Why Former PM Chandra Shekhar Was The Last Icon Of Ideological Politics
It is one of the rare moments in Indian politics when one rose directly to become PM. But then, Chandra Shekhar was a rarity. He was a decisive leader. Had he got the mandate, he would have proved to be one of the best-ever PMs
Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma
Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman Harivansh was a journalist before he entered the Upper House. In his current role, he is often seen managing an unruly House. While traveling all over the world as part of Parliamentary delegations, he has often been noticed taking on Pakistan for its anti-India propaganda. Harivansh has also been described as one of the most powerful Indians. As a journalist, and as the legendary editor of Prabhat Khabar, he broke new ground in doing ground reports in Jharkhand. Harivansh has another side to his personality. He has been closely associated with former PM Chandra Shekhar – first as a journalist, and then as an aide in the PMO. He (with co-author Ravi Dutt Bajpai) has recently come out with a book on the former PM, titled Chandra Shekhar: The Last Icon of Ideological Politics. Harivansh tells BW Businessworld, over an hour-long conversation, why he thinks Chandra Shekhar was the last icon of ideological politics.
I have been a journalist (before a political career) associated with publications like Dharmayug, Ravivar, among others. I come from a village on the UP-Bihar border, which, incidentally, was the village of JP, too. My student life, and later my career, got me in touch with greats like JP, and then Chandra Shekhar.
In 1972, when I was in BHU, JP used to come to address meetings. But not even 100 students would turn up initially. A few months down the line, however, a huge gathering of 1.5 lakh people turned up to listen to him — the issues he had been raising had gathered so much traction by then. JP belonged to the class of Indian saints — the “Sant Parmapra” of India.
In March 1977, I was already in Mumbai for work. When the post-Emergency Lok Sabha election results were announced, I remember the changing numbers were displayed on a board outside the Mantralaya. The commoners, filmstars and industry leaders jostled for space to catch a glimpse of the results. I could sense a sense of euphoria among the people when many of the biggies associated with the Emergency were made to eat humble pie.
Chandra Shekhar then used to edit a journal called Young Indian. The editorials that he wrote therein used to become headlines for newspapers. I distinctly remember once such instance related to Indira Gandhi.
I was at Dharmayug when I got introduced to Chandra Shekhar ji.
I remember JP was admitted at Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai around that time. Putting up in a guest house nearby, Chandra Shekhar remained by his side most of the time. A rumour swirled around that JP had passed away. Parliament even paid homage to him. When a large gathering assembled outside the Jaslok Hospital, Chandra Shekhar rode atop a car and said that it was fake news. “JP is very much with us,” he said.
I interviewed him while I was still at Dharmayug. I later stayed in touch with him. When Chandra Shekhar became Prime Minister, I joined his PMO as a joint secretary (Additional Information Adviser). Mr Srivastava who had been with the PTI was his Press Advisor.
It is one of the rare moments in Indian politics when one rose directly to become Prime Minister. But, then, Chandra Shekhar was a rarity. He was a decisive leader. Had he got the mandate, he would have proved to be one of the best-ever Prime Ministers.
Many luminaries including R. Venkataraman, Pranab Mukherjee, Muchkund Dubey, M.K. Narayanan have written on these lines. P.V. Narasimha Rao wrote that the Ayodhya issue would have been amicably resolved if he had continued as PM. Chandra Shekhar addressed many challenging issues of his times. Yet, he never got his due.
Was it because he came from a very humble background? Was it due to the privileges enjoyed by the elites and the fact that Chandra Shekhar rose to the centrestage from the periphery? This is the reason I thought of the book, and I thought the title Chandra
Shekhar: The Last Icon of Indian Politics was apt.
He came from a very poor family. He had a choice – upon getting educated, he could have easily looked after his family. He, instead, chose the difficult path, knowing fully well that the road ahead would be challenging, difficult and full of uncertainties. Chandra Shekhar was influenced by Acharya Narendra Dev’s philosophy. And he remained steadfastly committed to the ideology.
The next 15-20 years remained tough and challenging. During the course of party work, he even washed utensils in the party office. It was in his leadership that the Praja Socialist Party (PSP) went to become the second-largest political party in Uttar Pradesh after the Congress. In 1962, he entered Parliament.
Chandra Shekhar was relentless in his attack on the phenomenon of a personality cult. Whether it was Nehru or Indira Gandhi, Chandra Shekhar always believed that issues were bigger than personalities, and issues alone would determine the fate of the country. And this was his way of taking forward important political issues.
He always wanted the nationalisation of banks, insurance, and coal. While fighting for these issues, he joined Congress. The PSP expelled him. For 6-8 months, he remained an unattached member. He was then in Congress. He was elected to the Congress Working Committee despite opposition from Indira. Later, Indira banished Chandra Shekhar from the party. He joined the Janata Party. After the Emergency, Indira wanted Chandra Shekhar back in the party but he was not interested. From the Janata experiments, the Samajwadi Janata Party was born.
At times accusations are hurled at Chandra Shekhar that he was a party hopper. But the fact is that he never quit a party. He was removed from them.
Chandra Shekhar thought that our economic policies benefitted the rich. Why else would only the rich get licences? This was the reason of his thrust on the nationalisation of resources.
Even when the country embraced liberalisation, with its thrust on liberalisation-privatisation-globalisation, Chandra Shekhar remained the lone contrarian voice. He was firm of the opinion that this path would lead to misery, and impoverish India. He thought India was a land of compassion, and India was not merely a market. Don’t you find a resonance in the present times, with trade wars all around?
He believed that people wanted to become rich overnight and undertook his last padyatra against the LPG and GATT.
He had serious reservations against the RSS and its ideology but on “Swadeshi” he shared the stage with them. He believed in structured training for party activists and had even roped in renowned economists like Arun Kumar.
Once when someone remarked why India doesn’t produce too many Nobel Laureates, he said: “Don’t forget this is also the land of greats like Sant Gyaneshwar and Tukaram.”
An exchange between Indira Gandhi and Chandra Shekhar gives more than a hint about the latter’s personality and his commitment to ideology. Indira asked him: “Why did you choose the Congress?” He replied: “I worked for the PSP for 15 long years. But it appeared that it had failed to move forward.”
Indira’s next question was: “What would he like to do with the Congress?” Chandra Shekhar replied: “He would make it a socialist (“samajwadi”) party.” “What if he failed,” Indira asked. Chandra Shekhar’s reply stunned Indira. He said: “In that eventuality, I would break the party.” The Congress had become a big banyan tree and newer strands of thoughts had failed to evolve under it, thought Chandra Shekhar. Chandra Shekhar was an embodiment of courage.
The brief period of his Prime Ministership was perhaps the most challenging period in post-Independent India. Of course, the economic challenge was most important. When the Finance Secretary told the PM that only 21 days of forex was left, and India could soon become a defaulter nation, an exasperated Chandra Shekhar said, “Was this crisis waiting for me?” Clearly, the earlier rulers had abdicated their responsibilities.
He had the ability to walk alone — with the courage of conviction. Once when asked why he didn’t join the VP Singh cabinet, he said he could not have joined governments with whom he had serious disagreements — whether it was the Indira government or the Morarji government.
As PM, he addressed the nation on television. The reservation fire began to douse. Things started to move on Ayodhya. People felt he would leave behind a lasting legacy.
He reached a near-breakthrough on Ayodhya. He initiated talks with the Kashmiris within the purview of the Constitution. The opposition was always clued in on his initiatives.
He always believed in the India-first ideology. Political parties came only later. He had the ability to walk alone. He had the courage, conviction, and foresight. Truly, he was the last icon of ideological politics.
(As told to BW)