I was in my teens when Lal Bahdur Shastri served as India’s Prime Minister, the second to hold this high office, becoming Prime Minister at a time when the million dollar question was, “Who can step into the huge shoes left by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru?” It’s only after reading, “Lal Bahadur Shastri: A Life of Truth in Politics” by his long time aide C P Srivastava, a senior Officer of the Indian Administrative Service, that I now realize how little we knew of this great man. This book was first published in 1995 and has been re-published recently.
Lal Bahadur was by nature modest and humble which perhaps made him seem more effacing than he actually was. Added to this he was only 5′ 2″ in height, which made him seem diminutive when he stood with other world leaders of his time. To start with I didn’t know his family name was Verma and that Shastri was actually a title accorded to him when he passed the “Shastri” degree examination in the first division in 1925 . Srivastava writes, “On the basis of this degree “Shastri” was added to his name. It was an educational suffix, which in course of time became assimilated to his name. He now came to be known to the world at large as Lal Bahadur Shastri, or just Shastri.”
The book covers Shastri’s upbringing in Uttar Pradesh from the time he was born on October 2, 1904, sharing his birthday with Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation. He came from a family that valued education. His father was a school teacher and his mother the daughter of a headmaster. India was governed by the British in those years and as a young man Shastri was attracted to the Indian National Congress which was spearheading the nationalist movement. He came under the influence of two tall leaders who sometimes didn’t see eye to eye with each other, Purushottam Das Tandon and Jawaharlal Nehru.
Shastri had about him an innate modesty. The author recounts how as a young IAS officer in Lucknow he met Shastri who went out of his way to make him feel comfortable, something that most politicians in India would not do. A couple of years later, he was at the Lucknow railway station waiting to receive his family when on the adjoining platform Shastri alighted from the train. He was then the Union Minister for Railways and Transport. Though he saw Shastri, the author didn’t want to disturb him when he was surrounded by his aides and other railway officials. Much to his astonishment, Shastri walked up to him and said, “How are you, Srivastava saheb? You have not recognised me. I am Lal Bahadur.”!!
We see how Shastri despite his humble background became an important figure in the Congress Party in Uttar Pradesh, then as is now, the largest State of India. His colleagues were impressed by his dedication, his work ethic and his honesty. Nehru took him under his wings and after India became independent he held increasingly important offices. In 1952 he became the Union Minister for Railways and Transport. When Nehru died in 1964, Shastri was not seen as an automatic successor. Morarji Desai seemed to be the favourite to become Prime Minister. However, Shastri was elected the Prime Minister, thanks to the part played by the Congress President, K. Kamaraj.
He inherited a Government that was slowly recovering from the defeat handed out to India by the Chinese in 1962, shattering Nehru’s long held dictum of ” Hindi Chini Bhai Bhai” or ” India & China Are Always Friends”. The economy was in a mess and there was a massive scarcity of food grain. By virtue of his straight forwardness, his tough decisions showing no favour to anyone, Shastri gradually became popular amongst the masses and earned the respect of world leaders like President Lyndon B. Johnson of the United States.
His finest hour came in the 1965 War with Pakistan. Shastri proved to an astute leader. He gave a free hand to his military commanders and was motivational when it came to rallying the country. He coined the slogan, “Jai Jawan. Jai Kissan.” The pressure from the world leaders and the United Nations compelled him to agree to a cease-fire in January 1966. He successfully withstood pressures from leaders like President Johnson of the United States, Prime Minister Kosygin of the USSR, and the Pakistan President Field Marshal Ayub Khan till he got the agreement drafted the way he wanted it. He maintained that he would never agree to anything detrimental to his country’s interests. The famous Tashkent declaration was signed on January 10, 1966. Sadly, Shastri died on January 11 and instead of returning in triumph to India, his body was flown back draped in the tricolour. Experts believe he died of a heart attack though there still abound theories about his having been killed.
The book examines his handling of politics, economics with ease, his tact and diplomacy and how he could be firm without being distasteful. All in all, he was truly a great son of India. It was indeed unfortunate that his life was cut short aged 61.
I would recommend Mr. Srivavatava’s book to all who like politics and Indian history. Here’s an opportunity to study one of India’s tallest figures up close. I wish the revised edition of this book gets widely circulated so that more people, especially the youth of India, can read about Lal Bahadur Shastriji and get inspired by his thoughts and deeds.