Lal Bahadur Shastri’s political life has lessons, but it is his sudden passing that vitiates his public recall and his history
Sharing his birthday with Gandhi and coming from the province of Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri was the self-effacing layman who became India’s second Prime Minister (1964-66). His climb atop the greasy pole of politics was preceded by nearly 40 years of participation in the freedom movements of the Indian National Congress and independent governments. However, his seemingly unlikely ascent to that office and his untimely demise led him to be overshadowed by his long-serving predecessor and successor.
Consequently, in the political game current of historical appropriation from colonial and post-colonial India, both his life and death have found an echo in print and on screen. Thus, first eclipsed and now enlarged, Shastri’s prime ministership and its major preoccupations of the language movement, the lack of food, war and peace and economic crises are easy to either forget or fabricate.
Setting the bar
Before that, as the Minister who resigned twice, assuming moral responsibility for railway accidents in 1956 (Mahbubnagar, Andhra Pradesh and Ariyalur, Tamil Nadu) and setting an early standard, Shastri was one of six who left their cabinet posts in 1963 to work in the party organisation under the Kamaraj Plan. He was the only one though who was recalled by an ailing Prime Minister in January 1964 in a roving capacity, and, within six months, was unanimously elevated as Nehru’s successor, upon his death. In between, in a poll conducted by the Indian Institute of Public Opinion, he had received almost half the votes to fill the role. These instances make him more and not less likely an answer to that question After Nehru, Who? His matter-of-fact conduct in office was in the face of not just testing circumstances but also the individual challenge of stepping out of the shadow of his predecessor.
Quiet change on many fronts
Revisiting Shastri’s premiership repays an attempt to put things in perspective, as arguably his tenure was one of quiet change on most fronts. It began amid a renewed bout of food scarcity and resultant price rise which can be taken back, albeit in a broken line, to the days of the Second World War and placed in a wider frame of similar problems across the decolonised world. More prosaically, it caused a forex crisis from food procurement and a provincial friction between surplus and deficit zones, and saw piecemeal rationing as well as the construction of the Food Corporation of India on the way to an eventual ‘Green Revolution’. Such systemic challenges and the structural response to them require organisational consensus and federal cooperation as much as prime ministerial control. This was more so in the mid-1960s when the monolithising days of the Congress’ clientele ‘system’ were on their last legs, afflicted by a generational churn among its regional satraps.
Shastri’s selection as Prime Minister was itself an affirmation of the party’s organisation and self-correcting mechanism, notwithstanding its moral ambiguities and patronage politics. In his own unflashy ways, Shastri would put his imprimatur to weigh down on the corruption-induced departures of stalwarts such as Punjab’s Chief Minister Partap Singh Kairon, Orissa’s Chief Minister Biren Mitra and Union Finance Minister T.T. Krishnamachari.
Equally, he also had a mentoring side to him, exhibited in his encouragement of the party’s Bureau of Parliamentary Research, as a former beneficiary. A third domain was the party’s factionalism and its contrasting framing of him as either a leader of too much discussion and indecision, or of too little consultation and consensus. Indeed, clichés abound, when it comes to Shastri’s past and present: small man, stopgap, original accidental premier, cardboard nationalist.
As a report card of Shastri’s first year of premiership highlighted, the language violence in Tamil Nadu, youth challenges in Orissa, returning President’s rule in Kerala, persisting feuds in Uttar Pradesh, enduring demand for a Punjabi suba and continuing farce in Kashmir, were some of the question marks at the cross-section of nation, region and institution for the Prime Minister. In the international arena too, Shastri had to navigate between a subdued Non-Aligned Movement, the now-nuclear challenge of China, a change in the Soviet leadership, a new leader in Pakistan, President Ayub Khan and an Anglo-American-Commonwealth combine distracted with varied issues such as Vietnam and Southern Rhodesia. Fittingly, for a person whose first foray in foreign affairs had been to Nepal, the first fruit of Shastri’s diplomacy was the agreement with then-Ceylon on persons of Indian origin there — an endorsement of the importance of neighbourhood.
If this attention to the neighbour nearby than an ally far was a virtue initially, it became a necessity in the year of war(s), i.e., 1965. First, in spring-summer was the Rann of Kutch dispute with Pakistan, where a combination of its remoteness, reciprocal military situation on the ground, a relatively straightforward question of overdue boundary determination, and successful British mediation meant that Shastri was content with a reasonable reference to an international tribunal, which eventually gave India the lion’s share of the demarcated territory. However, it was in August, 18 years from their Independence and Partition, that India and Pakistan came to their first, declared war over that unfinished business from 1947: Jammu and Kashmir. As it followed, familiar tropes of infiltration and mopping up, crossover and confrontation, critical calculations of cooperation from the one side and suspicions of collaboration from the other, failed to materialise.
Instead, clashes around the then-Ceasefire Line broadened to battles across the international border in Punjab in the first week of September 1965, for which Shastri was then and now hailed for his resolve. Prepared for a prolonged war, he resisted indiscriminate international intercession, restrained internal war fever especially its potential to deteriorate in communal outbreaks, remained firm through the retreats in one sector and the advances in another in the war’s widening arc, and rallied the country with his call of ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ to become his epitaph.
In the end, he accepted the Soviet offer for mediation and set about the road to Tashkent, where an agreement was signed with his Pakistani counterpart, President Muhammad Ayub Khan in January 1966, more or less restoring the status quo. It was there that he died, within hours of their declared denouement to war. The image of a sombre Ayub carrying the coffin of Shastri was a big symbolic testimony to his short but substantial stature.
Among the highlights of Shastri’s heritage is the shift from personalised to institutionalised government; the laying of stress from industry to agriculture, and a move from command to economy, all overtaken by the march of time. His quiet ascent to prime ministership and his loud actions as Prime Minister fell through the cracks between the Nehruvian era and Indira’s India. His motivated resurrection, in an outsized opposition to these narratives, by those whose grandiose rhetoric sits oddly with his dignified reality, is his current fate. His political life has lessons but, unfortunately, it is his sudden death that has caused conspiracies and vitiates his public recall, doing little justice to his history.
Like most in his time, he rose humbly from the provinces in national politics, and carried his convictions from his faith in people, their constitution and representation. Crucially, he remained modest in both his personal probity and policy making and was not invested solely in his occupancy of his office.