William Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar: “Only he acted from honesty and for the general good. His life was gentle, and the elements mixed so well in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, ‘This was a man’.”
Had the Bard of Avon been in India in the 1960s, he would have said the same of the then Prime Minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Imagine a PM announcing to go fasting once a week—to set example for the people to do likewise. No wonder, believing in his credibility and honesty, millions followed him. The reason: to reduce dependence on America for import of food, at a time when India was passing through one of the worst food crises.
The US had threatened to stop food-grain export to India or make it conditional. Shastri realized that India’s pride would be hurt if he complied with those conditions. He appealed to the people to ‘tie rope on stomach, eat more vegetables and fruits, fast one day a week, and save the country from this famine’. A true Gandhian, he represented the best of Indian culture and tradition.
That Shastri shares his birthday with Mahatma Gandhi—he was born on October 2, 1904—is of little importance. What makes this tiny Congressman, who propelled India to dizziest heights in his short 18-month-long premiership, different from other tin-pot leaders, is the fact that he led India’s victory against Pakistan (1965) and demolished Rawalpindi’s claims of invincibility. Ironically, he had stepped into the shoes of a towering PM, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, under whose leadership India had lost a war against China, just three years ago (1962). The contrast was, therefore, all the more manifest.
Thousands of Indians, believing in his able leadership, even donated gold and money to help fund India’s war against Pakistan. Decisive victory in this war irreversibly put India on the road to emerge as a regional power; it was on the solid foundation he laid that India defeated Pakistan again (1971) and split it as well to create Bangladesh.
But beyond his leadership in war, there is more to Shastri’s sterling contributions.
Born in a family of modest means, Shastri, like Dr Manmohan Singh, was almost an ‘accidental’ Prime Minister. Although a good orator, few recognized his leadership qualities under the banyan-tree-like Nehru regime. Shastri’s diminutive stature, his softness, and gentle demeanour, were a mismatch with the prevailing power-worshiping political ecosystem. But once he donned the hat as the second PM of India, there was no looking back.
Described as a colourless, self-effacing, vegetarian peace-maker, the profile on Shastri was largely positive. He had made no claim for the high profile job, and took over the reins at a very critical juncture when a gloomy India was down in the dumps due to the humiliating defeat at the hands of China and death of Nehru who bemoaned that Peking (Beijing) had stabbed him in the back. Shastri had to navigate India through probably its most crisis-ridden period; but he successfully put India back on rails.
From calming the violent anti-Hindi agitation across the southern states, to taking the first step in resolving India’s biggest food shortage by pioneering the Green Revolution, to convincing people to voluntarily fast so that the food saved could be diverted to the poor masses, and the White Revolution (AMUL), Shastri also oversaw India’s first major shift away from Nehru’s socialist economic policies based on central planning.
Months before the war between India and Pakistan was triggered in 1965, the country was going through a fragile economy. Shastri faced these challenges on the front foot.
His kindness and generosity was evident when he stopped drawing his salary and started some home-work to save on expenses.
Shastri died on January 11, 1966, in Tashkent (USSR) after signing the agreement, reportedly due to a heart attack, when he went there to sign truce with a defeated Pakistan.
Had he remained India’s PM for another five years, Indira Gandhi would have failed to create her dynastic rule.