Political aristocrat

Print edition : December 03, 2010

Siddhartha Shankar Ray was one of India's most colourful and interesting politicians.-SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Siddhartha Shankar Ray's death marks the end of an era in West Bengal politics.

UPON hearing the news of the death of his close friend and old political adversary Jyoti Basu in January this year, Siddhartha Shankar Ray reportedly commented with deep sadness: Jyoti is gone. Next, I suppose, it will be my turn. Ten months later, on November 6, Ray, former Congress Chief Minister of West Bengal and former Union Minister, succumbed to a prolonged illness. Thus came to an end one of the most colourful and chequered careers in the State's politics.

In his condolence message to Ray's widow, Maya Ray, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: He had a very long public career in which he contributed immensely to the processes of nation-building in a variety of ways. In Ray's death, we have lost a staunch nationalist, a modernist and a widely respected leader, whose work spanned a diverse range of areas in public life. I will always remember him as a senior colleague of the Indian National Congress and a very valued friend.

EARLY CAREER

The nonagenarian Congressman, who was the eldest grandson of Deshbandhu Chittaranjan Das, was widely considered the last of the political aristocrats of Bengal. Ray was born on October 20, 1920, to the eminent barrister Sudhir Kumar Ray and Aparna Devi, daughter of C.R. Das. After finishing his schooling at St. Xavier's, Kolkata, he graduated from Presidency College there. Given his family background, it was only natural that Ray took up a career in law. He was called to the Bar of England, and upon his return in the late 1940s, he began to practise as a barrister in the Calcutta High Court, where he soon acquired a formidable reputation.

It was not until the late 1950s that Ray made his foray into active politics. In 1957, he successfully contested the Assembly election and became Minister for Law and Tribal Welfare in the Bidhan Chandra Roy Cabinet. However, his differences with certain top Congress leaders of that time prompted him to resign from the Cabinet after 13 months, much to the dismay of B.C. Roy, who apparently planned to groom Siddhartha Shankar as his successor.

Having acrimoniously parted ways with the Congress, Ray, with the support of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI), successfully contested as an independent candidate and joined forces with the Opposition in the State Assembly. During the Food Movement of 1959, he agitated alongside the Left and accused the ruling Congress of being directly responsible for the crisis.

THE COMEBACK

The 1960s saw Ray mending fences with the Congress and coming back into its fold. His growing proximity to Indira Gandhi ensured his rapid rise within the party both in the State and at the Centre. In 1967, he became the Union Minister for Education and Youth Services.

His political power reached its zenith in the early 1970s. With the outbreak of the Bangladesh war and the political crisis in West Bengal where no party was able to form the government, Ray was given the additional responsibility of being the Union Minister for West Bengal. At the time of the war, he played a crucial diplomatic role in liaising with Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, a confidant of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and in advising Indira Gandhi. After the war, when he assumed the office of Chief Minister of West Bengal in 1972, he did an admirable job in providing temporary relief and shelter to the millions of refugees from Bangladesh.

He went on to become one of Indira Gandhi's most trusted advisers. It is interesting to note that their grandfathers, Motilal Nehru and C.R. Das respectively, not only were friends but shared the same views, being members of the Swaraj Party within the Congress.

Ray assumed the office of Chief Minister against the background of the Left allegation that the Assembly election of 1972 was heavily rigged. In fact, the Left boycotted the Assembly itself. Though he served his full term until 1977, his tenure was mired in controversy.

One of the two most enduring criticisms levelled against Ray during that period was about the manner in which he suppressed the naxalite movement, which had reached its peak by the early 1970s. He gave a free hand to the administration and the police to deal with the extremists, who were treated as dangerous criminals. Stories abound of inhuman torture by the police, deaths in police lock-ups, fake encounters, and systematic killing of the Congress' political opponents during that period in the name of controlling the naxalite movement. Though this policy was successful in breaking the back of naxalism, the ruthlessly cruel methods used by the state are still referred to with fear.

ROLE IN THE EMERGENCY

The second serious criticism against him was the role he played behind the declaration of the Emergency in 1975. At that time, it was a well-known fact that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi depended heavily on his political and legal advice, and it was he who drafted the proposal for the Emergency and accompanied her to meet President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed to explain the legal aspects of the draft. Moreover, his closeness to Indira Gandhi at that time makes it impossible to assume that his involvement was limited to the legal justification of the situation.

But in spite of it all, even at a time when his popularity was at its lowest, he strove for a corruption-free government, and his personal integrity was unimpeachable. In fact, he even went to the extent of appointing a judicial commission the Wanchoo Commission to investigate corruption in his own Cabinet. This further alienated him from his party colleagues, and in the 1977 election the Congress was wiped out and the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Front under the leadership of Jyoti Basu came to power.

The years following his defeat were spent in relative political obscurity. He was no longer the West Bengal Pradesh Congress Committee (WBPCC) president, and his subsequent attempts to win in the Assembly elections were unsuccessful. In 1986, the wheel of his political fortune once again turned when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi appointed him Governor of Punjab at the height of the Khalistan movement. His stint as Governor until 1989, when the V.P. Singh government came to power at the Centre, was widely considered a successful one. In fact, upon the news of his death, the Punjab government announced a two-day state mourning.

In 1991, he won his Assembly seat from Chowringhee in Kolkata, and once again took up the post of the WBPCC president. In 1992, after the Congress was back in power under the leadership of P.V. Narasimha Rao, Ray was given the important task of being India's Ambassador to the United States. He remained Ambassador until 1996, and is, in fact, credited with forging closer ties between India and the U.S. in line with the new economic policies of the Narasimha Rao government. This was considered the most successful assignment in the later part of his career.

MULTIFACETED PERSONALITY

In his death, West Bengal, and perhaps the whole country, has lost one of its most colourful and interesting politicians. At a time when politics has degenerated into personal vilification of political rivals, Ray was the last of a generation that never allowed politics to get in the way of personal relationships. Throughout his life, he maintained a deep friendship with Jyoti Basu though they were the most bitter of political enemies. We fought vigorously but never viciously; there was no hatred, he told this reporter after Basu passed away. Those who had interacted with him personally or professionally always found him charming and affectionate. He never let his party colleagues be intimidated by his aristocratic background, and to them he was always Manu-da.

Politics was not Ray's only interest. He was a sports enthusiast, his favourite games being tennis and cricket. He had captained the Presidency College cricket team, and had continued playing tennis until quite late in his life. He served as the president of the Cricket Association of Bengal (CAB) twice (1982-83 and 1985-86).

Standing six feet four inches tall, he kept himself in good shape and retained a youthfulness that belied his age. He was never the conventional politician and carried himself with a flamboyance that endeared him to the general public. One factor that remained a constant part of his life was the legal profession. As a barrister he was enormously respected, and he never lost touch with the legal world until the end of his life.

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