A rebel's journey

Print edition : July 27, 2007

Chandra Shekhar with Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Congress MP Praful Patel, in New Delhi in February 2004.-MANISH SWARUP/AP

Former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar was once the face of the alternative liberal democratic political leadership in India.

ONE of the most enduring images of former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, who passed away on July 8, relates to the Bharat Yatra that he undertook as an opposition leader in early 1983. The six-month-long "on foot" journey that the then president of the Janata Party made from Kanyakumari to Rajghat in New Delhi, traversing approximately 4,260 kilometres, had the stated objectives of "evolving a first-hand understanding of the problems of the people of India and reviving the rapport between the people and the political class". It was an unprecedented and ambitious initiative in terms of the physical effort involved as well as in terms of political intent. It reflected the leader's resolve to push the limits in order to make a political impact.

The promise held out by the Bharat Yatra, the hopes it generated in vast sections of the country's population, the way they were nurtured for a fair amount of time, and the ultimate disintegration of the dreams raised by the Yatra symbolise, in many ways, the political career of Chandra Shekhar.

When he set out on the Bharat Yatra, Chandra Shekhar was indeed the face of an alternative liberal democratic political leadership. The timing, too, was ideal. Four years had passed since the first non-Congress government of the country, led by the Janata Party, had collapsed following differences over the "dual membership" issue. (It related to some Janata Party leaders, including Ministers, continuing to be members of the Hindutva-oriented Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, or the RSS). The Indira Gandhi-led Congress government that returned to power in 1980 had invited public anger on account of a number of problems, including the rise of terrorist activities in different States, threatening the very unity and integrity of the country.

In these circumstances, the leader of the Bharat Yatra raised visions of becoming a rallying point of liberal democratic and secular forces. There were other factors, too, that buttressed this perception. His political track record until the 1980s was an important element. Right from his student days, he was a committed follower of the socialist movement and had emerged as an important leader of the Praja Socialist Party (PSP) in his home State of Uttar Pradesh in the 1950s and 1960s. The PSP was essentially driven by anti-Congress politics during that period, but Chandra Shekhar was one of the first leaders of the party, along with Socialist ideologue Asoka Mehta, to realise the growing threat posed to the country by the communal Hindutva ideology and right-wing socio-economic policies represented respectively by the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, the precursor to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Swatantra Party (now defunct). This realisation led both Mehta and Chandra Shekhar to give up what they termed as "sectarian opposition to the Congress", and they joined the Congress in 1964.

Within the Congress, Chandra Shekhar, along with Mohan Dharia and Krishan Kant, formed a strong bloc that strengthened the socialist section. The determined interventions of this group, which came to be called "Young Turks", were largely instrumental in the formulation of a number of socialist-oriented initiatives of the Indira Gandhi-led Congress party and government in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

During his Bharat Yatra, in Kanyakumari in January 1983. To his right is his Janata Party colleague S.M. Joshi.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

But Chandra Shekhar was equally resolute when it came to opposing the dictatorial streak in Indira Gandhi. He made no secret of his detestation of the culture of sycophancy that had engulfed the Congress during that period. The conflict on this issue between the two leaders grew to formidable proportions and Chandra Shekhar was one of the first political leaders to be put in jail when Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in June 1975. Chandra Shekhar was in jail for almost the entire period of the Emergency, which lasted until the announcement of the March 1977 Lok Sabha elections.

In the run-up to the 1977 elections, Chandra Shekhar joined hands with the legendary socialist leader Jayaprakash Narayan to form the Janata Party, which became the fulcrum of all anti-Congress, centrist and right-wing parties. He was also elected president of the Janata Party.

During the Janata Party regime, too, he criticised from time to time the style of functioning of the Morarji Desai-led dispensation and attempted to bring about some course correction. During this period, he stood firm on the issue of dual membership and refused to yield to the pressure tactics of the Jan Sangh group, which was trying to advance the RSS line.

The Bharat Yatra, in organisational terms, was an attempt to enhance the appeal and impact of this upright political personality. There are enough indications to show that Chandra Shekhar was convinced about initiating a new socio-political developmental agenda on the basis of the Yatra's experience. A large number of speeches he made in different parts of the country during the Yatra emphasised this conviction. He had set up 15 Bharat Yatra Kendras to follow up, consolidate and advance this agenda. The thrust of the agenda was on decentralisation of resources and power, and it clearly militated against disproportionate and monopolistic growth.

The ultimate political objective of all this was clear. Chandra Shekhar wanted to lead the nation as Prime Minister. A large number of his associates have pointed out that right from the early days of the 1977 Janata Party government, Chandra Shekhar was convinced that he would be able to "do a better job" as Prime Minister. His statement that he would contest for the leadership of the Janata Parliamentary Party if Morarji Desai were to demit office was a clear indication of this intent.

But the grand plans drawn up by the Bharat Yatra failed to bear fruit. The assassination of Indira Gandhi converted the 1984 elections into an out-and-out emotional affair and pushed aside the distinctive socio-political developmental agenda that Chandra Shekhar was trying to advance. The mass emotional quotient and the sympathy factor were so dominant in the elections that Indira Gandhi's son Rajiv Gandhi rode to power with a massive three-fourths majority. The Chandra Shekhar-led Janata Party could win only 10 seats.

By the time the next general elections were held five years later, the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress had squandered this mandate and was reeling under a spate of allegations relating to "corruption in high places". The Congress could win only 197 seats in the Lok Sabha, while the newly formed Janata Dal, in which the section of the Janata Party led by Chandra Shekhar also merged, won 143 seats.

The elections led to the formation of the second non-Congress government, led by the Janata Dal and supported from outside by the BJP and the Left parties. Chandra Shekhar was evidently of the view that he was best suited to lead the government, but Vishwanath Pratap Singh pipped him to the post. It was once again the dominance of the emotional quotient in Indian politics that pushed Chandra Shekhar behind. V.P. Singh was a Minister in Rajiv Gandhi's Cabinet and had resigned from the Ministry and party to lead a highly emotive campaign on the issue of corruption in high places. Chandra Shekhar's honourable political track record, or his confidence about leading the country, was not good enough before V.P. Singh's emotive appeal.

Chandra Shekhar's political practice changed rather dramatically after this failure. The man known for his principled political practice for nearly three decades started succumbing, periodically, to the pursuit of the politics of pragmatism. He adopted a cynical view about the functioning of the V.P. Singh government. When the government fell following the withdrawal of support by the BJP on the Ayodhya Ram Mandir issue, he walked away from the Janata Dal with 64 Lok Sabha members to form the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP) and joined hands with the Congress. That move helped him realise his ambition of becoming Prime Minister, albeit for seven months starting November 10, 1990.

His brief stint did indeed justify the conviction that he himself and a large number of his associates and friends had on his capacity to lead the country. He had difficult situations, created by terrorism and an economic crisis, to handle: he addressed most of these commendably. According to a large number of bureaucrats and politicians who had worked with him, Chandra Shekhar was a no-nonsense, hands-on Prime Minister who had a firm grip on problems and an enormous potential for governance. He was the first Prime Minister to engage the Punjab militants in a dialogue, paving the way for a process that ultimately helped resolve the issue.

However, the overall track record of his political practice since the early 1990s was an unpredictable mixture of idealism and pragmatism. He had joined hands with the Congress by virtually folding up his opposition to dynastic politics and related afflictions such as sycophancy and authoritarianism. Yet, he refused to succumb to political condescension and resigned when the Congress accused his government of spying on Rajiv Gandhi.

Chandra Shekhar took a principled position on issues such as corruption and communalism and at the same time promoted politicians such as the late Surajdeo Singh, who had sobriquets such as "Don of Dhanbad" and "King of the Coal Mafia". Since the early 1990s, the Bharat Yatra Kendras he had set up in the States of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana started disintegrating. Not only were the centres devoid of any significant activity but the very legal status of many of them came under scrutiny. In 2002, a Supreme Court order held that the Bharat Yatra Kendra in Bhondsi near Delhi had illegally occupied village land.

His party, the SJP, failed to make many inroads into mainstream polity. Chandra Shekhar had to make a number of compromises, even with the BJP, whose Sangh Parivar politics he had openly chastised, in order to retain his traditional seat of Ballia. In the last two Lok Sabha elections, it was the support of the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party (S.P.) that helped him return to the Lok Sabha. But, at the same time, he took strong and principled positions in Parliament on a variety of issues that went against the interests of the very same parties. His consistent opposition to the BJP on the Ayodhya issue and his confrontation with the S.P. on the displacement of farmers for the Dadri power project are cases in point.

What this showed was that in spite of the paradoxical streams in his political practice, the socialist from a farmer's family in Ibrahimpatti village in Uttar Pradesh's Ballia district had not lost his basic moorings and perspective. His effectiveness as a Member of Parliament and his steadfast adherence to parliamentary conventions were acknowledged when he was honoured with the inaugural Outstanding Parliamentarian Award in 1995.

There may not be any takers for Chandra Shekhar's political legacy, especially in the context of the virtual non-existence of any political and organisational clout for his party. But his life is indeed a case study that reflects the various positive and negative influences that the country's polity has endured since Independence. In that sense, Chandra Shekhar's life provides valuable lessons to all political practitioners and observers.

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