Lal Bahadur Shashtri is one of the rare gems of Indian Politics who in his brief stint as the Prime Minister of the nation, upheld Rajdharma and led the country to fight for its survival while regaining its self esteem.
By Raghava Krishna, Associate Dean for Academics at Rashtram
Conspiracy and intrigue shroud the death of one of India’s most beloved sons and her 2nd Prime Minister – Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri. However, his brief stint as the prime minister holds many important lessons for scholars and chroniclers of modern India’s political history.
Contemporary politics mirrors a larger global cultural trend of incessant and competitive performativity. The battle for crafting ‘Public Narratives’ leads to a strange pathology of pre-fabricated solutions looking for problems. Against this backdrop, Shastri Ji’s leadership journey might hold some key lessons on the rhythm and purpose of public leadership, particularly the political kind.
Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri assumed prime ministership in one of post-independent India’s most turbulent times. He helmed a wounded nation recovering from a war while waging another one. He dealt with domestic agitations, through the tumultuous phase and put it back on the path to stability.
The values of integrity, accessibility, an authentic connect with the common man of the nation stand out when we study his life-journey. In many ways, he espouses the quintessential Indian leadership aesthetic of seva, tyaga and samanvaya.
Early life and role in Freedom movement
Shastri Ji studied in East Central Railway Inter College in Mughalsarai and Varanasi. He completed his graduation from the Kashi Vidyapeeth in 1926. He was given the title “Shastri” meaning “Scholar” by Vidya Peeth as a part of his bachelor’s degree award but it eventually became a part of his name.
During the 1920s, Shastri Ji joined the Indian Independence Movement, in which he participated in the non-cooperation movement. He was sent to jail for some time by the Britishers. In 1930, he also participated in the Salt Satyagraha, for which he was imprisoned for more than two years. In 1937, he joined as the Organising Secretary of the Parliamentary Board of U.P. He was again sent to jail in 1942 after Mahatma Gandhi issued the Quit India speech in Mumbai. He was imprisoned until 1946.
Shastri Ji spent nine years in jail during the independence struggle. He spent this reading books and familiarizing himself with the works of western philosophers, revolutionaries and social reformers.
Post India’s Independence, Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri became the Parliamentary Secretary in U.P. He also became the Minister of Police and Transport in 1947. As a Transport Minister, he had appointed women conductors for the first time. Being the minister in charge of the Police Department, he passed the order that police should use jets of water and not lathis to disperse the agitated crowds.
In 1951, Shastri Ji was appointed as the General Secretary of the All-India Congress Committee and got success in carrying out the publicity and other activities related to the election. In 1952, he was elected to Rajya Sabha from U.P. Being the Railway Minister, he installed the first machine at Integral Coach Factory in Chennai in 1955.
In 1957, Shastri Ji again became the Minister for Transport and Communications, and then the Minister of Commerce and Industry. In 1961, he was appointed as Home Minister, and he appointed the Committee on Prevention of Corruption. He created the famous “Shastri Formula” which consisted of the language agitations in Assam and Punjab.
As Prime Minister
On 9 June, 1964, Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri became the Prime Minister of India. Shri Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s death left a leadership void and an internal dynamic between those who wished to carry forward the socialist vision as opposed to a conservative upsurge, represented by the likes of Shri Morarji Desai.
Shastri Ji inherited a nation that was seeking to rediscover its pride even with survival was at stake. National security, economic slow-down, food shortage were the main challenges. He worked with his characteristic rigour to try and address the challenges although his economic philosophy was constrained by the prevailing thought. This is reflected in his first broadcast on 11th June 1964 as the prime minister where he remarked:-
““There comes a time in the life of every nation when it stands at the cross-roads of history and must choose which way to go. But for us there need be no difficulty or hesitation, no looking to right or left. Our way is straight and clear – the building up of a socialist democracy at home with freedom and prosperity for all, and the maintenance of world peace and friendship with all nations.”
Shastri Ji had an organic connection with the people. It is perhaps unimaginable today that people across the land would respond to a call of sacrificing a meal a day and even more so, that hotels and restaurants would voluntarily shut down their establishments to honour the call of a politician but for those who are familiar with the civilizational ideals of Bharat, it should come as no surprise that when the leader making the call is seen as Dharmic, Bharat’s sons and daughters will always perform the Tyaga and Yagna required to uphold Dharma.
Mystery surrounding the death
Although officially it was maintained that Shastri Ji died of heart attack, his widow, Smt, Lalita Shastri Ji maintained that her husband was poisoned. Many believed that Shastri Ji’s body turning blue was evidence of his poisoning. Indeed a Russian butler attending to him was arrested on suspicion of poisoning but was later absolved of charges.
In 2009, when Anuj Dhar, author of CIA’s Eye on South Asia, asked the Prime Minister’s Office under an RTI plea (Right to Information Act), that Shastri’s cause of death be made public, the PMO refused to oblige, citing that this could lead to harming of foreign relations, cause disruption in the country and cause a breach of parliamentary privileges.
The PMO did inform however that it had in its possession one document related to Shastri’s death, but refused to declassify it. The government also admitted that no post-mortem examination had been conducted on him in USSR, but it did have a report of a medical investigation conducted by Shastri’s personal physician Dr. R.N. Chugh and some Russian doctors.
Furthermore, the PMO revealed that there was no record of any destruction, or loss, of documents in the PMO having a bearing on Shastri’s death. As of July 2009, the home ministry is yet to respond to queries whether India conducted a post-mortem and if the government had investigated allegations of foul play.
India’s political culture is characterized by dynasties and personalities and afflicted either by monochromatic imaginations or spineless genuflections. Shastri Ji’s life offers an alternate template of taking people along and fulfilling the real role of political leadership – evoking a collective spirit and creating a compact of Parmarth for Nation building.
Rashtram School of Public Leadership salutes Shri Lal Bahadur Shastri and remembers the supreme sacrifice he made for the nation. We renew our commitment to take a ‘Shastri Vrath’.