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HomeOPINIONPrime Ministers of India from Nehru to Modi # 2

Prime Ministers of India from Nehru to Modi # 2

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Lal Bahadur Shastri the second Prime Minister of India
Lal Bahadur Shastri the second Prime Minister of India

The smooth power transition in mid-1964 after the death of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru speaks volumes of strong democratic traditions and political institutions. Lal Bahadur Shastri was chosen without even a murmur of disagreement. Shastri did not have fame or wealth. An ardent follower of Nehru, he was known as the most honest politician who had dedicated four decades of his life in service of Indian people.

Shastri was born in 1904 in the family of Sharada Prasad Srivatsava at Mugalsarai. The family had hard times. Young Lal Bahadur had to swim across the Ganga River to reach his school before the bell. His undertook his daily adventure with his school books tied over his head in order to save the boat fare. That speaks of the economics of the family. He became Shastri from Srivatsava because of the degree of Shastri (Scholar) he earned from Kashi Vidyapeeth.

The poverty of the family and dedicated efforts to continue education helped him acquire morality and service of the fellow masses. Mahatma Gandhi became his ideal idol to push him in the national movement for freedom. At the age of 17 he had already tasted the severity of prison life for his participation in the non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhi. Before enrolling in the Indian National Congress to be active participant in the freedom movement.

Before coming to Delhi, Shastri worked as a minister in the state government and won the appreciation of his coworkers. He was short in height and always preferred Indian traditional attire – this led many people to underestimate his courage and determination.

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A classic example of his honesty and political integrity was provided by the experience of his elder son Hari Krishna Shastri. Once he had taken the official car of his father to the nearby Khan Market. By chance Shastri came out of his room in response to an urgent summon but could not find his official car. His wife Lalita could not, or rather would not, tell him where the car was gone. In few minutes, Hari Krishna was back with a bag of vegetables. The old man caught him by ear and asked with whose permission he had taken official car for purchasing vegetables? The rigid rule for the entire house hold was never to use official car for private errands. Hari Krishna had no convincing answer and no escape from the punishment. Shastri pushed him in bed room, locked it from outside, put key in his pocket and left for his urgent mission. Shastri was back only five hours later and his elder son; Hari Krishna had to spend the agonizing five hours of his imprisonment as his mother dared not defy his father. Hari or for that matter his younger brothers, Sunil and Anil never defied the strict rules even after the death of their father in Tashkent in January 1966.

He had a habit of following the leader without questioning right or wrong of his policies or political approach. He never questioned or commented on the economic development model adopted by Nehru despite disappointments all around. But he sought to introduce economic reforms as soon as he took over as the Prime Minister. His intention was reflected in his appointment of the Economic Reforms Commission and his choice of liberal minded L N Jha to head the Commission. Without verbal expression to his dissatisfaction over the economic policies adopted in the Nehru era, he had given vent to his opinion to it by going in for the economic reforms. Jha was selected as the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister Shastri and yet he was chosen to act also as the chairman of the Economic Reforms Commission. Jha was not known to be ardent follower of the Nehru model even as he worked in various posts in the bureaucracy during the Nehru era. But his final report remained on the shelf as the successor government had different political compulsions. It is doubtful whether Indira Gandhi ever glanced through the Jha Commission report.

Shastri did not attempt to seek any changes in the Nehru frame work in international politics. He signed the defence agreement with the Soviet Union in 1964. He did not share his uneasiness or even his confidence on his reading of China. The long silence of China after its sudden intrusion into Himalayan borders on unsuspecting or not expecting India was cause of international bafflement over the real intention behind the China move. Was it a message to Nehru who tried his level best to drag China out of its self imposed isolation despite becoming a nuclear power? Or India was made a target to deliver a message to Russia  because China had sour relations with Russia and uneasy long borders? The sudden intrusion was as intriguing as the withdrawal even after witnessing the collapse of unprepared Indian side.

Shastri did not worry over Pakistan’s intents as it appeared to be involved in unending intrigues involved in military control of its political institutions. After the effective reply by the first Indian home minister, Sardar Patel to infiltrators in 1948 and display of might and efficiency of Indian forces, there was not attempt by Pakistan to create a problem on borders with India. In fact, Sardar Patel’s move of protection to hapless Kashmir people and preventing the infiltrators from entering into Srinagar induced Raja Hari Singh to realize that Kashmir would be safe only in Indian hands.

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Shastri was unknown political figure though he appeared to be unanimous choice as successor to Nehru. His short body structure and his habit of public appearances in Indian dress may have given a false impression to the new military ruler of Pakistan Mohammed Ayub Khan. He tried without success to irritate India in Rann of Kutch in April 1965. The success eluded him to force him to attempt again on to take Haji Pir Pass so India would be cut off from road links with Kashmir. But the Indian forces did not allow it to happen. Shastri came in full elements to answer with stone to every brick hurled. He gave a free hand to the Indian forces to reply. They used the permission for free hand to the fuller advantage and brought under their control vast Pakistan territory without allowing Pakistan soldiers to gain even an inch of Indian Territory.

However most memorable was battle of Khemkaran when the Indian force reduced 105 most modern American made battle tanks in to a junk yard. The tanks were so pounded that even American experts were later left wondering how Indians managed to turn the American tanks to a junk that can never be used again. The great achievement of the 1965 was the emergence of Capt Hameed as a war hero who sacrificed his life to save his colleagues. Even mention of his name invoked different kind of pride in the communal harmony and integrity that prevails in India.

A week after Pakistan conceded its defeat and withdrew from the battlefield, on September 29, five days before his 61st birthday Shastri addressed a mammoth crowd at the Azad Maidan in Mumbai and gave a call that every Indian should give up his evening meal on Monday so that hungry could have a meal without India being reduced to begging for grains from rich nations. The response to his call was momentous as most middle-class homes went without cooking food on Monday evening for decades. Even restaurants and other eating joints remained closed.  It was silently observed without song and dance drama around their resolve. No leader in the world has to this date acquired such a mammoth following of humans who preferred to skip a meal once a week for enabling poor human beings do get their meal every day so they do not go hungry. Motwane who organized sound amplification systems for all Congress meetings in the freedom struggle said, ‘at the end of the meeting we needed a truck to carry out the footwear that crowd left behind at the end of the meeting. He added in his fifty years he had not seen so many foot-wears left behind even though there was no incidence of jostling in the meeting that lasted for an hour.

The Pakistan leadership was encouraged by the fact that America was its friend and China was leaning towards Pakistan because it could not countenance growing relations between India and the Soviet Union. Hence it could successfully carry forward its venture to cut off Kashmir from the land access to India. The Pakistan leadership had miserably failed in reading the real strength and character of Lal Bahadur Shastri and determination of Indian forces to hit back with entire country standing by. The backup of Indian people was evident at every railway station in India with middle aged housewives running with tea cups to serve every uniformed soldier. It was unique mod of expressing solidarity with the fighting forces. Serving women did not belong to any particular community or religion. It was a mass that volunteered without prompting.

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From December last week in 1965, the Soviet leader Alexi Kosygin and Leonid Brezhnev had taken initiative for mediation to end conflict between India and Pakistan. The voluntary initiative was a suspicious politics as Pakistan was part and parcel of the other camp. Pakistan had at no stage displayed inclination to move towards the Soviet Union or move away from China. India had in other hand moved closer, especially after the Chinese betrayal of Nehru and his efforts to establish China as a recognised power. The Soviet leaders had chosen Tashkent for talks to provide comfort to the Pakistan team. The Soviet move for mediation remained intriguing.

From the details of the Tashkent Agreement, it was obvious that the Soviet leaders had put lot of pressure on the Indian team to concede the return of all Pakistan Territory captured and under control of the Indian forces. Pakistan did not have anything to concede except promise that it would never again undertake misadventure to arouse the Indian wrath. It is said that Mahavir Tyagi, minister in the Shastri cabinet and considered to be close follower of Shastri reacted sharply when Shastri phoned him to give details of the compromise. He said, “Sir, what have you done in agreeing to such terms? How will people accept giving away all territory won?”

Shastri had a heart attack soon after his phone conversation. There are several theories over the circumstances of his death. There are notable inconsistencies in relation to his treatment after his heart attack at the age when he was barely 61 year old. Suspicions would continue unabated because of several peculiarities but the undeniable fact is the leader who won war died in his seeking peace.

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Vijay Sanghvi
Vijay Sanghvi
Political Commentator and Analyst Vijay Sanghvi, 81 has created a niche for himself as a seasoned media person with proven credentials and political, economic and social analyst since 1962. Sanghvi worked for five years in Mumbai for Gujarati papers before shifting to Delhi and continued to work for various dailies in Gujarati, Marathi, Hindi and English as well as for international media. He has many newsbreaks to his credit as well as inside view of many epoch making events. He covered parliamentary proceedings from 1967 till 2007.


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