mother and uncle of his decision to quit studies and become a Congress volunteer for national service. Everyone was furious with him. His uncle rebuked him for having become ‘irresponsible’. “What will happen to your mother and sisters if you don’t study,” he had asked. Unruffled, the boy had listened to everyone and then finally turned to his mother. All she told him was: “Think deeply about the right course of action, then make up your mind and hold firmly to your decision.” His mother’s words became his talisman for life.

Next morning, he became a Congress volunteer. After a short imprisonment for participating in non-cooperation activities, he worked under Acharya JB Kripalani who had resigned from the Benares Hindu University to join the freedom movement. He became a member of the Servants of the People Society and later enrolled himself at the Gandhi-sponsored Kashi Vidyapeeth. There he came under the influence of the great scholar, Dr Bhagwan Das, who had been made the first Chancellor of the Vidyapeeth. At midnight on December 31, 1921, Shastri was among thousands of students listening intently to the spirited speech by a handsome young man who wanted their approval for a resolution demanding unconditional freedom. Shastri joined the big roar of approval. He was deeply impressed by the young man, whom he was to succeed 43 years later as the country’s Prime Minister.

In a reminiscent mood one evening, the late Kamalapati Tripathi talked about the ‘new catch-as-catch-can culture’ that had swamped political parties and leaders of the country. The old leader, who had been close to Indira Gandhi, was then the ‘working President’ of the Congress. Every day he was getting a little more frustrated at the way he had been sidelined. Suddenly his eyes had got glued to the bungalow across the road from his: 10 Janpath, where Lal Bahadur Shastri had lived as the Prime Minister. He remembered the last time he had met and talked with Shastri—the night before he left for Tashkent. Tripathi had come on a visit to Delhi from Lucknow where he was then stationed. It had been a hectic day for the Prime Ministers, what with meetings and consultations all day in preparation for the summit with Pakistan President Ayub Khan. Several days earlier, Tripathi had sought an appointment with Shastri and he had promised that he would certainly find some time for him that evening.

It was after ten on a chilly January night when Shastri had come out to the lawns of 10 Janpath for a little ‘walk and talk’ with his old colleague from Uttar Pradesh. Shastri had spoken briefly about his departure for Tashkent next day, and of what he hoped to achieve. Tripathi had then asked him if he was well prepared to face the sub-zero temperatures he would encounter in Tashkent. Was he taking some woollen undergarments? Had he got any woollen trousers stitched? The legs and feet were particularly vulnerable to frosty winds, he had told Shastri. The Prime Minister had laughed and, pointing to his dhoti, he had said, “Don’t worry, Tripathiji, I will be all right in this. I am taking a few woollen socks.” Tripathi had insisted he couldn’t do with dhoti and woollen socks, he must take some heavier woollens, some undergarments. But Shastri had laughed it off, saying, “You think I am a rich man, don’t you. Don’t forget I have led a very poor life.”

THE memory of that night brought tears to the old man’s eyes. What an irony, he said, that Shastri who had never really gone abroad before he became the Prime Minister (except to Nepal, as Hutheesing had pointed out) should have died in a foreign country. And now, the attitudes of politicians had changed. From the spartan lifestyle of Shastri to the ‘filthy-rich ways’ of the present-day ‘Neta log aur Baba-log’. The last was obviously a reference to editor Romesh Thapar’s pet description of the new Son of India, Rajiv Gandhi, and his whiz-kids. Baba-log!

As Shastri was to show, he not only had a mind of his own, but a conscience, too. When he took over as the Prime Minister, someone wrote prophetically, “Like so many other compromise candidates throughout history, he might well surprise those who chose him for his apparent pliancy. The mouse might well roar.”

He did roar when India was forced to go to war with Pakistan. Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan became his great slogan. The lilliput had turned into a giant, regardless of the snide remarks of the Nehru-Gandhi acolytes. Never mind if Shastri had looked “pathetically ineffectual as always”, as Hutheesing thought, “seated at the big round council table, surrounded by the burly soldiers and diplomats of India, Pakistan and Russia”. Even she had to admit that Shastri had “proved his mettle in tough negotiations that lasted for seven days”. Shastri was incapable of bluster, but bluster is not courage. Shastri had wiped out the disgrace of 1962. It was a very rare occasion when he said of himself, “I may not show it, but there is plenty of fire and determination in me.” He had burnt his candle at both its ends, but it gave a lovely light.

In Tashkent, on the morning of January 10, about 18 hours before his death, Shastri had an intimate talk with LP Singh who had accompanied him. Peace and good relations with Pakistan, Shastri said, were essential if India was to preserve her soul and that was the main reason why he had made the Tashkent Agreement. “On the last day of his life, Shastri had returned to his innermost Gandhian self with all his heart.”

DESTINY had turned the little man into a colossus, but again, destiny took him away in the very hour of his triumph. After death, Shastri’s body had turned blue, which had led many to suspect there had been foul play. For years, stories about the unfortunate circumstances of Lal Bahadur’s death whirled and eddied, and several journalists and writers continued to raise questions. No satisfactory answers ever came. A national opinion poll some years ago on the comparative popularity of Indian Prime Ministers conducted for the Centre for Media Studies under the direction of Dr N Bhaskara Rao, put Lal Bahadur Shastri at the top, much higher than the others in terms of attributes like leadership, contribution, values and discipline. Strangely, copies of the survey “proved impossible to trace”. Even so, Dr Rao confirmed the results of the survey, which showed that while Nehru and Shastri had been the most popular Prime Ministers, Shastri’s popularity was slightly higher than Nehru’s.

Scores of politicians, journalists, social scientists and pseudo-intellectuals who have thrived for years on propagating the Nehru-Gandhi legend go into a flutter at the slightest prick lest the bubble bursts. Over the years, there has been no end to panegyrics and hagiography. But even a gentle laudatory portrait of the little colossus, even a mild comment against the ‘giants’ and the sparks fly.

Some took serious objection to parts of LP Singh’s Portrait of Lal Bahadur Shastri. One of the passages they found particularly offensive was: “A sycophantic culture, normally associated with hereditary monarchy or dictatorship, developed in India after Shastri’s death, swamping democratic decencies and the objective judgement of a past political leader. The achievements of earlier leaders were ignored and they were even denigrated to highlight the excellence of the present incumbents; in this process the memory of Shastri’s qualities and achievements was obliterated to the extent that this could be done by those who controlled the official media.” Another ‘nonsensical’ paragraph they blue-pencilled was: “There is undoubtedly a tendency in India to hero-worship political leaders who happen to be in power at a particular time. When this combined with a mythology about the virtues of a political dynasty, there is a disposition to run down, or at least grossly underestimate, the qualities and achievements…” They couldn’t even stomach a word beyond that!

“Oh, dear! What is one to make of this nonsense,” carped one prominent peddler of the Nehru mythology.” Oh, my! How truth hurts!

Vol. 8 | Issue 9 | December 2014

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