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When Shastri took ill

By appointing Swaran Singh foreign minister,Shastri displayed confidence and a sense of timing

Written by Inder Malhotra |
August 6, 2012 3:35:49 am

By appointing Swaran Singh foreign minister,Shastri displayed confidence and a sense of timing

Hardly had Lal Bahadur Shastri started settling down as prime minister when he suddenly fell ill. This was to have some unexpected political repercussions. In the established Indian tradition nothing was said about the nature of his ailment,but it was generally assumed that his trouble was coronary. For,although only 58 at that time,he had had an attack of thrombosis a couple of years earlier.

Yet his family and minders had gone to great lengths to play down his illness. No medical bulletin about the PM’s health was issued,of course. But his elder son,Hari Krishan,appointed himself some kind of a surgeon-general of India,and fed the press such inane remarks as: “My father is fine,and this morning breakfasted on his favourite potato cutlets.”

Such stratagems notwithstanding,there could be no escape from some crucial problems arising from the situation. The first and most important of these was the cancellation of Shastri’s visit to London to attend the Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference,the first where someone other than Jawaharlal Nehru was to represent India. This was going to be the new PM’s first sojourn overseas. Until then the only foreign country he had visited was Nepal. No wonder there was some excitement about the journey to Britain. One of the questions the PM and his confidants had been wrestling with was whether he should travel in his usual dhoti or adopt Western dress for the duration.

This was no longer relevant. But a pressing problem before Shastri was who to depute to the conference in his place. With conspicuous subtlety he decided to send T.T. Krishnamachari and Indira Gandhi as co-leaders of the Indian delegation. In other words,there was to be no clear pecking order in his cabinet after G.L. Nanda,who was the recognised number two. (At the Commonwealth conclave,TTK did most of the talking but only after full consultation with IG.)

While both senior ministers were still in London,Shastri sprang another surprise,once again displaying quiet confidence and a sense of timing. On a Saturday evening he announced that to lighten his burden,he was giving up the foreign affairs portfolio that,like Nehru,he had retained,and assigning it to Swaran Singh,who had held various portfolios under Nehru but wasn’t most people’s first choice for foreign minister.

In London,like me,Indira Gandhi read the news in the Sunday papers. Purely by coincidence I was scheduled to meet her at Claridges at nine in the morning. When I arrived there,three other visitors,all of them women,two foreign and one Indian,who had known her for a long time,were with her. As soon as they left,without any preamble,she said to me: “You must have read the news by now.” When I replied that I indeed had,she burst out: “I don’t want to be foreign minister,and wouldn’t have accepted the job were it offered to me. But shouldn’t he have consulted me? Minimum courtesy required that.” At that moment I knew that I was witnessing the start of an estrangement between Shastri and his information and broadcasting minister. In succeeding months,this process was to proceed rather fast.

On returning to Delhi,Indira Gandhi discovered that she wasn’t alone in being kept out of the loop; everyone of any consequence was. Shastri had chosen to announce his decision when Nanda was out of town. Kamaraj was very much at his residence,no more than a kilometre away from the PM’s House. He was furious because he was not even informed of the PM’s choice,never mind being consulted about it. As I learnt much later,a senior cabinet colleague had confided to Indira Gandhi that he had gone to Shastri to plead that foreign affairs should have gone to her,not to anyone else. After listening to him “patiently”,Shastri had “gently” told him: “Allocation of portfolios is the prime minister’s prerogative.”

Kamaraj,Indira Gandhi and some others drew the conclusion that Shastri wanted a foreign minister who would be content with the “routine running” of the external affairs ministry and wouldn’t mind the PM retaining full control on foreign policy and foreign relations. This impression was rather dramatically confirmed in a short few weeks.

For nearly a decade,Pratap Singh Kairon had ruled Punjab with an iron hand and had kept at bay the Akali Party that challenged the Congress in various worrying ways. For this,he enjoyed the unstinted support of Nehru,who even overlooked his excesses. However,even during Nehru’s twilight years,resentment against the alleged corruption and high-handedness of Kairon’s sons had become so alarming that Nehru had to request a retired Supreme Court chief justice,S.R. Das,to hold a comprehensive inquiry.

The Das Commission’s report,upholding the charges against the Kairon family and holding him constructively responsible for them,was submitted during the transition to Shastri. There was an immediate clamour in Parliament and across the country for Kairon’s immediate ouster. Within the Punjab Congress,however,there was a strong feeling that Kairon’s “services were needed,the Das Commission or no Das Commission”. But Shastri was insistent on the highest standards of probity being maintained. Nanda — who looked upon himself as a crusader against corruption and had formed a sadachar samiti for this purpose — backed the PM stridently.

Kairon had to resign. It was not easy,however,to find a suitable successor to him. A delegation from Punjab arrived to request the PM that Swaran Singh be made the state’s chief minister. As usual,Shastri gave his visitors a patient hearing,but made it clear that Swaran Singh couldn’t be spared. “I need him in Delhi.”

When,after Shastri’s recovery from the mild heart attack and my return from London,I met him,he asked: “Why did the press become so obsessed with my brief illness”? Respectfully I replied: “Sir,the prime minister’s health is the nation’s concern” — a proposition that no one in power in this country is prepared to accept even today.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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