The article is in context of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the ancestral village of President Ram Nath Kovind on Friday 3rd June 2022, Modi declared emphatically that “he …hopes for a strong opposition in the country, which would strengthen democracy…”.
So did Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India. This article elaborates the challenges before Nehru and democracy, just after the Independence.
fter his Congress party won 364 out of 489 seats in the Lok Sabha elections in April 1952, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru too lamented the lack of an opposition.
Similar to the situation after 2014, no other party had obtained enough seats to be recognised as an official opposition party.
Next to the Congress’s 364, independents obtained 37 seats; the Communist Party of India 16; the Socialists led by Jaya Prakash Narayan 12; the Kisan Mazdoor Praja Party led by Sucheta Kripalani nine; and the People’s Democratic Front seven.
The Shiromani Akali Dal and the Akhil Bharatiya Hindu Mahasabha won four each, and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh obtained three seats.
According to my father HY Sharada Prasad, who edited Nehru’s extempore speeches for publication in the official records and who was one of the editors of the ‘Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru’, the self-aware and introspective Nehru had jotted a private note to himself that “… (I) am cognisant that I am not infallible…my colleagues are hollow pusillanimous men of straw who lack the courage to frankly disagree with me…(I) need someone who will fearlessly counsel me candidly when I stray and lead me to the right path…”
Even though his cabinet consisted of stalwarts such as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sir Chintaman Dwarakanath Deshmukh, Thiruvellore Thattai Krishnamachari, Kailash Nath Katju, Rafi Ahmed Kidwai, Sardar Baldev Singh, Sir N Gopalaswami Ayyangar, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jagjivan Ram, Varahagiri Venkata Giri, Sardar Swaran Singh, Gulzarilal Nanda, and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Jawaharlal Nehru understood they were too much in awe of him to speak their minds to him frankly.
Mahatma Gandhi had advised Nehru on 15th July 1936: “…You feel to be the most injured party. The fact is that your colleagues have lacked your courage and frankness. The result has been disastrous. I have always pleaded with them to speak out to you freely and fearlessly. But having lacked the courage, whenever they have spoken, they have done it clumsily and you have felt irritated. I tell you they have dreaded you, because of your irritability and impatience of them. They have chafed under your rebukes and magisterial manner and above all your arrogation of what has appeared to them your infallibility and superior knowledge. They feel that you have treated them with scant courtesy and never defended them from socialists’ ridicule and even misrepresentation. You complain of their having called your activities harmful. That was not to say that you were harmful. Their letter was no occasion for recounting your virtues or your services. They were fully conscious of your dynamism and your hold over the masses and the youth of the country. They know that you cannot be dispensed with. But I do want you not to impose the unbearable task of adjusting your quarrels or choosing between them and you. You are in office by their unanimous choice, but you are not in power yet. To put you in office was an attempt to find you in power quicker than you would otherwise have been. Anyway, that was at the back of my mind when I suggested your name for the crown of thorns. Keep it on, though the head be bruised…”
Mahatma Gandhi also counselled Nehru’s colleagues on 20th April 1937: “There is no doubt that Jawaharlal is inclined to be rash. He says harsh things. Sometimes he calls people names. But he knows the worth of his colleagues. Jawaharlal works with his colleagues in the belief that one day he will convert them to his view and he hopes that his contact with them will one day change their opinions.”
Nehru reportedly had written about himself under the pseudonym Chanakya in Ramanand Chatterjee’s Modern Review in November 1937:
“…And yet he has all the makings of a dictator in him — vast popularity, a strong will directed to a well-defined purpose, energy, pride, organisational capacity, ability, hardness, and, with all his love of the crowd, an intolerance of others and a certain contempt for the weak and the inefficient. His flashes of temper are well known and even when they are controlled, the curling of the lips betrays him. His over-mastering desire to get things done, to sweep away what he dislikes and build a new, will hardly brook for long the slow processes of democracy. He may keep the husk, but he will see to it that it bends to his will. In normal times he would be just an efficient and successful executive, but in this revolutionary epoch, Caesarism is always at the door, and is it not possible that Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar? Therein lies danger for Jawaharlal and for India. For it is not through Caesarism that India will attain freedom, and though she may prosper a little under a benevolent and efficient despotism, she will remain stunted and the day of the emancipation of her people will be delayed. For two consecutive years Jawaharlal has been President of the Congress and in some ways he has made himself so indispensable that there are many who suggest that he should be elected for a third term. But a greater disservice to India and even to Jawaharlal can hardly be done. By electing him a third time we shall exalt one man at the cost of the Congress and make the people think in terms of Caesarism. We shall encourage in Jawaharlal the wrong tendencies and increase his conceit and pride. He will become convinced that only he can bear this burden or tackle India’s problems. Let us remember that, in spite of his apparent indifference to office, he has managed to hold important offices in the Congress for the last seventeen years. He must imagine that he is indispensable, and no man must be allowed to think so. India cannot afford to have him as President of the Congress for a third year in succession. There is a personal reason also for this. In spite of his brave talk, Jawaharlal is obviously tired and stale and he will progressively deteriorate if he continues as President. He cannot rest, for he who rides a tiger cannot dismount. But we can at least prevent him from going astray and from mental deterioration under too heavy burdens and responsibilities. We have a right to expect good work from him in the future. Let us not spoil that and spoil him by too much adulation and praise. His conceit is already formidable. It must be checked. We want no Caesars.”
Abraham Michael Rosenthal wrote in the New York Times: “…Mr. Nehru’s personality is a great stimulant, but it is also a great weight upon India…Mr. Nehru is the leader of the government, the leader of the majority (Congress) party, the chief economic planner, the chief social reformer, the foreign affairs analyst, the chief military thinker, the man who decides everything…”
Nehru determined that the ideal person to counsel him candidly and objectively would be Jaya Prakash Narayan, who had left the Congress party in 1948 because he thought that Nehru was not socialist enough.
Nehru, who viewed JP as a younger brother, invited him over a series of meals to join his cabinet as his counsellor and conscience keeper. Also present were Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, and his close relative, the ICS officer Braj Kumar Nehru, who had been ambassador to USA and high commissioner to UK.
But JP rebuffed all of Nehru’s entreaties. JP had this image of himself as being a saint and as a successor to Mahatma Gandhi, far above the lure of office.
Braj Kumar Nehru documented these meetings: “The Prime Minister was naturally delighted at his complete victory in the election. What he was unhappy about was the absence of an Opposition whom he could respect and who could suggest constructive alternatives…The PM told Mr Narayan that he was not all-knowing; he needed somebody to point out where he was going wrong and to suggest alternatives…His Cabinet were all hollow pusillanimous men of straw; whatever their inner qualms were, they did not dare give voice to their misgivings. The Prime Minister invited Mr. Narayan to form such an Opposition within his Cabinet…”
BK Nehru minute their next meeting: “…The Prime Minister asked Mr. Narayan, cajoled him, then begged him, then again tried to persuade him to perform such a role, to lead him back to the right path whenever he was about to stray. But Mr. Narayan’s answer was steadfastly ‘NO’…”
Reminding Jawaharlal Nehru about why he had left the Congress party in 1948, Jaya Prakash Narayan replied: “Gandhian constructive workers would betray their ideals if they did not boldly play a corrective role, offering friendly, constructive, non-partisan advice and criticism and, if need be, even opposition in the form of non-cooperation. Nor can eschewing of party politics mean indifference to the manner and outcome of elections. True, those who have eschewed party politics are not expected to take any partisan stand, but they may, with complete consistency, raise general political and ideological issues for the guidance of the electorate, the parties and the candidates…”
Jawaharlal Nehru replied to JP: “…In India there are all kinds of disruptive and reactionary forces. There is also the inertia of ages. And it is very easy for the inert mass to be roused by some religious or caste or linguistic or provincial or like cry, and thus to come in the way of all progress. That is the real opposition in the country, and it is a tremendously strong one. And that is what you seem to ignore completely. We have constantly to battle against it…”
BK Nehru summed up his impressions after the final meeting: “…Mr. Narayan was totally negative, not positive. He was totally destructive, not constructive. He would criticise, he would agitate, but he would not suggest any positive, constructive way to achieve what he thought required to be done. He did not, in fact, know what should, in positive terms, be done…”
Nehru invited JP’s Praja Socialist Party to merge itself into his Congress and perform the role of an internal opposition. He offered the Deputy Prime Ministership to JP, and a senior cabinet portfolio to Acharya JB Kripalani, who had served in his interim government in 1946, and who had been President of the Congress party.
Hwever, Ram Manohar Lohia and Acharya Narendra Deva were vehemently opposed to having anything to do with Nehru at all. Acharya JB Kripalani moved leftward and became one of Nehru’s harshest critics. JP left party politics, to propagate his ideas for a party-less grass roots democracy.
My father HY Sharada Prasad had written then: “JP’s persistent refusal to assume political authority is a real waste of a vast and unusual national resource…JP is a very baffling philosophical anarchist, ready to fight the aberrations of the state, but reluctant to assume any office of responsibility himself…”
My conjecture is that in addition to viewing himself as a successor to Mahatma Gandhi, as a saint far above the lures of office, JP, the hero of the 1942 Quit India Movement, remained stuck in the revolutionary ethos and idee fixe of 1942, not realising that a new nation and society had to be built.
In his speech in Kanpur district on 3rd June 2022, Narendra Modi harshly castigated dynastic politics, and “…called upon all political parties to rid themselves of this curse…”.
The Prime Minister emphasised that all those on the dais – President Ram Nath Kovind, the Governor of Uttar Pradesh Smt. Anandiben Patel, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh Yogi Adityanath, and he himself – were all self-made people.
However, Jawaharlal Nehru never envisaged his daughter as a credible successor. Indira Gandhi became prime minister only because all those whom Nehru evaluated as possible successors were either unwilling or unfit.
Right from 1952, Nehru had wanted to step down in 1959, when he would turn seventy. According to my father, Nehru had listed the criteria that his successor should satisfy:
* Possess all-round experience of several ministries.
* Have the support of the Congress party’s cadres and the charisma to win elections.
* Be twelve to fifteen years younger than him and be in excellent health.
Nehru’s first choice was Jaya Prakash Narayan, who was thirteen years younger than him; JP was born in October 1902 and Nehru in November 1889.
JP’s outstanding organisational abilities were exhibited during his leadership of the Quit India Movement in 1942. His daring escape from Hazaribagh jail, when he climbed over several twenty-foot-high walls and ran with broken feet for seventy miles, and the guerrilla campaign he waged out of Nepal, had electrified the nation.
After he was captured on a train near Amritsar in September 1943, JP had withstood horrifyingly brutal torture by the British in Lahore jail for almost three years without succumbing, winning him much admiration across the nation; he was the last major leader to be released, in April 1946.
The intellectual in Nehru admired JP’s advanced education in the USA. JP had three post-graduate degrees in chemical engineering and sociology and political science from the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Iowa, the University of Ohio, and a long stint at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was a protégé of the eminent sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross.
Since power had shifted from UK to USA, Nehru wanted a successor who was familiar with the US political system. And JP had spent a couple of years working as an intern to the Republican governor of Wisconsin and the Republican senator of Wisconsin.
JP’s outstanding managerial skills were honed during his stint as the secretary of Ghanshyam Das Birla, whom he had joined on his return from USA in 1929.
Maulana Abul Kalam Azad recognised his talents and introduced him to Nehru. An impressed Nehru appointed JP as the head of the Congress party’s labour cell. JP had worked as an auto mechanic and as a fruit picker and in a fruit canning factory in USA to fund his studies, giving him unparalleled insights into labor union issues on an international scale.
JP’s wife Prabhavati Devi quickly became the closest friend of Kamala Nehru, and it was she who nursed Motilal Nehru during his last months. Recognising JPs organisational skills, the astute Motilal Nehru appointed JP as an executor of his estate, and custodian of the Nehru family’s records.
Jawaharlal Nehru felt badly let down that his chosen successor was not willing to take on responsibility for running a difficult country.
Indira Gandhi remarked to my father HY Sharada Prasad: “Papu was deeply anguished that JP, whom he considered as his younger brother, let him down when he needed him the most…Papu was left to face the burdens of office all on his own”.
Govind Ballabh Pant and Uchharangrai Navalshankar Dhebar craftily utilised the pretext of JP’s refusal to assist Nehru to push their agenda of getting Indira Gandhi to enter politics, and thereby to push their right-wing anti-socialist policies by operating through her as a pliant facade.
Intending to curb Nehru’s socialist policies, GB Pant and UN Dhebar brainwashed her that ‘there was no one else that Nehru could rely on, and that it was her duty to assist her father, because if JP, of all people, could let him down, then so would everyone else, sooner or later’.
Pant also urged Nehru to take the assistance of his daughter: “Indu has learnt valuable political lessons by being with Mahatma Gandhiji”, tactfully omitting any mention of Nehru himself.
UN Dhebar, aided by Lal Bahadur Shastri, first made a reluctant Indira Gandhi a member of the Congress Working Committee CWC. She was hesitant and diffident about whether she was capable of discharging its responsibilities, but Pant emphatically ordered her: “This is your duty. You have to do it”.
Then in 1957, Dhebar, Pant, and Shastri stage-managed her elections to the Congress Central Election Committee. Some months later, they made her a member of the Congress Parliamentary Board after Nehru resigned from it.
Answering the pointed queries of journalists, Nehru described her appointment to these party committees as “certainly undesirable and perhaps undemocratic”, but he did not do anything to prevent or reverse these.
Durga Das wrote in the Hindustan Times on 18 June 1957: “If Nehru is consciously trying to build anyone as his successor, he is building up his daughter”.
But Durga Das did not elaborate on how Nehru was grooming her. There were rumours that people close to Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and president Dr Rajendra Prasad had goaded Durga Das to write this.
A year after he led his Congress party to a huge victory in the 1957 elections, winning 371 out of 494 seats, Nehru again turned his attention as to who could succeed him when he retired on his seventieth birthday in November 1959.
Even though his cabinet consisted of stalwarts such as TT Krishnamachari, Morarji Desai, Govind Ballabh Pant, Lal Bahadur Shastri, VK Krishna Menon, Jagjivan Ram, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Gulzarilal Nanda, SK Patil, and Swaran Singh; Wyndraeth Humphreys Morris-Jones and Duncan Baillie Forrester likened Nehru’s government to Queen Elizabeth I and her courtiers “in being nowhere so high in his estate royal”.
Morris-Jones and Forrester wrote: “Nehru’s competence and knowledge seem to know no departmental limits, and his cabinet seems to be simply a council of advisers to a prime minister who exercises most of the powers of an American style president…”
However, none of the leading political figures satisfied all of Nehru’s criteria of experience and expertise, popularity and charisma to win elections, and excellent health.
Maulana Azad and GB Pant were older than Nehru, and Pant had never really recovered from the serious injuries which he had sustained at the hands of the British in 1928. Maulana Azad was to pass away in 1958 and Pant in March 1961.
The highly educated TT Krishnamachari was a big industrialist and eminent economist and was ten years younger than Nehru. However, he did not have a mass political base.
When Nehru tried to give him duties in foreign affairs, he conveyed that he wanted to concentrate on the economy, and that he was not interested in having his attention diluted by other portfolios. The Mundhra scam, which took place during his tenure, eliminated him from the reckoning.
The ambitious Morarji Desai, whom my father rated as the most competent administrator, believed that he was divinely ordained to succeed Nehru. While he had the courage to take difficult unpopular decisions, he was universally hated because of his arrogance, superiority complex, know-it-all attitude, puritanical sermonising, and personal eccentricities.
Western governments and multinational corporations lobbied for the pro-capitalist and pro-western Morarji, raising Nehru’s hackles.
Since he was only six and a half years younger than Nehru, having been born in 1896, my father noted then that Morarji might have missed the bus.
While the brilliant VK Krishna Menon had the ability to find creative solutions to the most intractable problems and the courage to take difficult unpopular decisions, he too was universally hated because of his obnoxious behaviour, arrogance, rudeness, and personal eccentricities. His extreme leftist policies made him unacceptable to western countries.
Jagjivan Ram was an outstanding administrator, had age on his side having been born in 1908, and commanded the support of Harijans. However, there were questions about his integrity.
The ongress party bosses felt that voters would be repelled by a Harijan leader and would permanently gravitate to conservative Hindu parties.
Sadashiv Kanoji Patil, the strong man of Mumbai, was highly competent, but his fund-raising activities for the Congress party had tarnished his image, and he had powerful enemies.
Swran Singh was outstandingly competent, but he did not have the charisma to lead the party to victory, and had no following outside Punjab.
Kumaraswami Kamaraj Nadar had excellent political and administrative skills and a firm grip over the Congress party cadres. However his poor English and his lack of knowledge of Hindi ruled him out.
Nehru rated Yashwantrao Balwantrao Chavan’s administrative and political skills highly. YB Chavan also had age on his side, being born in 1913, and he had become chief minister of the united Bombay state in 1956, succeeding Morarji Desai. But there were perceptions that his penchant for political manipulations could backfire.
Nehru thought that YB Chavan could be a successor to his immediate successor, after being groomed by being given major responsibilities at the centre.
Therefore, Nehru shortlisted Lal Bahadur Shastri, Gulzarilal Nanda, and UN Dhebar, listing out their strengths and weaknesses. They met Nehru’s criteria of age; Nanda was born in 1898, Shastri in 1904, and Dhebar in 1905.
The likeable Shastri was highly popular among the rank and file members of the Congress party. He had outstanding people management skills, and was an excellent negotiator and trouble shooter. He had played a major role in the selection of party candidates for elections, from 1951 onwards.
hastri’s drawbacks were that he did not have any experience of defence, finance, and foreign affairs; he had never travelled outside the Indian neighbourhood. Nehru planned to remedy this lack of experience by grooming him for higher responsibilities; he had already rotated Shastri through railways, transport, communications, commerce, and industry.
The biggest concern about Shastri was his very frail health, he was a cardiac patient.
Nehru was also apprehensive about Shastri’s close friendship with Guruji Madhav Sadashivrao Golwalkar of the RSS Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
hebar had been a successful and popular chief minister of Saurashtra from 1948 to 1954. His tactful mediation among various factions of the Congress party, of which he had been the president for five successive terms from 1955 to 1959, had won him much praise. He was an expert on village industries, as well as on the sociology of scheduled castes and tribes.
hebar’s drawbacks were that he too had no experience of defence, foreign affairs, and finance.
But Dhebar was diffident about whether he had the capabilities for the top job. He conveyed to Nehru that he preferred to concentrate on party work, and on achieving concrete results for the welfare of scheduled tribes, and village industries.
Gulzarilal Nanda had been a professor of economics in Allahabad and Mumbai, specialising in labour issues, with numerous publications. In 1920 textile workers had sought his expertise, and this academic soon became one of the foremost trade union leaders in the nation, becoming head of the Indian National Trade Union Congress. His socialist views resonated with Jawaharlal Nehru, who appointed him as the head of his beloved Planning Commission, and as minister of irrigation and power. Nanda had a huge fan following in the International Labour Union in Geneva, and was much admired by Labour Party leaders in Britain, as well as by trade unions in Europe.
Nanda’s drawbacks were that he too had no experience of defence and foreign affairs. He was also a curious mix of leftist economics and ultra conservatism on social issues. Nehru was worried that this deeply religious orthodox Hindu was under the hypnotic grip of obscurantist sadhus, and was concerned that he would encourage Hindutva forces.
Like Dhebar, Nanda too was diffident about whether he had the capabilities required to lead the nation. He indicated to Nehru that he was content in the Planning Commission, where he was already achieving tangible results. He did not want to be distracted away from his lifelong commitment to trade union issues and to building public sector infrastructure.
Nehru was concerned that none of his short-listed candidates had the drive and ambition required for the top job. He had spoken of his “own will to power”. In his thirties in the 1920s, Nehru had determined that he was going to be the person who would lead India when Independence was achieved. He prepared himself by setting himself one difficult task after another.
In 1958 Shastri’s health declined, making Nehru put on hold his plans to give Shastri one of the big four portfolios.
In the same time period another anonymous article was published, in the July 1958 issue of Sachin Chaudhuri’s Economic and Political Weekly, titled After Nehru….?:
“A popular guessing game in New Delhi today is: After Nehru… What?” Diplomats raise this question at almost every cocktail party, foreign correspondents write long despatches on this theme, politicians, both of the Congress and the opposition, have already started jockeying for vantage-points against such a contingency, senior civil servants are hoping that they will retire before Nehru goes – only the man in the street still seems to be relatively unconcerned – not that there is no reason for him to worry but his own worries are too many for him to take on a new one. Vinoba Bhave’s forecast that India will never lack leaders good enough to replace Nehru has partly helped him in this Micawberish attitude.
There is almost general agreement that so long as Nehru is on the scene, the status quo will continue more or less undisturbed. After he leaves the scene, so long as some veteran Congress leaders of the stature of Pant, Dhebar, Desai or Menon are there to take up the reins of government, not much change may be expected although some leftist or rightist members may find themselves squeezed out, depending on which of these leaders succeeds Nehru. But that will only make the Congress less of a platform and more of a party. Even after these veterans leave the scene and younger men succeed them, the Congress Party will continue to be in power at the Centre for several years through sheer momentum, although it may lose its hold in several States. But during this period, seeds will be sown for a more fundamental change which is bound to come sooner or later either through a process of slow erosion culminating in a sudden landslide through the ballot box or through some violent upheaval.”
There was intense speculation that Nehru himself had written this anonymous article, on the lines of his 1937 article in Modern Review under the pseudonym of Chanakya.
Meanwhile Shastri’s health had improved, and Nehru was readying to step down after his seventieth birthday in November 1959 in favour of Shastri.
owever in October 1959 Shastri suffered a massive heart attack.
In the same time period of 1958-1959, GB Pant and UN Dhebar were masterminding Indira Gandhi’s rise in the Congress party.
On 2 February 1959 Dhebar announced suddenly that he was stepping down after five consecutive terms, and that Indira Gandhi was now the Congress president.
GB Pant ordered a surprised Indira: “It is not a question of your decision…We have decided…You need to do your duty…”
Indira Gandhi was still unsure about whether she would measure up to the job, but Pant reiterated, quoting a Persian couplet: “You are not a flower maiden; you are the spark starting a volcanic fire”.
During her tenure, serious differences developed between Indira Gandhi and her father over the dismissal of the Communist government in Kerala. Relations between them plunged to an all time low, with Nehru stating in public that the situation in Kerala was not so dire that it warranted the dismissal of the state government. Feroze Gandhi harshly attacked his wife in parliament, terming her a fascist dictator.
her year as Congress party president drew to a close, Indira Gandhi declined a second term. My surmise is that she finally realised that she was being exploited by Pant to push his right-wing conservative policies, and to curb Nehru’s socialist policies from within.
She sent an anguished note to Pant: “…now that my debt has been paid off, I want to be freed of my burden…”
She sent a copy to her father, with a covering note apologising for Kerala: “…Events determined my fate…I have been a burden…I want to be freed…”
After Indira Gandhi declined a second term, Dhebar quietly reached out to Jaya Prakash Narayan, who had left party politics in 1954 to devote himself to Sarvodaya, to become president of the Congress party. I do not know GB Pant knew about it, but it was probably done with the authorisation of Nehru.
But JP declined yet again, and Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy took over as the president of the Congress party, retaining the post till 1963.
However, even after stepping down as Congress party president, Indira Gandhi was re-elected to the Congress Working Committee, and given more responsibilities in the party’s Central Election Committee.
In 1960, GB Pant suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes, and was kept alive mainly due to the expert efforts of Dr Bidhan Chandra Roy, who too, was nearing the end of his life. However, Nehru retained Pant in the Home ministry right up till his demise in March 1961.
During Pant’s year long illness, Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram engaged in a bitter power struggle to be declared as the number two in the cabinet. In fact, Jagjivan Ram even went to the extent of asking Indira Gandhi and VK Krishna Menon for their support to be declared as Nehru’s successor.
Five powerful party bosses – Kumaraswami Kamaraj Nadar of Tamil Nadu, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy of Andhra Pradesh, Siddavanahalli Nijalingappa of Karnataka, Sadashiv Kanoji Patil of Maharashtra, and Atulya Ghosh of West Bengal – were dead set against Morarji Desai, fearing that his obnoxiously arrogant personality would repel voters.
My father wrote then: “…Morarji Desai is like a peace-time general who thinks he deserves the top job by well-defined rules of seniority and duty sincerely performed, rather than by any daring feats on the battlefield…” Nehru was well aware that the power struggle between Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram would destroy his government, especially since his own health was rapidly declining.
Nehru then began to explore the possibility that he be succeeded by a Soviet-style collegium consisting of an executive troika of UN Dhebar, Gulzarilal Nanda, and Lal Bahadur Shastri, under the overall guidance and counsel of Jaya Prakash Narayan.
But this scheme was a non-starter, even though Dhebar and Asoka Mehta asked JP on behalf of Nehru.
Indira Gandhi blamed JP’s repeated refusals for the steep decline in Nehru’s health, that he had to face the burdens of office all on his own.
In spite of his misgivings about Shastri’s precarious health, Nehru appointed him as the home minister when Pant passed away in March 1961. Shastri reassured Nehru: “Although I am not physically strong, I am internally not so weak that I cannot perform hard work”.
By then Nehru was veering around to the view that it could be counterproductive for him to groom a successor. According to my father, Nehru began citing the example of Winston Churchill grooming Anthony Eden. Eden turned out to be disaster as prime minister, even though he had been Churchill’s deputy prime minister, and a senior cabinet minister since he was thirty years old.
My father added that Nehru began to aver that if he formally announced a successor, then that person would attract jealous enemies, as had happened with Curzon, who had been spoken of as a prime minister since his school days.
During the 1962 debacle against China, several Congress party backbenchers demanded Nehru’s resignation. Shastri tactfully but firmly quashed the disent against Nehru, underscoring his firm grip over the party machinery.
Shastri diplomatically forced Nehru to dismiss VK Krishna Menon to save his own neck by recounting a folk tale of a demon who had to be appeased by being fed an increasing number of sacrificial humans each day, adding: “Panditji, if you do not make a smaller sacrifice in time, it will soon become necessary to make a much much bigger sacrifice”.
his confirmed Nehru’s long-held belief that in spite of his precarious health, Shastri ‘possessed a will of steel underneath a velvet exterior and honey tongue’.dent Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan too felt that Shastri was the best person to lead the nation. He reassured Nehru that he would guide Shastri in areas such as foreign affairs. While staying within the limits of constitutional propriety, the president made it clear that ‘in the event of an unfortunate situation’, he would swear in Shastri.
In 1963, the American political journalist Putnam Welles Hangen, who had served as the Delhi correspondent of NBC National Broadcasting Corporation since 1959, wrote a book “After Nehru, Who?”
Hangen’s list of likely successors were:
- Morarji Desai, Finance Minister, 2. Indira Gandhi 3. Lal Bahadur Shastri, Home Minister 4,YB Chavan, Defence Minister
- aya Prakash Narayan K Patil, Food and Agriculture Minister 7.General Brij Mohan Kaul, Chief of Army Staff 7. VK Krishna Menon
Hangen rated YB Chavan as the most capable of these.
Nehru was absolutely furious that Indira Gandhi had given an interview to Welles Hangen. He harshly upbraided her “for speaking to that American”. A distraught Indira Gandhi bleated to TT Krishnamachari, Sarvepalli Gopal, and my father: “There is no doubt at all that it is going to be Lal Bahadur Shastri”.
Nehru needed a tactful pretext to ease both Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram out of his cabinet simultaneously, to pave the way for Shastri. The Kamaraj Plan was the solution.
In August 1963 to October 1963, Kumaraswami Kamaraj Nadar came up with a scheme to rejuvenate the Congress party, which had lost a series of bye-elections to the socialists led by Acharya JB Kripalani.
Kripalani, who had been one of Nehru’s closest associates at the time of Independence, had moved a no-confidence motion against Nehru after the defeat to China.
Under this Kamaraj Plan, in October 1963, Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram, Lal Bahadur Shastri, SK Patil, Biju Patnaik, Chandra Bhanu Gupta, and Kamaraj himself were all made to resign as cabinet ministers and chief ministers, and sent to work for the Congress party. Kamaraj took over as party president.
My father HY Sharada Prasad had written then: “Nehru planned his succession very ingeniously through the Kamaraj plan. Morarji Desai always believed that the Kamaraj plan was Nehru’s plot to do him out of his due. It would have been ideal for the nation if there had been a candidate who combined in himself the best qualities of Morarji Desai and Lal Bahadur Shastri. But Shastri and Desai were wholly different in temperament and endowments. The whole country had a chance to see which of the two would prove more acceptable to the Congress rank and file, to whom they would turn for settling their disputes. They turned to the affable, humble Shastri rather than to the stern and rather imperiously aloof Morarji.”
On 6 January 1964, Nehru suffered a serious stroke while at the Congress party session at Bhubaneswar. On the advice of president Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, who himself had been hospitalised, home minister Gulzarilal Nanda immediately started to look after Nehru’s prime ministerial duties, and finance minister TT Krishnamachari began to attend to the ministry of external affairs.
On 22 January 1964, Kamaraj directed the ailing Nehru to take Shastri back into his cabinet as Minister Without Portfolio. None of the others who had been ousted under the Kamaraj Plan were rehabilitated. Shastri began functioning as acting prime minister. Nanda and Krishnamachari gracefully ceded their temporary powers to Shastri. This was a clear indication that Shastri was the favourite to succeed Nehru.
Realising that he had little time left, Nehru released Sheikh Abdullah from house arrest, and had long meetings with Shastri and JP. With an eye on his legacy, Nehru instructed JP to solve the Kashmir and Pakistan issues.
Shortly before Shastri was sworn in as prime minister on 9 June 1964, he declared that the best person to lead the nation was JP, and that he was willing to step aside in favour of JP.
Nehru’s misgivings about Shastri’s health turned out to be prescient. Within seventeen days of becoming prime minister, Shastri suffered from a serious heart attack on 26 June 1964. It would be only in December 1964 that Shastri recovered.
I have heard that Shastri reached out to JP while he was incapacitated, but I have not been able to confirm this. At that period in time Shastri expected that YB Chavan would succeed him if he were to pass away.
TT Krishnamachari told Sarvepalli Gopal and my father that the maximum that Nehru expected for his daughter was that Shastri would appoint her as high commissioner to UK or as minister of state for external affairs.
t is unlikely that Indira Gandhi would have become prime minister if Shastri had been in better health, or if Jaya Prakash Narayan had accepted Nehru’s repeated requests to be groomed as his successor.
It is unfortunate that a person who was universally admired and respected, and who possessed a rare combination of experience, expertise, education, intellect, and charisma, did not fulfil his duties to the nation.
But JP had written:
“इतिहास से पूछो कि वर्षों पूर्वबन नहीं सकता प्रधानमन्त्री क्या?
किन्तु मुझ क्रान्ति-शोधक के लिए कुछ अन्य ही पथ मान्य थे, उद्दिष्ट थे,पथ त्याग के, सेवा के, निर्माण के,पथ-संघर्ष के, सम्पूर्ण-क्रान्ति के.”
Indira Gandhi had a different take. She told my father that JP did not want to put himself into a situation where posterity would compare him to her father, and he would come off as second best to the person he addressed as Bhai.
By Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad
(Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad, an alumnus of Carnegie Mellon and Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, is a technology consultant and defence analyst.)