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In Nehru’s oversized shoes

In performing his first task as PM — cabinet formation — Lal Bahadur Shastri revealed his political style

Written by Inder Malhotra |
July 23, 2012 2:52:28 am

In performing his first task as PM — cabinet formation — Lal Bahadur Shastri revealed his political style

BEING a man of great humility,with realism to match,Lal Bahadur Shastri knew that stepping into Jawaharlal Nehru’s oversized shoes would be a tough challenge. Even so,he had not anticipated two acutely embarrassing situations that he tried to take in his stride as best he could. The first was the consequence of a longstanding government regulation then in force. It required every cinema to show an official documentary produced by the Films Division before the main film. Audiences long used to watching the charismatic Nehru on the screen started laughing when Shastri began to appear instead. Some time had to elapse before this deplorable display of discourtesy ended.

The second episode would for ever redound to the discredit,indeed shame,of Delhi’s press corps of that time. Determined to do everything that Nehru had done as prime minister,Shastri also called a formal press conference sometime after taking over. He intended to hold one regularly,as Nehru had done. But some uncouth and self-important scribes treated him with such churlish familiarity,bordering on rudeness,that he abandoned the idea for the rest of his short-lived tenure. Instead,he introduced a new practice that proved to be far more agreeable and productive for both him and the press. He would call in small,selected groups of editors,as also of senior newsmen and commentators,for off-the-record briefings.

These were later developments,however. The new PM’s first task was cabinet formation,and in performing it he revealed his political style at the outset of his career as head of government. Since he regarded everything about Nehru as virtually sacred,he retained all 13 cabinet ministers in the Nehru team,as he did 15 ministers of state as well as all but two of the 20 deputy ministers. Continuity thus became Shastri’s hallmark. He did add three new members to the cabinet. Indira Gandhi’s inclusion was a foregone conclusion. She was,in fact,considered her father’s replacement. He also brought in S.K. Patil — who,along with Morarji Desai,Babu Jagjivan Ram and himself,had gone out of the Nehru cabinet under the Kamaraj Plan.

The third addition was Sanjiva Reddy,a former chief minister of Andhra Pradesh who had had to resign because of an adverse high court judgment. Keen observers saw in this Shastri’s shrewd recognition of the need to secure maximum possible support of powerful state leaders. Moreover,both Reddy and Patil were members of the Kamaraj-led Syndicate. Shastri’s subtlety lay in his decision not to offer the foreign affairs portfolio to Indira Gandhi. He ruled this out by retaining it himself,like Nehru. In her grief,she also seemed not to mind,and was content with information and broadcasting.

With even greater skill he handled the more difficult question of what to do with Desai and Jagjivan Ram. He knew that Desai’s presence in the cabinet could end up in there being two centres of power,if only because he had yet to establish his authority. On the other hand,an ever-resentful Desai could be a source of trouble within the party. Moreover,the Syndicate felt that it would be better to extend the principle of consensus to the cabinet’s composition. Therefore,Shastri cordially invited Desai to join his team. The latter promptly accepted,and insisted that he should have the number two position. That is where G.L. Nanda stepped in to declare that since he had been PM,even if temporarily,no one other than the PM could outrank him. The third position was unacceptable to Desai. So the matter ended. This suited both sides.

Whether to include or exclude Jagjivan Ram then became Shastri’s main dilemma. Being a man of patience and a tireless seeker of consensus — he once told me that his preferred process took time and caused delays but it was much better than any other,“especially if I can carry most people with me” — he took the counsel of many. The last two to be consulted were K.C. Pant,then general secretary of the Congress Parliamentary Party,and my senior colleague,Pran Chopra,then resident editor,later editor of The Statesman. They both advised the PM that there were reasons to exclude Babuji,as Jagjivan Ram was known,but the exclusion of the most powerful leader of the Scheduled Castes —then called Harijans,now Dalits — could have “political consequences”. Shastri made no comment but stuck to his earlier instinct to keep Babuji out.

This is as far as the composition of the council of ministers went. The allocation of portfolios and chipping and chopping of these were a chaotic mess because there was no rhyme or reason behind them,except hurried responses to political pressure. For instance,the veteran chief whip and minister for parliamentary affairs,Satya Narain Sinha,wanting something more under his charge,was offered ministry of civil aviation. He declined,telling the PM: “I have never flown,nor ever would. So what can I do with the civil aviation ministry?” He was given the ministry of communication. Law minister Ashoke Sen was “compensated” with the department of social security in addition to his normal charge,law and justice.

These “marriages of inconvenience” drove me to write: “Ministries and departments are treated like so many pieces of cloth in an absent-minded tailor’s shop; they are cut and recut,sewn together and torn asunder again. Often they are stitched together into garments without any regard to texture,colour-scheme and even measurement.”

The overall appraisal of the new council of ministers was best summed up in a newspaper editorial: “Mr Shastri has chosen a cabinet which is like himself. It inspires confidence but no excited comment,leans in no particular direction too conspicuously and can be counted upon,if any group can be,to combine the pragmatism of a mixed economy with socialist preference. In politics,too,domestic and foreign,it will distinguish itself more by the stability it promotes than by striking out for new frontiers. The end result is a bland homogeneity though it was not pre-planned.”

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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