Shadows of the Congress stalwarts have never left him. Sandwiched between the pressure to fill Jawaharlal Nehru’s void and then being forgotten in Indira Gandhi's large history, it is only now that his eventful prime ministership and mysterious death are making echoes. Problems laid his path. But it was his swift responses to them that earned him respect as a formidable leader. A small man, but a big grit. The second Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s tenure deserves more headlines than the conspiracy theories around his death.
The entire world had its eyes on India after Nehru passed away as the question of ‘Who after Nehru?’ gripped our nascent democracy. Morarji Desai was quick to throw his hat in the ring but Shastri was the popular choice. Known for his honesty and clean history, Shastri was a man shaped during the freedom struggle and under Gandhian ideals. In 1956, he resigned from the railway ministry owning responsibility for a rail accident. On June 9, 1964, Shastri was sworn in as the second Prime Minister of India.
The 1960s was termed as the ‘dangerous decade.’ Massive poverty, food shortage, internal uprisings and two wars with our neighbours made people sceptical about the future of a united India.
Economically, Shastri continued Nehru’s socialist ideals with central planning. The beginning of his short tenure witnessed the White Revolution- to increase the production and supply of milk- which he highly promoted. On October 31, 1964, he visited Anand in Gujarat to inaugurate the Cattle Feed Factory of Amul. Addressing the nation on All India Radio about the chronic food shortage, he encouraged citizens to skip one meal each week so that the grains could reach the affected populace. The mass appeal he had could best be encapsulated in the aftermath of this- lakhs of people gave up their meals and even restaurants put their shutters down on Monday evenings. Many even observed “Shastri Vrat.” The Green Revolution initiated by him added another feather in his hat.
Even foreign relations improved vastly during his tenure. He signed a pact with his Sri Lankan [then Ceylon] counterpart, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, to repatriate more than 5 lakh Indian Tamils and grant Ceylonese citizenship to lakhs of Indian origin Tamils. In order to re-establish friendly ties with Burma after it repatriated many Indian families in 1962 following the coup, Shastri made an official visit to Rangoon.
The pinnacle of his test as the Prime Minister came in August of 1965. Pakistan offences on the Kutch peninsula under Ayub Khan, who highly underestimated Shastri by his stature, came unprecedented. However, what must have come unprecedented for Khan was Shastri’s decision to move the army towards Lahore and Sialkot.
Sandeep Shastri, the author of ‘Lal Bahadur Shastri: Politics and Beyond’ quotes Harbaksh Singh, the Commander of Western Command in 1965- “The Army would never forget this tallest decision by the shortest man.” In an interview with Kuldip Nayar, Singh hailed Shastri’s decision to ask the Indian Troops to enter Pakistan. The budget allocation for the defence had been increased significantly. Despite limited resources, India’s army was better prepared. It was the night after the ceasefire of this war that left India at the crossroads of choosing another Prime Minister.
A journalist from Manchester Guardian described Shastri as “rock sure of himself,” who spoke in short and concise sentences with “no words wasted.” However, there were others who were less impressed. On his way back home from Cairo, he halted briefly at Karachi. There he met the Pakistani president Ayub Khan, who after this meeting told his aide, “So this is the man who has succeeded Nehru!" Incidentally, he was also the same man who carried Shastri’s body on his shoulders in Tashkent; a picture that shocked many.
He travelled extensively in these 18 months, but his white Dhoti, Kurta and Gandhi Cap remained constant. A simple man, by language and looks, managed to connect to many Indians. Such was the nature of the man. He took a loan of Rs. 5000 from Punjab National Bank, while in office, for a new Fiat car. This was repaid by his wife, Lalita Shastri, even after his death.
‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’ will always remain this small man’s big epitaph, capturing the essence and reassuring the young nation of self-reliance, that was knee-deep in crisis.
Padmanabhan A. (2019, Oct. 06) Opinion | Shastri: The Prime Minister that India almost forgot. Mint.
Guha R. (2016, Oct. 08) Lal Bahadur Shastri: The prime minister we must now remember. Hindustan Times.
Ruthnaswamy M. (2017, Oct. 02) Lal Bahadur Shastri – The ‘Little Minister’. Swarajya Magazine.