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Opinion | The original accidental prime minister

Lal Bahadur Shastri was the original accidental prime minister of India, and it was precisely the qualities the American newspaper highlighted that first made him palatable to leaders of the Congress party

Lal Bahadur Shastri speaking in Parliament. Photo: Getty Images
Lal Bahadur Shastri speaking in Parliament. Photo: Getty Images

In 1964, when Jawaharlal Nehru died at the end of a long and historic career, The New York Times carried an editorial asking famously, “After Nehru—What?" The op-ed was in several respects alarmist, pointing out that India was “so heavily dependent" on this one “towering" figure that “there is no way of predicting what will now happen". Would the Congress party stay united? Would India remain committed to pluralism and democracy, values that were the cornerstone of Nehruvian policy? And most importantly, what did the passing of this giant mean not only for the “internal peace of India, but the peace of Asia and perhaps of the world"? The air was full of uncertainty, and a lot depended on the man appointed to fill Nehru’s shoes—a man the NYT had earlier described as a “colorless politician", “an architect of compromise, a conciliator of factions" and a “faithful follower" of the prime minister who had now gone to the grave.

Lal Bahadur Shastri, to whom rich tributes were paid on his birth anniversary on 2 October, was the original accidental prime minister of India, and it was precisely the qualities the American newspaper highlighted that first made him palatable to leaders of the Congress party. Born in 1904, Shastri had accumulated nearly a decade of prison time during the freedom struggle, and after independence, quietly served under Nehru in various ministerial capacities. At 60, he enjoyed an inverted popularity, born out of his singular ability to provoke no enmities in a party full of internecine rivalries. His principal gift seemed to be that while he inspired not even a shadow of euphoria, nobody minded him either: the socialists might come to terms with Shastri, just as the right wing within the Congress could be prevailed upon to accept this candidate who successfully stayed out of everybody’s hair.

Nehru never anointed Shastri his heir, but he did hint at his approval of the man: when various senior leaders resigned from the cabinet (with Nehru’s concurrence) under the famous “Kamaraj Plan" to reinvigorate the party in 1963, Shastri was the only one reinducted a few months later. The whole enterprise was one of balancing interests: Morarji Desai, for instance, was senior most and, therefore, Nehru’s presumed natural successor. Since this was a horrifying prospect for others, to whom Desai’s trademark obstinacy was unappealing, the Kamaraj Plan unseated him and a number of powerful leaders so as to reset the terms on which the future leadership would be decided. As Michael Brecher notes in his supremely interesting Succession In India (1966), Congress president K. Kamaraj and his allies intended to “support the man who was least likely to divide and most likely to unite the party". And the best match for this job profile, it turned out, was good old Shastri.

Yet, Shastri’s elevation was not instant, and in the six days following Nehru’s demise, many hats were thrown into the ring. Brecher’s book, featuring interviews with the lead actors in the drama, offers a fascinating view of the negotiations that gripped Delhi while Nehru’s corpse lay in state. Gulzarilal Nanda, who was sworn in as caretaker prime minister (much to the annoyance of V.K. Krishna Menon, who called it “unconstitutional") seemed to harbour a desire to be confirmed in that position: when he sat in what was Nehru’s seat in Parliament, there were gasps. Desai, of course, arrived at the dead prime minister’s residence and tried to direct the funeral proceedings, provoking an angry remark from health minister Sushila Nayyar: “Who are you to give orders?" Indeed, a day after Nehru’s death, Desai openly declared himself a candidate—a tactless move which allowed his rivals to decry his apparent thirst for power, even as a Maharashtrian faction made it clear that they could not support this Gujarati.

There was, however, enough maturity on display alongside the anxious lobbying. The defence minister Yashwantrao Chavan was in the US when Nehru died, and realized, Brecher notes, that not only The New York Times but the world itself was watching India: instead of chaos, “we must do everything possible," he said, “to reach a consensus, to achieve unanimity." Nanda too understood this. While he expressed his ambitions, he was also “conscious that the world’s eyes were upon us, and we did not want to display too open a fight." Even as powers around the globe feared Nehru’s obituary was an obituary for united India as well, the Congress leadership knew they had to manage differences alongside the good of the country. There were personal designs; there was regionalism and caste competition; and there was Desai’s legitimate but decidedly unpopular claim of seniority. But then, there was also India’s national interest.

Since none of the others had enough heft, the issue boiled down quickly to Desai versus an alternative. And so, Shastri, who had maintained a studious silence and shrewdly made no claims himself, was confirmed by an orchestrated consensus. “He was not," Brecher notes, “as forceful and decisive as Morarji, but that was an asset in a country as large and complex as India". Kamaraj, who, as I.K. Gujral claims in his memoirs, chose to become kingmaker rather than the puppet king, set the wheels in motion. He “consulted" hundreds of parliamentarians—who were to formally elect their leader—to take a “poll" of sorts, an exercise that was part strategic, part comical. “I like Shastri; whom do you like?" he would ask individual MPs, and as Krishna Menon later laughed, “when the Congress president calls you, unless you are a fool like me, you more or less express his opinion." Shastri officially became the “party’s choice", before whom even Desai had to retreat. And so it was that India found not only its second prime minister—a man who in 18 months made a mark not as a puppet, but a leader worthy of respect and admiration—but also the answer to that dreaded question, “After Nehru—What?"

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @UnamPillai

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