At a time when we are led by a prime minister who believes above all in self-publicity, our thoughts go out to a diminutive and self-effacing man who once occupied the same office – Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Shastri served as prime minister for just 18 months, and in that brief tenure, left a memorable imprint on the country as a politician, administrator and war leader. Many in the present generation don’t know he authored the slogan, “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan,” which captured the idea that peasants (and their welfare) are as integral to the security of the country as soldiers.
He was a seasoned freedom fighter who spent a total of nine years in jail. After independence, he held various ministerial and party positions. Apart from being general secretary of the Congress, he held the railways, transport and commerce portfolios. In 1961, following the death of Govind Ballabh Pant, he became Union home minister.
In a world full of hollow men, Shastri was the genuine article. He displayed his moral calibre when he resigned from office in the wake of the 1956 Ariyalur train accident, in which 142 people were killed. That act still reverberates in the country. Hard-working but with a weak disposition, he suffered heart attacks in 1958 and again in June 1964, shortly after taking office as prime minister.
In 1963, Nehru and Congress president K. Kamaraj decided that six prominent ministers would resign and devote themselves to organisational work. The goal was to bring in fresh blood into the Cabinet, as well as send a signal to the electorate. This was at a time when the Congress’s political supremacy was unchallenged.
Among those who left government were Shastri. He actually insisted that he be in the list, though Nehru did not want him there. But fate took an far more dramatic turn.
After Nehru, who?
On January 7, 1964, Nehru suffered a stroke. Compelled to set out a succession plan, he brought Shastri back into the cabinet as a minister without portfolio.
Panditji’s death four months later, on May 27, was no surprise, though for a country over which he had ruled as a virtually undisputed ruler, it was a major blow.
Four days later, Morarji Desai was persuaded to withdraw his hat from the ring, and Shastri was chosen as prime minister by the Congress Working Committee. Congress power-brokers had hoped that the soft-spoken Shastri would be their puppet. He turned out to be a decisive man of firm views.
These qualities had actually been evident in the period he was minister without portfolio. On December 27, 1963, he was asked to handle the crisis that followed the theft of the holy relic from Hazratbal in Srinagar. It reappeared after a week, but the theft triggered a popular uprising by an action committee of people who were the forerunners of today’s separatists.
They demanded a special deedar, or viewing ceremony, by experts to certify the authenticity of the relic. The spooks and the babus in New Delhi resisted, but Shastri overruled the Union home secretary and ordered the deedar. The action committee duly certified that it was indeed the genuine article. Tempers cooled across Kashmir.
The slightly built leader had to fill the political shoes of the great banyan, Nehru. He did so with a quiet panache. He battled pressure from the powerful men who had pushed him into office, accommodated Nehru’s daughter, Indira, in his cabinet, and made key appointments such as that of C. Subramaniam as the food and agricultural minister. To assist him, he created the Prime Minister’s Secretariat, headed by a secretary-level officer.
Swords and ploughshares
Among the long-term legacies of the Shastri era was India’s attainment of self-sufficiency in food. When he took office, agriculture was in crisis. India was, infamously, ‘living from ship to mouth’. Between 1960 and 1963, India had imported a staggering 15 million tonnes of US grains – and the amount of the imports were rising each year.
Subramaniam, with the support of Shastri, took policy decisions that eventually led to the Green Revolution.
Today, Shastri is known for something he may not have been trained for – as a war leader. The Indian military was still licking its wounds from the 1962 fiasco when Pakistan, hoping to rattle a new prime minister, initiated a series of provocations, ostensibly aimed at “liberating” Kashmir.
Pakistan had received US military aid for a decade, and its forces had achieved a conventional edge over the Indian military, especially in the areas of armour, artillery and the air force. Pakistan also believed in its own myth – that the manly Pathan, Field Marshal Ayub Khan, would make short work of the small, dhoti-clad vegetarian Shastri.
Hostilities began in 1965 with a feint in the Rann of Kutch, where Pakistan took advantage of the fact that the border had been delineated, though not demarcated in the swampy region. There was some skirmishing, but Shastri was not rattled. He emphasised his desire to resolve issues peacefully – acutely aware that the conflict would be used by Hindu chauvinists to stir up communal passions within India.
India’s real surgical strike
Then began phase 2 of the Pakistani plan: Operation Gibraltar, or the invasion of Jammu and Kashmir by covert forces, with the view of sparking a domestic uprising like the one that had followed the Hazratbal theft. That did not happen, and ordinary Kashmiris helped the Indian Army round up the infiltrators.
The devastating Indian response came in the capture of the Haji Pir Pass, a key point of ingress, on August 30, 1965. This, if anything, was India’s real ‘surgical strike’.
Pakistan upped the ante. Under Operation Grand Slam, it sent two armoured regiments in to cut the road from east Punjab to J&K. Indian forces fell back in the face of the assault and the situation looked grim.
In an emergency committee of the cabinet, Shastri took two key decisions. First, he ordered the air force to assist the Army. Then he gave the go-ahead for the Indian riposte – an attack across the international border towards Lahore, which caught Pakistan flat-footed.
The war carried on till September 23. Despite command failures and setbacks, India came out ahead because Pakistan failed to make any gains in Kashmir, and suffered a decisive defeat in Khem Karan in Punjab.
Shastri’s cool-headed leadership was vital in those days. The US was staying away from the region, the British were discredited, and the Chinese had jumped into the fray on behalf of Pakistan. Shastri’s style was of wide consultation with the military brass as well as party colleagues, parliament and the cabinet.
Resting in peace
In the post-war Tashkent talks, brokered by the Soviet Union, he walked the talk of peace and did not rub Pakistan’s nose in its defeat. He was willing to return captured territory in Haji Pir and on the Lahore front – real estate that was more valuable than what Pakistan had in Chamb and Rajasthan.
Shortly after the signing of the Tashkent Agreement, his heart gave out. Shastri passed away in Tashkent in the early hours of January 11, 1966.
India’s second prime minister deserves to be not just remembered, which India does from time to time, but emulated – which no one aspires to do. He was ethical, wise and far-sighted; and a large-hearted and pragmatic team player. The adjectives could go on, and still be all true.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi