Lal Bahadur Shastri – The Last Nationalist PM from Congress

Lal Bahadur Shastri – The Last Nationalist PM from Congress - Shesha Kumar Pattangi

In India Today Magazine’s September 2017 issue, Shyam Benegal gives the account of 1964 when the then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri visited Anand in Gujarat. Shastri was keen to witness Amul’s success first hand. He requested Verghese Kurien to let him stay incognito in one of the villages for the night. Kurien got a fright. How could he let the prime minister stay overnight in a village without security or any support mechanism?

Shastri insisted and, without detail knowledge of his security, was taken close to a village and left there for the night. He walked into the village and introduced himself as a traveller who had lost his way. A family in the village invited Shastri to stay with them. He took the opportunity to talk to them about their lives and how they had been affected by the cooperative.

By the time Kurien came to pick him up the next morning, the prime minister was not only convinced about the Anand pattern of cooperatives but put his full might behind Kurien to set up the National Dairy Development Board in Anand to help replicate the movement across the country – The Story behind THE WHITE REVOLUTION.

In his book, Patriots and Partisans, RAMACHANDRA GUHA Writes :  “Had Shastri continued as prime minister until the end of the 1960s, the economic history of India would have turned out very differently. In the 1950s, under the direction of the state, India had nurtured a robust domestic industry. It was now time to allow for the free play of market forces.

In speeches made in 1965, Shastri clearly indicated that he would like to open up the market to enterprise and free competition. Sadly, he died soon afterwards. Instead of trusting to the energy of the private sector, Indira Gandhi strengthened the control of the state over the economy.

Had fate given Shastri longer innings as prime minister, the Indian economy could have been more robust and resilient, but he was also a pragmatic reformer. He would have freed the processes of production from state control and would have initiated welfare measures to ameliorate poverty. As a man of vision and integrity, he would have also sought to improve the performance of India’s public institutions.

Had Shastri lived for another five or ten years it is highly unlikely that Indira Gandhi would ever have become prime minister and it is certain that her son would have never occupied that office.  Had Shastri been given another five years on earth, there would have been no Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Had Shastri lived for another five years, Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi would almost certainly have been still alive. Sanjay Gandhi would have been a failed entrepreneur and Rajiv Gandhi, a recently retired airline pilot with a passion for photography.

Finally, had Shastri live for another five years, Sonia Gandhi would still be a devoted and loving housewife and Rahul Gandhi, a middle-level manager in a private sector company.”

Infact Guha in Oct 2016 argued quite convincingly that in spite of his many achievements, Shastri did not get his due either from the nation or from the Congress party, which he had served for his entire life. (What Guha writes in book is usually far more sensible than his tweets)

Lal Bahadur Shastri – The 5.4 Ft Liitle Man Who Braved The Giants. His-Story UNRAVELS……

To start with his family name was Verma and that Shastri was actually a title accorded to him when he passed the “Shastri” degree examination in the first division in 1925. Young Shastri was attracted to the Indian National Congress which was spearheading the nationalist movement. He came under the influence of two tall leaders who sometimes didn’t see eye to eye with each other, Purushottam Das Tandon and Jawaharlal Nehru. (Irony isn’t it, 1 was Khattar Hindu & the other Namesake Hindu)

Will Recollect 2 Incidents Here About LBS Which Makes You Think….. Is This Possible?

C P Srivastava recollects that as a young IAS officer in Lucknow he met Shastri who went out of his way to make him feel comfortable, something that most politicians in India would not do. A couple of years later, he was at the Lucknow railway station waiting to receive his family when on the adjoining platform Shastri alighted from the train. He was then the Union Minister for Railways and Transport.  Though he saw Shastri, the author didn’t want to disturb him when he was surrounded by his aides and other railway officials. Much to his astonishment, Shastri walked up to him and said, “How are you, Srivastava saheb? You did not recognise me? I am Lal Bahadur.”!!

The other charming story I have read about him has been recounted by journalist Kuldip Nayar in his autobiography, ‘Beyond the Lines’. Nayar was press secretary to Shastri when the latter was home minister. The two were travelling by car. The car halted at a railway crossing. It was a hot day, and Shastri spotted a man selling sugar-cane juice. He got out, walked over to the shop, bought two glasses of juice and paid the man, who had no idea that the little man he had just served was perhaps the second most important person in Indian politics.

In his first broadcast as Prime Minister on June 11, 1964,  LBS said:

“There comes a time in the life of every nation when it stands at the crossroads of history and must choose which way to go. But for us, there need not be difficulty or hesitation, no looking to right or left. Our way is straight and clear—the building up of a secular mixed-economy democracy at home with freedom and prosperity, and the maintenance of world peace and friendship with select nations.”

After Nehru, Morarji Desai was the senior most in the cabinet & naturally Morarji wanted to become PM, but Congress President Kamraj had other plans, Kamaraj and his allies sought to stop Desai’s bid and “support the man who was least likely to divide and most likely to unite the party.”

Kamraj knew that the world’s eyes were upon India and whether this nascent democracy could transition from Nehru and keep his vision alive. (As Modi’s ministers are singing his bhajan, those days too, it was the same). Thus we had our First Accidental Prime Minister  #LalBahadurShastri.

He inherited a Government that was slowly recovering from the defeat handed out to India by the Chinese in 1962, shattering Nehru’s long held dictum of ” Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” or ” India & China Are Always Friends”.  The economy was in a mess and there was a massive scarcity of food grain.

“A Man Who In 18 Months Made A Mark Not As A Puppet, But A Leader Worthy Of Respect And Admiration.”

“Unlike Nehru, Shastri did not harbour any ideological hostility towards the Jana Sangh and the RSS. He used to often invite Shri Guruji for consultation on national issues.” – L K Advani in his Autobiography.

At a time when our country was at war, our second Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri decided to cut across party lines and invited RSS Sarsanghchalak Guruji MS Golwalkar, to an All-Party Meet. The purpose of the invitation was to task the Delhi Police with more strategic activities and relieve them of their routine duties which were then taken over by RSS workers. (Dr. Harish Chandra Barthwal in his book, The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh: An Introduction). Barthwal even goes further to claim that upon Shastri’s request, RSS workers also provided food and other essential supplies to soldiers deployed on the war front.

The year was 1965 and the Indian subcontinent was going through a turbulent time due to an all-out war with Pakistan. The severity of the seventeen day Indo-Pak war of 1965 can be summed up by the statement that it was the largest engagement of armoured vehicles and the largest tank battle since World War II.  After Pakistani forces attempted to infiltrate the Indian part of Kashmir, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri retaliated by launching a military assault against the infiltration.

With President S Radhakrishnan and Prime Minister Shastri at the helm of the Indian Armed Forces, LBS in Loksabha made this speech before the war…                                                                              “In the utilization of our limited resources, we have always given primacy to plans and projects for economic development. It would, therefore, be obvious for anyone who is prepared to look at things objectively that India can have no possible interest in provoking border incidents or in building up an atmosphere of strife… In these circumstances, the duty of Government is quite clear, and this duty will be discharged fully and effectively… We would prefer to live in poverty for as long as necessary, but we shall not allow our freedom to be subverted,”

The infiltration bid was foiled and India emerged victorious with an upper hand at the time of the UN-initiated cease-fire on 23rd September 1965. While many stories of bravery and nationalism during that time of war have come to light over the years, this one that is also worth taking note of is perhaps the least known.

The public memory of LBS, Bharat’s PM after the death of Jawarhalal Nehru, is almost anecdotal. Shastri, whose 19-month prime ministership was hemmed between Nehru and Indira Gandhi, has, without doubt, not got the space he deserved in public memory.

From calming the violent anti-Hindi agitation that erupted across the southern states to taking the first steps in resolving India’s biggest food shortage by promoting the Green Revolution (and convincing people to voluntarily give up one meal so that the food saved could be distributed to the affected populace) and the White Revolution (Amul cooperative), LBS also oversaw India’s first major shift away from Nehru’s socialist economic policies based on central planning.

Verghese Kurien, the chairman and founder of Amul, was named the chairman of NDDB by the then Prime Minister of India,  Lal Bahadur Shastri. Operation Flood was based on the experimental pattern set up by Kurien.

Shastri was way ahead of his times as far as economic policy goes. His pragmatism would have helped put us on the path of high growth at least two decades earlier. The US ambassador to India during that time Chester Bowles said “Shastri was an extra ordinary man.’ He divided the Indian leaders into Adams and Jacksonians. The Adams were the ones educated in UK/USA. These people according to him were not thoroughly Indian. They had one foot in Asia and one foot in Europe. Bright and charming people.  Shastri was a Jacksonian, he had roots in India. He had never been out of India until after he became Prime Minister. There were many of these, and Chester Bowles concludes by saying that he had more faith in the Jacksonians for the future.

‘In the four decades in parliament ‘- Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, compared Prime Minister Nehru and Prime Minister Shastri. “Nehru with regal up bringing on the one hand and Shastri who fought his way through abject poverty”.

A barrister who had acquired western education and imbibed western culture at Cambridge University on the one hand and Lal bahadur Shastri who obtained his ‘Shastri’ degree at Kashi Vidya Peath on the other. I G Patel, who was working in the finance ministry at that time, has recounted in one of his essays how the decision to devalue the currency had been taken in principle and conveyed informally to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) when Shastri was the prime minister.

Indeed, Shastri had taken an equally bold step before intimating the IMF about his government’s decision to devalue the currency. His finance minister, T T Krishnamachari, was not comfortable with the idea of devaluation. As Medha M Kudaisya notes in her biography of G D Birla, the only man that stood in the way of India agreeing to removing government controls on imports and industrial activities and devaluing the currency was Krishnamachari.

For Shastri, the state of the Indian economy after the ravages of the war had left the country with no option other than agreeing to the IMF-World Bank prescriptions for economic liberalisation and currency devaluation. So, Shastri used a clever tactic to remove Krishnamachari as the finance minister.

 For Krishnamachari, this was the second time in his political career that he had to step down as the finance minister. Once under Nehru’s Prime Ministership, he had to resign after the Mundhra scandal broke out. Now, under Shastri, there were allegations of malfeasance against Krishnamachari’s son. Shastri refused to clear him of those charges until investigations were completed and he wanted his finance minister to step down till the inquiry to be conducted by a Supreme Court judge gave him a clean chit. Krishnamachari took it as an insult and offered his resignation, which Shastri promptly accepted and appointed Sachin Chowdhury as the new finance minister.

 Shastri did not live long after that. His successor, Indira Gandhi, retained Chowdhury as the Finance Minister and agreed to implement the decision on devaluing the currency taken by Shastri. It is, of course, a different matter that she did not fulfil the other part of the commitment to dismantle the control and permit raj.

 Shastri’s reformist credentials were also evident from his economic team. All his team members – S Bhoothalingham, Dharma Vira, I G Patel and L K Jha – believed in the urgent need to unshackle the economy and go in for reforms to realise the potential of the Indian economy by modernising agriculture and allowing the private sector to operate with relative freedom from controls.

Winds of change were also felt in some decisions of the government under Shastri. In August 1965, the prime minister announced in Parliament that government controls over economic activity would be reconsidered. Soon thereafter, regulations for sectors such as steel and cement were relaxed.

P.N. Dhar, a close adviser to Indira Gandhi wrote in Indira Gandhi, the ‘Emergency’ And Indian Democracy, that, “Lal Bahadur Shastri, the unassuming prime minister who had succeeded Nehru, seemed an unlikely person to face up to the (economic) situation, but in his own quiet way he did initiate a series of steps which would have not only brought the economy out of the existing crisis but possibly put it on a high-growth path in the long run”.

He wore no ideological blinkers; he saw facts as they were in all their starkness. Chronic food shortages made him shift investment from basic industries to agriculture. Roaring black markets persuaded him to make a relative shift from controls to incentives, and the glaring inefficiency of the public sector made him accept a larger role for the private sector and foreign investment.

He also took measures to shift the locus of economic decision-making from the Planning Commission to the ministries and from the Centre to the states. These measures reduced the influence of the Planning Commission—which had developed a rigid, almost doctrinaire outlook on economic policies—and at the same time decentralized decision-making.”

What’s more, Shastri even ordered a review of all major public sector projects which had not been taken off by then. As Kudaisya writes in ‘The Life’ and ‘Times of GD Birla’, Shastri even tried to decentralise governance by shifting decision-making on projects from the Planning Commission to different economic ministries. A national planning council was set up that reduced the scope and role of the Planning Commission.

Shastri was trying to generate fresh thinking on our development strategy at around the same time that many other Asian countries were fundamentally reorienting their development strategy, embracing export promotion rather than import substitution. For example, India and South Korea had around the same level of average incomes in 1964; then South Korea pulled ahead and there is now a yawning gap between the two countries. There is thus good reason to speculate whether things would have turned out differently had Shastri been blessed with a longer life.

What happened subsequently is well known. Indira Gandhi responded to the economic crisis with a sharp turn to the Left, choosing populism over economic reform.

“The victory in the 1965 war had made him very popular in his own right. During the brief period of his stewardship he had acquired his own popular political support that would, I believe, have given him added confidence to pursue an agenda of economic reform of the kind that was taken up only twenty-five years later, in 1991,” wrote Dhar.

Ex IAS C P Srivastava arguably his closest and most trusted aide, wrote “Lal Bahadur Shastri Prime Minister of India 1964-66: A Life of Truth in Politics”. It is Srivastava’s refusal to recognise that no mortal is perfect. He was, he records, “advised to disclose Mr Shastri’s deficiencies alongside his achievements. I am afraid I could not discover any”.

A great deal of immense importance in this book-most notably the hitherto unpublished details of Shastri’s Tashkent conversations with Ayub and the then Soviet prime minister Alexei Kosygin – has seen the light of day.

At Tashkent, Pak President Ayub was desperate about getting some commitment from Shastri to “settle” the Kashmir dispute. To Shastri, Kashmir was “not negotiable”. Ultimately, in a last ditch attempt, Ayub said: “Kashmir ke mamle mein kuchh aisa kar deejiye ke main apne mulk men munh dikhane ke qabil rahoon”.

Shastri’s reply was: “Sadar saheb, main bahut muafi chahta hoon ki main is mamle mein apki koi khidmat nahin kar sakta”.

Srivastava has not confined himself to Shastri’s years as a politician or freedom-fighter. There are fascinating details about Shastri the man, beginning with his childhood in a poor home and his privations as a struggling student.

The lack of adequate nutrition weakened his physique and perhaps led to his early death. Shastri’s wife belonged to a well-to-do family. His only advice to her after marriage, according to Srivastava, was: “For your future happiness and contentment, you should look at those who are even less favoured by fortune than ourselves.”

It is a pity that Shastri died prematurely without implementing most of his ideas on economic reforms, deregulation and decentralisation. But it is a national shame that nobody in India remembers Shastri for having dared to usher in those reforms at that time.

Nowhere in the annals of history of the world can one find a Prime Minister of a country and President of other country become pall bearers to the Prime Minister of a third country.

On 11 January 1966, Prime Minister Kosygin and Pakistan’s President Ayub Khan a war adversary of the day, who became a friend grieving pall bearer, carrying the coffin of Prime Minister Shastri on their shoulder to the gateway of the Soviet aircraft. Great tributes were paid to Shastriji. When he died his life sheet was spotlessly clean. He left no money, no house and no land. The only thing he left, apart from a shining reputation, was a small, outstanding loan from his bank.

He did leave an example which will continue to inspire, fortify and encourage all those of every community and creed who believe that the only foundation for national life must be dedication to truth and honesty. He never sought for himself any superlatives or fulsome praise. Kuldip Nayyar after death of Nehru said, they are appointing LBS to keep PM’s seat WARM for Indira, but LBS turned out to be a Great Statesman, Leader & proved him wrong, but also lost his life.

On the morning of January 11, his secretaries found a note on his table, in which he had penned down lines by Urdu poet Saqib Lakhnavi.

“Zamana bade shauk se sunn raha tha

Humee so gaye dastaan kehte kehte”.

Did Lal Bahadur Shastri have a premonition of his own death?

According to the Prime Minister’s family, when his body arrived in Delhi, it had turned blue and had cuts. A lot of events that had transpired in Tashkent before his death lay the ground for further speculation. Shastri’s place of stay had been changed just twenty-four hours prior to his arrival.

His Lodging was quite far from where the rest of his party was put up. The lodging was devoid of medical arrangements and there was no telephone in the Prime Minister’s bedroom. He had returned to his dacha at 10 pm post- attending Premier Kosygin’s farewell reception. His dinner had been prepared by Ambassador T.N Kaul’s cook Jan Mohammad and not Ram Nath, his personal servant.

At around 1.20 am, Shastri came out of his room coughing and asking for “doctor sahib,” Dr. R.N Chugh. His assistants helped him to bed. However, before, Dr. Chugh could act; the Prime Minister had breathed his last.

Despite evidence of possible foul play, no post mortem was conducted in Tashkent or Delhi. The media was given little information. The Prime Minister’s personal diary was never recovered.