“Parenthesis in history”

Lal Bahadur Shastri departed from the scene much before the country could truly benefit from his full potential. During his nineteen months as PM, one got many glimpses of his unique style of leadership. Much of these months were spent in settling down and dealing with one crisis after another. It was truly in the last few months, when the hostilities with Pakistan reached its peak and Shastri demonstrated the courage of conviction to launch an offensive against Pakistan to fight back its belligerency, that the nation finally sat up to acknowledge the power of his leadership. Yet, he left, just as the nation was becoming truly aware of his true capacities.

The Tashkent declaration could well have been a turning point. As Ayub Khan himself conceded, if Shastri had lived, the prospects for establishing lasting peace between the two countries would have been much brighter. Even as Shastri prepared for the Tashkent meetings, he saw a moment to bring peace and stability to the region. On the morning of the signing of the Tashkent Agreement, he did confide to his advisers that the accord he was due to sign would help India preserve her soul as a votary of peace and strengthen its commitment to the ideals of Gandhi.

His earnest appeal to the journalists from India who accompanied him to Tashkent, was to reflect on the positives of the accord, rather than exclusively focusing on the negatives. Any negotiation, he felt, involved a give and take and he was convinced, that the gains that India would achieve from this agreement far outweighed what was being conceded. Shastri was determined to return to India after the agreement and go around convincing people as well as political leaders that the agreement he had signed was in the best interests of India and for durable peace in the region. Fate, however, willed otherwise.

How does one assess the legacy of Shastri? Some would assert that his short tenure as PM left limited scope for him to leave a lasting impact. His ministerial colleague TT Krishnamachari remarked that Shastri could well be a “parenthesis in history.” More critically, given the focus of the Congress party on the leadership of the Nehru-Gandhi family, PMs from within the Congress, who hailed from outside this framework, have not received the spotlight they truly deserved.

Shastri’s prime ministership was sandwiched between that of a father and daughter – Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi – both of whom had reasonably long tenures as PMs. If Nehru was the PM for an uninterrupted term of seventeen years, Gandhi was in power, in two phases, for over fifteen years. In comparison, Shastri led the country for a mere nineteen months. History often remembers leaders not so much for their contributions during a short period of time but for the impact of their sustained and long-term presence. Added to this is the fact that the Congress party has, over time, focused rather exclusively, on the contribution of its leaders who hailed from the Nehru-Gandhi family. This has clearly resulted in Shastri not being accorded the stature and position he rightly and richly deserves.

A people’s person

Shastri would be remembered as a people’s person who dealt with all individuals with trust, tact and transparency. The trust quotient that Shastri evoked was extremely high. One would not come across examples of his letting down a colleague. His mentors reposed implicit faith in him as did his peers and followers.

This was on display at all those moments when he was given organisational responsibilities in the Congress party, be it at the district level in Allahabad, at the state level in UP, or finally at the national level. Trust was a crucial factor that helped him resolve ticklish problems and made him the most sought-after negotiator, who Nehru implicitly depended upon.

Shastri was also known for his tact in dealing with people and their problems. This explains why he had no enemies. He often disarmed his critics with the sincerity of his intentions. Shastri had that very positive approach even when disagreeing with someone’s perspective. He had this special skill of saying no in an acceptable and dignified way, which left the other party with little choice but to accept Shastri’s standpoint with grace and humility.

One wonders if Morarji would have so easily conceded the leadership race in 1964 if Shastri was not the one he was pitted against. Much earlier, both in 1952 and in 1957, when he played a key role in choosing the candidates for the Congress party to contest the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, it was this tact that saw him resolve messy squabbles and intense factional feuds.

This trust and tact were accompanied by yet another virtue – his transparent approach. There was no mask that Shastri wore. He said what he felt and did what he said. Yet, he said it with such simplicity and humility that it was rarely perceived as offensive or causing any hurt. This transparency of approach was towards all those he had a chance to meet and interact with, be it his family members and relations, his officers and advisers, fellow politicians, associates and party workers or the common citizen.

This openness that Shastri demonstrated won the admiration and respect of Premier Kosygin during the Tashkent negotiations. The same transparency was evident when he managed to work out a solution to settle the dispute relating to the authenticity of the relic preserved at the Hazratbal shrine. This transparent approach was also what convinced C Subramaniam to accept the food and agriculture portfolio when Shastri constituted his Cabinet.

Cooperation, consensus and consultation

Shastri’s second legacy was a leadership style that was rooted in cooperation, consensus and consultation. In any position he held, Shastri sought the cooperation of all those involved in the organisational or decision-making process. Bureaucrats who worked with him were all praise for his approach to arriving at a decision that involved respecting the views of people and encouraging them to fearlessly make their point.

Shastri had the skill to listen to diverse viewpoints, weigh the possible options and then arrive at a decision. In all the challenges he was asked to resolve by PM Nehru, the first step Shastri initiated was enlisting the cooperation of all those who were part of the dispute. He made every segment feel comfortable, respected and gave them a patient hearing. This by itself resolved much of the crisis.

As PM, he sought the cooperation and support of the Opposition leaders and briefed them about major policy initiatives. Within the party, he consulted senior leaders and took the CWC into confidence. While some saw this approach of extensive consultation as a sign of weakness and inability to take swift decisions, Shastri himself was quite firm in endorsing the strengths of this approach. He was of the firm view that if the process of consultation to negotiate a consensus solution was time-consuming, it also led to a decision that was much more broad-based in terms of support.

He went on to add that there were several occasions when, if the circumstances so warranted, a swift decision was often made without compromising on the consultative mechanisms in place. One noticed this at the time of both dealing with the food crisis as also during the Pakistani intrusion into India. Though his own party members had charged Shastri with being a “prisoner of indecision”, they were later quick to appreciate the speed and firmness with which he responded to Pakistan and its adventurism on the borders.

Through his skills of negotiation, Shastri was able to create a win-win situation, with each party happy to acknowledge the tangible takeaways from the negotiating table. While resolving the language crisis in Assam or the anti-Hindi agitation on the question of the official language of the Union or even while restoring the balance and harmony in India–Nepal relations, he was able to arrive at a negotiated settlement that left each segment feeling that they emerged from the crisis with an element of respectability, fair play and justice. His patience and energy played a key role in ensuring that all parties to a conflict felt that they were being treated with honour and dignity and given a patient hearing.

Leadership style is invariably linked to the personality of the said leader. A gross injustice that we do to leaders is comparing them to their predecessors and judging and evaluating them in the context of the past. Shastri had neither the flamboyance nor the charisma of Nehru. He was assertive in an understated way and got his way with people with persuasion and reasoning.

Thus, for Shastri, the context defined the content of his style. Initially, when the memories of Nehru were still fresh, there were inevitable comparisons that people made between Shastri and Nehru. However, gradually, people saw Shastri not from the prism of Nehru, but from the unique space that Shastri independently created. Especially towards the end of his term, Shastri had clearly emerged as a leader with his own distinct style and approach to decision-making.

Ensuring equality

A third legacy for which Shastri will always be remembered was his unwavering commitment to ensuring equality, fighting against all forms of injustice and waging a war against corruption. This commitment was seen not merely in what he said but in his actions too. Shastri was known to treat all those who came to meet him with courtesy and respect. Everyone was given a patient hearing and no one left without being able to voice their concerns.

As a minister in the government, Shastri did not seek any special privileges and insisted on not taking any step that would inconvenience the common people. He would often side-step protocol and move among people like an ordinary citizen. His aides recall that once as Union HM, his vehicle was held up at a railway crossing. He got down and asked his aides to accompany him to a sugar cane juice vendor on the roadside. After everyone had enjoyed the juice, he insisted on paying for it and then returned to the car to continue his journey.

His simplicity and humility led to the sugar cane vendor not realising that he had served the Union HM, who had even paid up for the juice consumed by his team. This is, of course, unimaginable in present times.

Having grown up in poverty and hardship, Shastri understood the challenges that the common people faced. During his days in the SPS, he worked with the socially and economically marginalised and understood the hierarchical nature of Indian society. He was committed to addressing this socio-economic injustice and used every opportunity while in power to address the same. He sought to sensitise the police to people’s problems as the HM of UP.

Law and order for him was not merely about enforcing the authority of the government but of understanding the challenges of the people. As railway minister at the centre, he focused attention on improving the conditions and facilities for passengers travelling in the third class. He ultimately convinced his department to create only two classes in the railways.

As industry and commerce minister, he focused attention on the agro and rural industries. As the PM, he drew the attention of the Planning Commission to agriculture. He felt that the food crisis was on account of the consistent neglect of this sector in the years after Independence. Shastri raised objections when friends and associates indulged in caste discrimination. On several occasions he refused to partake of meals at functions if those belonging to the Dalit community were discriminated against.

His sense of gender justice was evident in his decision soon after Independence, as the transport minister of UP, to introduce female bus conductors in government buses. His many speeches as PM made frequent references to the fight against social injustices and the need to end caste-based discrimination.

Whenever the occasion required, Shastri also took a principled stand against corruption. As HM of the Union, he brought to PM Nehru’s attention the report of the investigation against Union Minister KD Malaviya, who was found guilty of corruption. Nehru immediately thought it fit to seek the resignation of Malaviya, which, to a certain extent, soured the relationship between Malaviya and Shastri.

He was instrumental in the appointment of the Santhanam Committee to suggest ways and means of dealing with corruption. The committee submitted its report when Shastri was PM and he got the key recommendations implemented. During his prime ministership, several senior ministers at the Union and state level resigned on accounts of allegations of corruption.

Punjab CM PS Kairon was required to quit when a Supreme Court judge held him guilty of corruption. Orissa CMs Biren Mitra and Biju Patnaik faced prosecution on account of their being held guilty of the same charges by another Supreme Court judge. Finance Minister Krishnamachari thought it fit to resign when Shastri favoured an investigation by the Chief Justice of India on a chargesheet that had been filed against the finance minister. It was clear that Shastri would take a firm stand against corruption, especially when it involved those holding high offices. This was clearly non-negotiable for him.

Excerpted with permission from Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Beyond, Sandeep Shastri, Rupa Publications.