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Some believe Shastri, a follower of Gandhi, was the right man at the right place (Photo: Getty)
Some believe Shastri, a follower of Gandhi, was the right man at the right place (Photo: Getty)

Opinion | Shastri: The Prime Minister  that India almost forgot

Sandwiched between the tumultuous tenures of Nehru and Indira, Shastri’s stint has not got the focus it deserved

Last week on 2 October, India celebrated the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. It was undoubtedly a very important milestone of a man who helmed India’s movement for freedom from British colonial rule. However, I am not sure how many of us remembered that the very same day was also the 115th birth anniversary of Lal Bahadur Shastri, the country’s second prime minister after India attained Independence in 1947.

Sandwiched between the tumultuous and sometimes overwhelming tenures of Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, Shastri’s stint—cut short tragically with his death on 11 January 1966, less than two years after he took charge—has not got the focus it deserved.

It is surprising that few scholars have chosen to scrutinize Shastri and his tenure as prime minister, which actually was very eventful for the political and economic history of India. For instance most wouldn’t know that the former prime minister’s given name was only Lal Bahadur. As the official website for former prime ministers discloses, “Shastri", the name we all know him by, was actually the bachelor’s degree awarded to Lal Bahadur by the Kashi Vidya Peeth in Varanasi—a national education institution set up in defiance of British rule.

Fascinating while this factoid maybe, Shastri’s tenure, from the scholars I spoke to, was actually one which would have, among other things, pivoted India away from the moorings of socialism, if it wasn’t for the fact that his tenure was short lived. It is also a fact that Shastri had to simultaneously deal with another attack by Pakistan to enforce its writ on Kashmir, stave off a food price spiral and contain the language wars that erupted over fears of the imposition of Hindi. The crises actually revealed the mettle of India’s second prime minister. The country got a taste of his uprightness when Shastri quit as railway minister in the aftermath of a train accident. To date it is considered the metric of probity in public office.

Backed into a corner, Shastri famously coined the emotive slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ (combining the idea of self-sufficiency in food and the importance of self-reliance in national security) to rally a nascent nation struggling to come to terms with the idea of Independence and the vacuum caused by Nehru’s demise. Some believe Shastri, a passionate follower of Gandhi, was the right man at the right place.

Praveen K. Chaudhry, a New York-based scholar who has co-authored three volumes based on declassified documents of the American government, showcases exactly such an assessment by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the powerful American foreign intelligence arm. In a detailed dispatch to Washington, soon after Shastri took charge, the CIA operative said: “Shastri, as the product of British India, British jails, Indian poverty and the Independence movement, embodies India’s mood and the mood of its ruling party in the immediate post-Nehru period. He seems to be doing a reasonably good job of giving the country the type of leadership it seems to want."

Shastri, with his unassuming demeanour and penchant for consensus, recast the prime minister’s office, which under Nehru’s leadership had acquired powerful moorings. It was precisely for the very same reason that the former prime minister was able to stake claim to the top job. In a faction ridden Congress party, Shastri was the most acceptable choice. A style that ensured course correction came with minimal disruption.

It begets the question as to whether the country’s political history would have been unlike what transpired if Shastri had continued as prime minister. This is a poignant “if" of history which can never be answered. But what can be done is a detailed academic scrutiny of the tenure of the country’s second prime minister. Not just to etch his legitimate position in Indian history, but also to gather insights into the fascinating economic history of the country.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.

Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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