Tuesday, December 08, 2020

Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar

 Chandra Shekhar served as PM for seven months between November 1990 to June 1991. He split from the Janata Party and formed the Janata Party (Socialist) as he was never reconciled to V P Singh as PM. His party comprising 64 MPs was propped up by the Congress party headed by Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv toppled him when he found that Chandra Shekhar would not accommodate his wishes beyond a point and also because he was afraid that Chandra Shekhar, an ex- Congressman with friends across political parties, might win over people from the Congress.

Many people see him as a rank opportunist, a man who had no qualms about sinking the Janata Party in order to satisfy his ambition to become PM. They overlook the fact that Chandra Shekhar did not occupy any government office until he became PM, a remarkable achievement, especially given the fact that Narendra Modi's becoming PM straight after having been CM - and without any experience at the Centre- is today thought remarkable.

Roderick Matthews has produced a sympathetic biography, Chandra Shekhar and the six months that saved India. The title may appear melodramatic but Chandra Shekhar did take the crucial decision to borrow against gold in order to prevent a default on India's external obligations. (It wasn't sale of gold, as many think- India pledged gold to the Union Bank of Switzerland and then to the Bank of England and took foreign currency loans against gold. ). Matthews also makes the point that Chandra Shekhar had to deal with separatist crises in Kashmir, Punjab and Assam  and was successful in putting a lid on the latter two. 

Chandra Shekhar was a member of the Praja Socialist Party (PSP) which had split from the Congress and included the likes of Acharya Narendra Dev, Ashoka Mehta, Jayaprakash Narayan and Rammanohar Lohia. Later, the PSP split, with Lohia and a few other leaders walking out of it. Ashoka Mehta led some of his followers back into the Congress. Chandra Shekhar was one of them. He was noted for his rebellious streak and earned the title of 'Young Turk'. He refused several ministerial offers while in the Congress. It's a measure of his independence that Indira Gandhi chose to throw him in jail during the Emergency.

There's no question that Chandra Shekhar was a man of great talent. He was a gifted speaker- he speech at a Saarc summit when he was PM was made extempore. He once spoke on agricultural policy for one and a half hours without a piece of paper in hand. As PM, he impressed bureaucrats with his capacity for hard work, courtesy, decisiveness, preference for consultation and persuasion in  all matters and his enormous respect for institutions. The BBC called him India's greatest PM since Nehru!

Matthews tells us that Chandra Shekhar  was very clear that the Ayodhya dispute could be resolved only through negotiations and that it wasn't a matter that could be resolved by the courts. According to Matthews, Chandra Shekhar was close to clinching a solution. This involved the Muslims surrendering the disuted site to the Hindus while being compensated with land elsewhere in Ayodhya and a promise that no other temple issue would be re-opened. This is a remarkable disclosure considering that that is how the issue has finally been settled.

Chandra Shekhar laid no claim to be a saint or even being free from corruption. He was frank enough to accept that the the political machine is greased by tainted money and that if he wanted to be in politics, he had to live with the fact. In politics, such frankness is not appreciated. You need to be a hypocrite. Chandra Shekhar's image was badly dented by his open association with a coal Mafia don in Bihar and with godman Chandra Swami.

Matthews book provides plenty of background on the crucial political and economic issues in Chandra Shekhar's time. However, he has little to document by way of Chandra Shekhar's concrete achievements, given that his subject had little opportunity to demonstrate his remarkable talents. 

This biography is a useful reminder that India does not lack political talent. Those who rise to the top in Indian politics have the leadership and administrative qualities needed to steer the country. People fret about our corrupt and bungling politicians. Matthews book drives home the point that the nation is safe in their hands.

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