Bird that soared
THE WEEK|January 23, 2022
Lal Bahadur Shastri might have irreversibly established secularism
ASHIS RAY

In sharp contrast to his political guru Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri was very much of an indigenous upbringing. Shastris are normally Brahmins. But Lal Bahadur was a Kayastha who earned the title Shastri—a person with a higher learning—after securing first-class marks in his graduation at the temple city of Varanasi. This became his surname. Influenced by Gandhi and Nehru in his formative years, he came to assimilate Gandhian secularism and Nehruvian socialism.

After the country’s freedom, he was appointed minister of railways. He famously resigned in 1956, taking moral responsibility for a train accident. Frequent previous such incidents had been worrying both the government and the public. In August of that year 112 people were killed in an accident. Shastri put in his papers; Nehru, though, coaxed him to continue. Then in November, another accident killed 144 passengers. On this occasion, there was no withdrawing his notice.

Announcing Shastri’s departure from the government in Parliament, Nehru stated: “I should like to say that it has been not only in the Government, but in the Congress, my good fortune and privilege to have him as a comrade and colleague, and no man can wish for a better comrade and better colleague in any undertaking—a man of the highest integrity, loyalty, devoted to ideals, a man of conscience and a man of hard work.”

He returned to government after the 1957 general election and was eventually assigned the powerful portfolio of home affairs.

In the early 1960s, food production in India fell below demand, thereby necessitating imports to feed a ballooning population. Subsequently, in September 1962, India experienced humiliation, with China invading the country before retreating to its soil under western, particularly American, pressure. US and British air force planes descended on India’s forward areas as a show of solidarity with India. The debacle was not merely testimony to the unpreparedness of India’s armed forces, but a failure of Nehru’s foreign policy.

In 1958, Nehru had expressed a desire to quit office. He told a meeting of the Congress parliamentary party: “I feel now that I must have a period when I can free myself from this daily burden and think of myself as an individual citizen of India and not as prime minister.”

He had earlier complained to the press: “I have said that I feel stale. My body is healthy, as it normally is. But I do feel rather flat and stale and I do not think it is right for a person to feel that way and I have to deal with vital and very important problems.” After the China debacle, his health perceptibly declined.

In January 1964, he suffered a stroke at Bhubaneswar, where he had gone to attend a session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC). With such a colossus laid low by illness, a question first asked the previous year in a book by Welles Hangen titled After Nehru, Who? resurfaced. Britain’s Guardian newspaper noted on January 23: “It looks as if Lal Bahadur Shastri is being ‘evolved’ as the next Indian Prime Minister.”

Meanwhile, the Congress’s popularity had begun to wane. In 1963, Kumarasami Kamaraj Nadar, then chief minister of Madras (Tamil Nadu), had proposed to the Congress working committee that some state chief ministers and Union cabinet ministers should quit their positions to devote time to party work.

Accepting this idea, christened the “Kamaraj Plan”, several ministers in the Nehru administration resigned, including Shastri. But, by the conclusion of the Bhubaneswar conclave, Shastri had clearly surfaced as the most likely successor to Nehru, enjoying the confidence of both the prime minister and the new party president Kamaraj.

Shastri returned to the cabinet as minister without portfolio. In a conversation between him and Nehru in Hindi, he asked: “What work will I be doing?” The prime minister replied: “You will have to do all my work.” This became de jure when Nehru died on May 27, 1964.

Shastri’s senior aide Chandrika Prasad Srivastava, later an illustrious secretary-general of the International Maritime Organisation in London, revealed in his biography of Shastri that the latter met Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, on May 30 and suggested that she should succeed her father. Shastri confided in Srivastava that he had conveyed to her in Hindi: “You should now assume responsibility for the country.” According to Srivastava, Indira refused the offer, “saying she was then in such grief and pain that she just could not think of contesting the [party] election [for the post of prime minister]”.

The next day, the Congress working committee resolved that unanimity was the way forward through the efforts of Kamaraj. On June 2, at a meeting of the Congress parliamentary party, Gulzarilal Nanda, the interim prime minister, proposed 59-year-old Shastri’s name as leader. This was seconded by Morarji Desai, a right-wing politician, who had himself been a strong contender.

Shastri was all of five feet in height and was unflatteringly portrayed in foreign media as a “little sparrow”. The Pakistani military dictator across the border, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, misread his humility and simplicity for weakness. There was concealed within a steely resilience.

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