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Lal Bahadur Shastri

After Mahatma Gandhi’s death in 1948, India faced its next big hit in 1964 with the death of its towering Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. His death did not spark the question ‘Who will be the next Prime Minister?’ but ‘Who can continue Nehru’s legacy?’. This is where Lal Bahadur Shastri, an epitome of selflessness and simplicity, comes into the grand political picture of India. Now, nearly fifty-three years after his death, the political scene has dramatically shifted. While no words can be enough for a tribute to Shastri Ji, this article is an attempt to celebrate his life (and the way he lived it).

Here is an instance. Shastri showed courage in seventh grade when he dropped his surname ‘Shrivastava’ because he did not want to be identified through his “high status” caste. This and seven other stories will prove that no politician today can hold a candle to Shastri’s morals and political journey, despite us almost forgetting his importance in independent India.

  1. Emerging Responsibilities from Tragedies

Following the death of 142 people and injury of 110 in the 1956 Ariyalur train accident in Tamil Nadu, the headline of the newspaper stated: “Minister of Railways resigns”. Accepting moral and constitutional responsibility, it was Shastri who had stepped down from his post. His resignation was accepted by Nehru to lay the foundation for ‘democratic accountability’. His was an allegiance to the sanctity of the post and not power, unlike the politicians now.

Today, a public statement follows, where the highly sympathetic Railway Minister promises to look into the matter and then, continues with his routine. Nitish Kumar came closest when he stepped down from his post after the death of 240 passengers in the Gaisal train accident. But he returned again as the Railways Minister where ironically, his track record was worse than before. Difficult to find someone who can fill his shoes, isn’t it?

2. Defining Assets

Today, the news is on what fancy suits the Prime Minister is wearing. The members of Parliament do not leave their houses without the “lal batti” car and a following of bodyguards. Narendra Modi is seen waving from private helipads, and the world watches.

This poses as a sharp contrast to Shastri’s mode of transport which was a Fiat which he purchased himself through a car loan. Even after his tragic demise, it was not the government who paid the balance but his widow, Lalita, who repaid the loan from his pension. Shastri had been from a poor family and contrary to the fact that money and politics go hand-in-hand, he never exploited his position in the country for money (not even for something as inconsequential as his clothes).

3. Request or Behest

We know of Teen Murti Bhawan today as the seat of Nehru museum, but that was not always the case. It used to be the official residence for the Prime Minister till 1964. When Shastri moved there, he received a strongly worded letter from Indira Gandhi asking him to move out and convert the house into a memorial for Nehru. Why? Indira said that Shastri would not have as many visitors and followers as Nehru did in his regime; he moved out. While a politician today would not have forgotten this, Shastri’s self-effacing and altruistic persona never let political moves and power play be on his priority list. This was proven when despite such disrespect, he gave Indira Gandhi her first post in the cabinet. He ensured his personal qualms and fears never overtook his role as the head of the state.

4. Politics behind Positions of Power

Shastri had taken up several ministerial positions under PM Nehru as the “minister without a portfolio” and after Nehru’s death, K. Kamaraj (then President of Congress, also known as the ‘Kingmaker’) insisted on him becoming Prime Minister. Aware of Morarji Desai’s intention of contending for the same seat, Shastri declined Kamraj’s offer despite knowing he would win the party vote, only because he did not wish to be the leader of a divided party. This firm resolution goes to show that his dedication was to the country, and not to his individualistic advantage. He became the second Prime Minister of India only after Desai withdrew his nomination on June 1, 1964, and there was a unanimous decision in the party.

When we look at the party politics today, being Indira Gandhi’s grandson has huge perks even though the rest of the country might disagree. Rahul Gandhi is not ashamed to use this to his advantage and contest for seats, even if it might mean a huge loss for his party and their plans. He is afraid to unsettle the intra-party power set-up which might cost him a chance to be the Prime Minister. Actions, and not words, matter.

5. Crackdown on Corruption

Corruption had started rearing its head in the 1960s and Shastri took it upon himself to eliminate it. He set up the Central Vigilance Commission under K. Santhanam, a senior Congress leader, to address and uproot systematic corruption. For processing complaints against government officials, he converted the Special Police Establishment (SPE) into the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). He challenged corruption head-on instead of using it as a tool for propaganda.

A look at the anti-corruption policies today prove to be so ineffective that India is ranked as one of the most corrupt nations where politicians use the banner of NREGA (social programs and entitlement schemes) to indulge in scams, and The Prevention of Corruption Act is just for namesake purposes. Do not even ask about Demonetisation!

6. Indo-Pak Relations

Shastri led India to victory against Pakistan when they attacked Jammu and Kashmir on 1 September 1965 under the false belief that the Indian army was demoralised after the battle against China. Within a few days of the attack, Shastri directed Indian troops like a true war commander by authorizing a surprise invasion, taking a bold decision and successfully implementing it. Though his decisiveness deserves to be praised, it should be noted he was a man of peace. Before this incident, Shastri held no contempt for Pakistan and his strategy was based on the impact of the war on the civilians, not on his image.

Prime Ministers in the last decade have been wary of Pakistan and even though BJP’s policies align with Shastri’s tough calls, especially in regards to the September 2016 anti-terror surgical strike in PoK, their views do not. Though this cannot be said in lieu of changing times, Shastri never exuded hatred towards the neighbouring nation like politicians today in their election speeches.


7. From National Security to Food Security

Between 1960 and 1963, India had imported a staggering 15 million tonnes of US grains and the amount of the imports had been steadily rising. During this time of a major food crisis, Shastri supported C. Subramaniam with the Green Revolution, and later the White Revolution. After observing the Amul milk cooperative in Anand on a visit to Gujarat, he assisted Verghese Kurien in setting up the National Dairy Development Board in 1965 to replicate this dairy movement across the country. He started a campaign to voluntarily skip a meal, which he experimented with his family first to analyse its feasibility before advocating it to the nation. He also advised the nation to grow a kitchen garden ( he himself had one at his residence) in order to fight the food shortage. ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ became the slogan which reverberated throughout the nation, its echoes reaching everyone.

Now, “On March 6, about 40,000 subsistence farmers and landless peasants marched to Mumbai from Nashi” and “Thousands of farmers marched towards Delhi on 2 October as crisis worsens” are the news highlights, which are often complemented with political statements which beat around the bush. How much can this nation benefit with a Shastri as its leader?

Ending Note

Shastri’s legacy survives outside the textbooks and politics, in the soil of farmland, the cries of public and the hearts of millions. He should not only be remembered but celebrated as a simple man who led a simple life but proved to be simply extraordinary. His relevance has outlived his reign as Prime Minister, as even today, a cool-headed leader with an eye for the bigger picture, and a pragmatic and progressive outlook on life is like golden dust: rare and divine.

By Tanya Goel, Ria Aggarwal and Rahul Kabra

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