Book: Chandra Shekhar And The Six Months That Saved India | Author Roderick Matthews
By John Cheeran
When Chandra Shekhar stepped up to become India’s eighth prime minister on 10 November 1990, he was writing his political obituary.
What had sustained the politics of this former Congressman was anti-Congressism, since 1977.
Now, he was being propped up by Rajiv Gandhi with Congress giving him outside support. It was a strange spectacle, with Chandra Shekhar claiming the support of 60 MPs, and Rajiv Gandhi, with the 197-member strong Congress, calling the shots in the wake of VP Singh losing the trust vote in Parliament.
Both Chandra Shekhar and Rajiv Gandhi had a common enemy, VP Singh, and that sealed the arrangement when none of the political parties was keen to go for another general election, except BJP—a party on ascent in the trail of L K Advani’s Rath Yatra.
Chandra Shekhar, a man who never held a position of power previously, was keen on becoming prime minister, and when Congress lost the elections in 1989, with less than 40 MPs in his fold, he had made an unsuccessful attempt to become the PM a year ago. It was more of an effort to discredit and sully VP Singh, whose leadership he could not accept despite being in the same party, Janata Dal.
Politicians are driven by ambition. But when you discard all your principles for personal advancement, you would not be remembered kindly. Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar could not even pass the budget when Rajiv Gandhi tied his hands.
Chandra Shekhar, one of the Young Turks who stood by Indira Gandhi when she split Congress, had sterling credentials to become the PM. He had a long schooling in socialist ideology, politics and its vicissitudes, having been jailed by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency.
Chandra Shekhar even pulled off an unprecedented feat of an all-India walkathon (padayatra) in 1983, as president of Janata Party, to rejuvenate the organisation after the collapse of the Janata experiment. But in the next Lok Sabha elections, in 1984, he lost his pocket borough, Ballia.
The question is, why did Chandra Shekhar abandon his high principles (anti-Congressism and socialism, political legitimacy) and went on a foredoomed prime ministerial pilgrimage?
He could have bided his time and still become the PM when the next elections were called for. He was only 63 at that time. Considering what followed in the 1990s, the dice would have rolled in his favour, too, when another anti-Congressism experiment spawned Deve Gowda and I K Gujral, who would have never been considered as PMs, except for their extreme outsider status.
In a new book, Chandra Shekhar and the Six Months That Saved India (Harper Collins), Roderick Matthews, vigorously argues that despite the constraints and lack of legitimacy, the Rajput from UP was one of the best PMs that India has ever had.
You may disagree. Matthews has not attempted a biography but takes a closer look at the events after the 1989 elections and how Chandra Shekhar became the PM.
The author says that Chandra Shekhar had to deal with the financial profligacy of the previous regimes and had to take crucial but bitter decisions, especially that of mortgaging gold to avert a balance of payment crisis.
Matthews presents Chandra Shekhar as a rustic but down-to-earth PM who was quintessentially humane. The author claims that Chandra Shekhar had a struck a deal with VHP and Muslim groups to resolve Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute when he was in the PM’s gaadi but this account is based on a version given by Kamal Morarka, a long-term Chandra Shekhar acolyte who handled the PMO at that time.
The strength of Matthews’s effort lies in the credibility of the interviews he had with Morarka, who has enough reasons to burnish the image of his master, and bureaucrats S K Misra, B G Deshmukh, R Manchanda and Muchkund Dubey. Matthews also relies on former president R Venkataraman’s book, My Presidential Years, to present the circumstances that led to Chandra Shekhar’s elevation and the souring of equations with Rajiv Gandhi which eventually led to his downfall.
Matthews also produces a certificate from another born-to-become-PM politician, Pranab Mukherjee, to elevate Chandra Shekhar’s status. “He eschewed the politics of power, and was a leader statesman in the true sense. In fact, he was held in high esteem across parties—a tribute to his statesmanship. Given a viable chance, he may well have proven himself as one of India’s best prime ministers.” (The Turbulent Years)
The 80s and the 90s were truly tumultuous times in Indian politics and Chandra Shekhar’s journey and its culmination in irrelevance is a tragedy that he did not deserve, considering the man’s talent and earnestness.
But come to think of it, the allure of prime minister-ship has eluded many craftier and stronger politicians–Jagjivan Ram, Devi Lal, L K Advani, Sharad Pawar, Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav. May be, then, the man from Ibrahimpatti had a power point, after all.