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Thursday, October 21, 2021

The story of Chandra Shekhar, the maverick in Indian politics

Instead of recognising that Chandra Shekhar was obliged him to run the government in close association with those who had made him PM, he desisted from consultation and insisted on having his own unfettered way.

Updated: July 20, 2019 9:35:30 am
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Mani Shankar Aiyar

Chandra Shekhar brought to our politics a refreshing change from the usual run of sycophants and time-servers. Ever the maverick, and never the team-worker, he rarely allowed ground realities to deter him. He often challenged the great precisely because they were the great, but then allowed them to use him for their own purposes because he valued the uses of power. He disguised this contradiction by consistently holding that political differences did not amount to personal differences. He saw himself as high-minded and principled, but he comes through as vain and self-righteous, with a remarkable capacity for cloaking himself in virtue when betraying his leaders and switching sides. This enabled him to straddle the spectrum of political parties and shifting alliances while persuading himself that he was being ideologically consistent.

Of humble origins, this ‘Balliatic’ — the derogatory expression used at Allahabad University to describe country bumpkins — decided in his student days that “socialism would be his life’s ideal” and joined the Socialist Party. But within a year or so, in 1952, he was “outraged” at the way tickets were being distributed by the leaders of the Socialists to the well-heeled. Yet, he remained with the party, became its joint secretary and, following a run-in with Ram Manohar Lohia, eventually emerged as a supporter of the Narendra Dev/Asoka Mehta faction that labelled itself the Praja Socialist Party (PSP), and entered the Rajya Sabha on its ticket in 1962. There, he soon made himself a name as a vociferous critic of Jawaharlal Nehru and his family.

So, when his leader, Asoka Mehta, responded favourably to Nehru’s outreach to all socialists to unite after the humiliating defeat India had suffered at China’s hands, Chandra Shekhar went off in a huff, leading to his expulsion from the PSP, but after six months as a lonely Independent he decided to join the Congress. It was his third party move in 10 years! There were many more still to come. Consistency in spouting the dogma of “socialism” but inconsistency in choosing the instruments for reaching his ideological goal marked his political life. So, although as a socialist ideologue he had raised a host of issues that were to define Indira Gandhi’s reign in the Seventies, including bank nationalisation and the abolition of privy purses, he was principally celebrated in the Sixties for his harsh criticism of Indira Gandhi and his virulent expose of the wrongdoings of industrial houses and their dubious connections to the Congress party. Yet, it was none other than Indira Gandhi who overruled her party veterans to grant Chandra Shekhar a second term in the House. For in Chandra Shekhar’s Young Turks, Indira had found the allies she needed to confront the Syndicate.

Certainly, the Young Turks constituted the commandos in Indira’s battle with the Syndicate, but in less than a year of her prevailing, she targeted the intra-party critics of her government, led by Chandra Shekhar, as “arm-chair critics who did not care to know the reality of the situation”. Over the next few years, the gap between the two grew. On June 25, 1975, Chandra Shekhar was among the first to be arrested and incarcerated under the proclamation of Emergency.  On his release, he was involved in frenetic moves to unite the un-unitable in the Janata Party, and then presided over its unravelling. By the mid-Eighties, the party was over and this politician of principle drifted into the company of Arun Nehru, whom he distrusted, and VP Singh, whom he disliked, to dislodge the Rajiv Gandhi regime. It was a pyrrhic victory. Within weeks, he was back to fighting his colleagues in government. VP Singh went and less than a year after turfing out Rajiv Gandhi, Chandra Shekhar moved in as Prime Minister, but thanks only to Rajiv loaning him the parliamentary support that his own small rump lacked.

Instead of recognising that this obliged him to run the government in close association with those who had made him PM, he desisted from consultation and insisted on having his own unfettered way. Moreover, none of this had anything to do with “socialism”: the balance-of-payments crisis drew him into the embrace of the very Bretton Woods institutions that he, as a dyed-in-the-wool socialist, had viewed with deep suspicion all his life. Their support, in turn, depended on accepting an obligatory package of non-socialist — indeed, anti-socialist — economic reforms. Even more crucially, the package could be devised only with US approval. And that approval was contingent on India providing refuelling facilities to US aircraft and bunkering for the US Navy in their assault on Iraq. This meant the abandonment of Non-alignment. At this crucial juncture, Chandra Shekhar failed to carry, or even consult, his principal partner. He also thwarted Rajiv’s attempt to defuse the Babri Masjid issue by asking the president to request the Supreme Court to give a binding finding on the essential question of whether the masjid had indeed been built after destroying an extant temple.

It was the breakdown in mutual trust occasioned by Chandra Shekhar’s self-defeating violation of what Atal Bihari Vajpayee was to later call the “coalition dharma” that led to his ignominious fall. Historians would have examined this angle; hagiographers would not. If only the authors had been less worshipful of their hero, this might have been a very good book.


(The writer is a former Union minister)

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