V.C. SHUKLA (1929 – 2013)
There was astonishment when news broke of Vidya Charan Shukla being injured in the Maoist attack in Chhattisgarh. Astonishment because, at 84, the Congress leader was not just politically active, he had mustered the will and energy to journey into an area where danger lurked. The reason for the fatal trip emerged much later: Shukla was hoping to get the party ticket for the Mahasamund Lok Sabha Constituency — from where he in fact entered the Lok Sabha, way back in 1957.
To most people, the name V.C. Shukla would bring memories of one of the darkest chapters in Indian political history: the Emergency of 1975 which curtailed the fundamental rights of citizens and vested unbridled authority and power in the political masters. Shukla was a colourful, flamboyant character of the time. An unverified story had it that as Information and Broadcasting Minister in the Indira Gandhi Government, he approached a Bollywood starlet with the words, “tu bhi Vidya, main bhi Vidya (you are Vidya, I’m Vidya”). Other misdemeanours were hinted at, and indeed as one of Emergency’s bad boys, Shukla was at the receiving end of much nudge-nudge, wink-wink gossip.
Shukla was part of the Sanjay Gandhi coterie, and became the Gandhi son’s choice to replace the genteel Inder Kumar Gujral as the Information and Broadcasting Minister. Gujral had lost the job because he failed to cover Indira Gandhi’s June 20, 1975 rally held at Delhi’s Boat Club. Five days later, she imposed the Emergency and with that Shukla’s time came.
The new power elite wielded unprecedented authority. Shukla, who held charge of information dissemination, acted capriciously, an example being the blanking out of playback singer Kishore Kumar from All India Radio because the latter had refused to sing at a Congress rally in Mumbai.
Shukla was a party hopper, managing always to be on the winning side. He stayed with the Congress for as long as the Emergency lasted and deserted it in 1977. Rajiv Gandhi rehabilitated him in 1984 but he went with V.P. Singh when, in 1988, the latter revolted and formed the Jan Morcha. While in the Jan Morcha, Shukla was a transformed man. Though still very upper class, he went where “VP” went, foregoing the comforts and trappings of power and traversing the dirt roads of Uttar Pradesh. The hard work paid off and he became a minister in the V.P. Singh Government.
But the yearning to find new opportunities persisted. V.P. Singh recorded in his book, Manzil se zyada safar (Journey beyond destination), that when the Janata Dal was on the verge of a split, Shukla advised him to let go of the dissidents, among them Mulayam Singh Yadav, Chimanbhai Patel and Ram Niwas Mirdha. Shukla apparently told the Prime Minister that the dissidents would soon find that they had no future with Chandra Shekhar. And yet Shukla himself became part of the Chandra Shekhar Government formed in the aftermath of the split, in November 1990.
The regime ended in ignominy for its members but Shukla managed to defect yet again, and was sworn in as Minister for Parliamentary Affairs in the P.V. Narasimha Rao government. It was a minority government and he played a key role in keeping the numbers healthy. He got his hopes up again when Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000. But the Congress refused to make him Chief Minister, and so he made another switch, this time joining the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party. Ironically, Shukla had twice refused Chief Ministership of Madhya Pradesh, and only because Ravi Shankar Shukla, his father and the first Chief Minister of the State, extracted a promise from him that he would let his elder brother, Shyama Charan Shukla, do State politics while he concentrated on national affairs.
By this time lady luck had turned her back on him. Ahead of the 2004 general election, Shukla joined the Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP lost the election and he himself lost from Mahasamund to the Congress’s Ajit Jogi. In 2007, at age 78, he returned to the Congress.
Shukla was ambitious to the end, maintaining almost a punishing schedule when he travelled out of Delhi. As a colleague recalls even on his last trip to Chhattisgarh, which claimed his life, he showed no signs of fatigue. Barring a small hearing problem, he had no old age complaints. He surprised party men by being able to recall their names, showing no signs of senility.
While in Delhi, he went for long walks every evening in Lodhi Gardens, urging friends to join him. He read avidly, and watched tennis and football matches late into the night. And he still enjoyed eating a leisurely, elaborate lunch every day.
Had he lived to get the Congress nomination for the Mahasamund seat and followed it up by wresting it, his aspiration was to become a minister once again — of course, if the United Progressive Alliance returned to power.