‘Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Beyond’ review: Living by the values of agreement

Where does former Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri stand in contemporary history? What is his legacy?

It isn’t just the October 2 birth anniversary of Lal Bahadur Shastri that gets overshadowed by Gandhi Jayanti celebrations, his contribution to nation-building has not got the prominence it deserved because of the Congress party’s ‘exclusive’ focus on the Gandhi-Nehru family. “This has clearly resulted in Shastri not being accorded the stature and the position he rightly and richly deserves,” notes Sandeep Shastri, a well-known political commentator.

His book Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Beyond is an attempt to correct a gap in our understanding of contemporary history. It’s not as if Shastri’s contribution has not been recorded. After all, his resignation as Railway Minister following a train accident in 1956 set a new benchmark of probity in public life, his call to soldiers and farmers with his Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan slogan to emphasise a robust defence structure and strive for self-sufficiency in food production are all part of political legend.

These examples, however, seem to stand in isolation as Shastri’s own ministerial colleague, T.T. Krishnamachari, is quoted in the book as describing his 19-month premiership from 1964-1966 “a parenthesis in history.” In a well-researched book, the author tries to counter why it’s not — evident from his description of Lal Bahadur Shastri as the ‘original architect’ of surgical strikes who asked the Armed Forces to enter Pakistani territory. As also from Shastri’s departure from Nehruvian policy of approaching the United Nations over India’s conflict with Pakistan on Kashmir or the firmness with which the Prime Minister dealt with the Chinese who had treated India as the aggressor during the 1965 Indo-Pak conflicts.

Focus on agriculture

“The Army would never forget this tallest decision by the shortest man,” the writer quotes Harbaksh Singh, the then Commander of the Western Command of the Indian Army. In an interview to Kuldip Nayar, the commander hailed the then Prime Minister’s decision to ask Indian troops to go into Pakistan.

Apart from Shastri’s politics of consensus and consultation (that prevented quick decision-making at times), the book also sheds light on the Prime Minister’s other key contribution like bringing back the focus on agriculture (as opposed to the focus on heavy industries) and how it laid the foundation for the Green Revolution subsequently and the war on corruption.

In the context of his personal integrity, it is worth mentioning that the former Prime Minister’s loan to purchase a Fiat car had to be settled by his widow, Lalita Shastri, after his death.

Some anecdotes

By his own admission, the author is an admirer of Shastri’s politics and he has filled the book with anecdotes that may appear as fiction to contemporary netas: like Shastri refusing to get out of a Kolkata traffic jam on his way to the airport, pulling up officials for issuing an out-of-turn licence to his son, Anil, and so on.

But in his own subtle way, the author points out Shastri’s vulnerabilities as a politician, especially with regard to Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter, Indira. “When files approved by him were vetted by Indira Gandhi, he preferred to remain silent. When senior officers went straight to Nehru and reversed decisions he had suggested, he preferred to keep quiet,” notes the author.

In the context of contemporary interest in Shastri’s sudden and untimely death, especially after the release of a film, the book doesn’t go beyond the different theories that are already in the public domain.

Written in an easy language, the book will serve as a primer to any student of Indian politics who is keen on examining India’s transition phase between the prime ministership of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

Lal Bahadur Shashtri: Politics and Beyond; Sandeep Shastri, Rupa, ₹495.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 2:01:53 PM |

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