Remembering the legacy of Lal Bahadur Shastri
Lal Bahadur Shastri, India's second Prime Minister shares his birthday with Mahatma Gandhi. He considered himself lucky to have been born on the same date as the Mahatma, though thirty five years later. It was exactly a year ago that my book on Lal Bahadur Shastri - Politics and Beyond (published by Rupa and Co) was released. This morning, as I was reading through the materials I had collected for writing this book, I realized that so little has been written about this gentle and genial Prime Minister who was Prime Minister of India for a mere nineteen months.
He was preceded by Jawaharlal Nehru who led the country for seventeen years after independence and was followed by Indira Gandhi who held office for sixteen years in two phases.
During the nineteen months that Shastri was Prime Minister, the nation faced one challenge after another and he bravely and patiently dealt with each of them. He emerged as the consensus leader within the Congress to succeed Nehru as he had no enemies either within the party or outside in the wider political spectrum. His main contender was Morarji Desai who had to grudgingly withdraw from the race when he saw the consensus building up in favour of Shastri. Many thought he was a compromise candidate. Yet when he assumed office, he quietly asserted his authority and more often than not had his way.
He suffered a heart attack within weeks of becoming Prime Minister but was back to work after a short break, maintaining a punishing pace. When counseled to take care of his health he reminded his advisers that he had taken on a responsibility and his health was a secondary factor.
Shastri was a leader who rose from the grassroots on the basis of his hard work, sincerity and honesty. His politics began at the local government level in Allahabad. A year before independence, he was appointed the Parliamentary Secretary to the Chief Minister of the United Provinces Govind Ballabh Pant. After the dawn of independence he became the Minister for Police and Transport in Pant's cabinet.
As the 1952 General Elections approached, Nehru wanted him at the Centre to be a key General Secretary of the Congress party to oversee the election preparation. He played a key role in the choice of the candidates of the Congress party for the election and in the crucial victory of the party. Soon after the Lok Sabha elections of 1952, he joined the Nehru Cabinet as Minister for Railways and Transport. Four years into office, Shastri resigned accepting moral responsibility when a tragic rail accident occurred at Ariyalur (in what is now called Tamil Nadu). This resignation set the gold standard in terms of probity and ethics.
While some referred to his resignation as a clever political ploy (The Times, London) as the 1957 General Elections were approaching and Nehru needed Shastri in the party organisation to prepare for this election. On his resignation he was given responsibilities of the chief organiser of the party campaign for the elections. With the return of the Congress to power in the 1957 elections, Shastri was back in the Nehru Cabinet as Minister for Transport and Communications. He was later shifted to Commerce and Industry then took over the Home Ministry on the death of Govind Ballabh Pant. The Home portfolio was often considered the number 2 position in the government.
As part of the Kamaraj plan, Shastri along with a few other senior ministers resigned from the government in September 1963, to work for the party organization. Within five months, in January 1064 he was back in the Cabinet as Minister Without Portfolio on account of Nehru's ill health. He was the only leader who resigned under the Kamaraj plan brought back to the Ministry.
On Nehru's death when he took over as Prime Minister he has served at all levels: local government leaders, Minister in the State Cabinet and Minister in the Union Cabinet besides being General Secretary of the Party.
As Prime Minister he is remembered for the way he handled the food crisis, ensured food self sufficiency over time and paved the way for the Green Revolution. The biggest test he faced was responding to the Pakistani adventurism in Kashmir in 1965. His is credited with the first surgical strike as he gave the go ahead to the Indian army to move into Pakistani territory to neutralize their capacities to strike at Indian targets. His famous slogan Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan symbolized his contribution to both Indian agriculture and the country's defence.
A review of Shastri's leadership style is indicative of his key strengths. There are five strands of his leadership with stand out and make him unique and worthy of emulation. He was a people's person in every sense of the term. The trust, tact and transparency with which he dealt with people were a key strength. Secondly, his politics was one of consultation, consensus and cooperation.
This consultation is evident in the way he signed the Tashkent agreement. The cabinet meetings he presided over as Prime Minister saw consensus decision making. Within the party he ensured the cooperation of diverse groups within the party. Shastri placed a premium on practicing equality both in his personal life and in his professional dealings. His sense of fairness was something patently visible. He was a leader who demonstrated both passion and compassion. This led to a situation where he had no enemies in politics. Finally, he was a true apostle of peace. This is vindicated in the justification he gave for signing the Tashkent agreement.
Shastri believed that he would be doing a great disservice to the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi if he did not create an opportunity for peace in the region. When he passed away on the night of signing the Tashkent agreement, he was denied that opportunity to take that dream forward. The image of the then Pakistani President General Ayub Khan being one of the pall bearers that carried Shastri's body to the waiting aircraft demonstrates the love and respect he was shown by the leader of a country which had been at war with India a few months earlier.
On October 2 we pay homage to two Apostles of Peace. Mahatma Gandhi for having led the freedom movement with non violence and Lal Bahadur Shastri who crafted a path of leadership in post Independent India that was rooted in consensus, cooperation and consultation.
(Dr Shastri is a student of Politics who is the author of Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Beyond1 published by Rupa and Co in October 2019)