Nehru’s mantle on Shastri’s shoulders

The successor had stayed aloof from the tasteless bickering over succession

Written by Inder Malhotra | Published:May 28, 2012 2:41 am

The successor had stayed aloof from the tasteless bickering over succession

Long before there was any need for it,the question “After Nehru,Who?” had started reverberating across India and,to an extent,in the outside world. At a fairly early stage,a British journalist in London tossed this question at S.K. Patil,a quintessential party boss who was then minister for food and agriculture in Nehru’s cabinet. His blunt reply was: “Who can say? The prime minister is like the great banyan tree. Thousands take shelter under it,but nothing grows.” Nehru was furious,perhaps because this was at least partly true,and treated Patil to “a special silence for some months”. In 1963,Welles Hangen,a Delhi-based American TV journalist who later disappeared without trace in Vietnam,published a book on the subject. For its title he chose (what else,but) the question that was then agonising the country.

However,as has been narrated in several previous columns — especially in (‘A purge with no losers’,IE March 19) and (‘Kamaraj’s formidable power’,IE April 2) — by the autumn of 1963,the Syndicate of powerful Congress party bosses of non-Hindi states had agreed,secretly at their conclave in the holy city of Tirupati,on the choice of Shastri as Nehru’s successor. K. Kamaraj’s unanimous election as Congress president shortly before Nehru suffered a stroke at Bhubaneswar in January 1964 put him in a pivotal position within the Congress party’s decision-making structure at a critical juncture when the moment of changeover seemed nigh.

Yet,even the best of plans have to be implemented according to established procedures and by coping with the attendant circumstances. In the case of succession to Nehru,the stakes of too many players were so high as to dwarf even the Himalayas. So,while most Indians believed,accurately enough,that Shastri’s election as the next prime minister was a foregone conclusion,there was no dearth of scheming,manoeuvring,machinations and worse by individuals and factions anxious to thwart this. After all,Nehru himself had encountered resistance when,after falling ill,he had decided to bring Shastri back into his cabinet.

Shamefully,discussions on succession,some desultory and others serious,started within a couple of hours of Nehru’s passing among the hordes of Congressmen that had rushed to Teen Murti to mourn him. “None of these people who professed loyalty to him,” Krishna Menon recorded later,“had the decency to keep their mouth shut until he was cremated.” Another incident at Teen Murti while preparations were being made to lay Nehru’s body in state — for tens of thousands of people who had already lined up at the gates to file past the revered leader’s remains — gave a foretaste of the things to come.

G.L. Nanda,who had been sworn in as prime minister,with the proviso that the Congress party must elect its leader within a week,and senior cabinet ministers were already present at Teen Murti when Morarji Desai arrived. According to eyewitnesses,he immediately started asserting his administrative,some said “authoritative”,bent. When Sushila Nayar,an associate of Mahatma Gandhi and health minister in the Nehru cabinet,pointed out that the arrangements he was proposing were flawed,his answer was: “A decision has already been taken and so it will be.” Whereupon she testily asked Desai: “Who are you to issue orders?”

There was more such tasteless bickering in the brisk and competitive activity that began almost immediately after the departed leader’s funeral on May 28 and reached a crescendo by May 30. To recount even briefly all that went on among rivals for the top job and even busybodies would add up to a modest-sized book. So,let me try and sum up about half-a-dozen major developments as tersely as possible.

In the first place,Desai,firm in his belief that he was Nehru’s natural successor,made no bones about it. The media reported therefore that he had “thrown his hat in the ring”. By the time he realised that this was a blunder that was working to Shastri’s advantage,the damage had been done. For his part,Shastri,true to his nature,stayed completely aloof from all the jockeying and canvassing that was going on.

The left group in the Congress aroused comment and controversy far out of proportion to its strength because it showed an inclination to side with Desai “in return for two seats in the cabinet”,evidently those that Krishna Menon and K.D. Malaviya had lost in the preceding two years. When the rank and file protested against this opportunism,the left leaders decided to back Nanda. This encouraged the “stopgap” prime minister to demand he be asked to stay in the job! Jagjivan Ram,as the leader of the Scheduled Castes,belatedly announced his candidature.

A campaign to draft Indira Gandhi began but did not get far because she was just not interested. Even so,Desai,when advised that he should declare support for her because she would decline and that would boost his own chances,had retorted that he would do nothing of the sort. “I want to be prime minister but I don’t want to stop Shastri at all costs. In any case,Indira is not qualified for the job.” Morarji then went to Yeshwantrao Chavan to canvass for Maharashtra’s votes but Chavan remained totally non-committal.

Chavan told Desai that he would support no candidate because the world was watching and the country wanted to settle the issue without contest and with dignity and consensus. These prophetic words reflected the nation’s dominant mood.

The executive committee of the Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) tried to assert that it must have a say,and even offered oblique support to Desai’s view that the CPP alone must decide the succession issue by secret ballot. But it was slapped down by the real wielders of power — the Congress president,the Congress Working Committee and the chief ministers of states,all of which were then ruled by the Congress.

Ironically,no one paid much attention to Kamaraj who was busy listening to everyone,especially his cohorts in the Syndicate and chief ministers,but keeping his own counsel. He was to show his hand 24 hours later.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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