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PAST & PRESENT

The forgotten prime minister

RAMACHANDRA GUHA

Lal Bahadur Shastri was a man of considerable achievement and also, being a politician, of the odd failure as well. A look at the achievements in the centenary year of his birth.

THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Lal Bahadur Shastri (right) -- more than just a "legendary loyalist of Jawaharlal Nehru" (left).

DEBATES may rage on who was India's best Prime Minister, but there can be no question of who has been its most unjustly forgotten Prime Minister: Lal Bahadur Shastri. This remains so even in this, the centenary year of his birth. His memory was briefly exhumed on his hundredth birthday, October 2, 2004, when, at a desultory function in Delhi, he was described by a Union Minister as a "devoted disciple of Mahatma Gandhi and a legendary loyalist of Jawaharlal Nehru". And that, it appears, was the end of the commemoration for the year — and — perhaps for all time to come.

Commitment to nationalism

Shastri was both a disciple of Gandhi and an admirer of Nehru, but he was also his own man. Born in Mughalsarai, in a Kayasth family of modest means, he studied first with a maulvi and later at the Kashi Vidyapeeth. His commitment to the nationalist cause came early, and remained steadfast. He spent some nine years in Jail (in seven stints) while working his way up the Congress ladder. After Independence, he played a key role in organising his party's campaign in the first General Elections of 1952. He then served for several years as Union Railway Minister, before resigning after a serious train accident for which he felt he must own moral responsibility.

Underestimated

Because of his small size — he was barely five feet tall — and his self-effacing nature, Shastri was consistently underestimated by all those around him — whether journalists, officials, or fellow Ministers. But one who properly appreciated his qualities of head and heart was Jawarhalal Nehru. In 1961 Nehru brought Shastri back into the Cabinet. For the next three years he was (as one contemporary put it) "India's premier compromiser, conciliator and co-ordinator" — the "most popular man in the Congress party and the main channel of communication between Nehru and the party organisations". Among the crises he solved at the Prime Minister's behest were those caused by language riots in Assam and by the theft of a holy relic in Srinagar's Hazratbal mosque.

In and out of office, Lal Bahadur Shastri acquired a reputation for probity of character, unusual even in those generally honest times. When he was asked to demit office under the Kamaraj Plan in 1963, Shastri wrote to an associate of how, without a Minister's salary, his family had decided now to eat one less vegetable every meal and to wash their clothes themselves.

When Nehru died, Shastri was chosen by the Congress to succeed him. These were difficult years, with the country's morale affected by defeat in the war with China, continuing tensions in the borderlands, and serious scarcities of food. Shastri met these challenges with resolve and fortitude. He called for the planners to lay a greater focus on agriculture, and himself supervised the re-organisation of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. On the industrial front, he rejected the prevailing "export pessimism", arguing that India had both the capital and the expertise to begin exporting chemical and engineering products as well as traditional agricultural commodities such as tea and rubber. (As it since has).

A hero after 1965

Within a year of taking office Shastri had proved himself capable of filling Jawaharlal Nehru's somewhat outsize shoes — this even Nehru's sister and daughter were now willing to recognise. But one who persisted in underestimating the little man was Field Marshal Ayub Khan of Pakistan. In August 1965, Pakistani-backed infiltrators began fomenting trouble in the Kashmir Valley. When Indian army units chased them back over the border, Pakistan mounted a massive offensive in the Chamb sector of Jammu. The enemy tanks rolled menacingly on. Now Shastri pulled off a master-stroke, by asking the Indian Army to march into West Punjab. This at once relieved the pressure on the Jammu sector and took Indian troops tantalisingly close to the great city of Lahore. A cease-fire was called, to be followed by a peace agreement brokered by the Soviet Union, which mandated that both sides pull back to the positions they had held before August 5, 1965.

His conduct during the 1965 War made Shastri a hero — and justly so. His character comes through best in two speeches he made, one at the onset of the conflict, the other at its end. On August 13, after the evidence of mass infiltration into Kashmir had become manifest, the Prime Minister spoke to the nation on All India Radio. Now that the country's freedom and sovereignty were threatened, he said, Indians must set aside their partisan loyalties, those differences in policies and programmes that, in times of peace, were such "an essential part of our democratic set-up". And he issued this stern warning to the other side: "If Pakistan has any ideas of annexing any part of our territories by force, she should think afresh. I want to state categorically that force will be met with force and aggression against us will never be allowed to succeed".

The other speech was made at a public meeting at the Ram Lila grounds in Delhi on September 26, after hostilities had ceased. Here he took issue with a BBC report that claimed that "since India's Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri is a Hindu, he is ready for war with Pakistan". Shastri said that while he was indeed a Hindu, "Mir Mushtaq who is presiding over this meeting is a Muslim. Mr. Frank Anthony who has addressed you is a Christian. There are also Sikhs and Parsis here. The unique thing about our country is that we have Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsis and people of all other religions. We have temples and mosques, gurdwaras and churches. But we do not bring this all into politics ... This is the difference between India and Pakistan. Whereas Pakistan proclaims herself to be an Islamic State and uses religion as a political factor, we Indians have the freedom to follow whatever religion we may choose (and) worship in anyway we please. So far as politics is concerned, each of us is as much an Indian as the other." Like Jawaharlal Nehru before him, Shastri upheld the idea of India as a multi-religious country where politics and faith were kept in separate compartments. However great the provocation, at least while he was around India would never become a Hindu Pakistan.

A war leader

Lal Bahadur Shastri died on the night of January 10/11 1966, in the Uzbek city of Tashkent, hours after signing a peace agreement with Pakistan. He spent but 19 months in office, enough to show himself to advantage as a war leader. That, if at all, is how he is remembered today. But had he been lucky to enjoy a full term in office his legacy might have been more wide-ranging. For he had interesting and (to this writer) innovative ideas in the fields of economic and foreign policy, among much else. He was keen to get rid of the sloth and waste in government, and to induct talent from outside — one of his suggestions, unfortunately never implemented, was to have top scientists inducted as cabinet ministers.

Lal Bahadur Shastri was a man of some considerable achievement and also, being a politician, of the odd failure as well. This column has saluted the achievements; the next one will highlight Shastri's one serious failure as Prime Minister.

Ramachandra Guha is an author and historian based in Bangalore. E-mail him at ramguha@vsnl.com

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