For long treated as an interregnum between Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s lengthy terms at the helm, Lal Bahadur Shastri’s 19-month tenure as India’s prime minister was brief but came at a difficult juncture for India.
His contribution was crucial in ensuring the country’s self-sufficiency in food and pushing for economic policies oriented towards meeting the people’s need for jobs, clothing and health care.
Delivering the third lecture of the Prime Ministers Lecture Series, organised by Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya, titled “Lal Bahadur Shastri: The man who died too soon”, T N Ninan, former chairman and editorial director of Business Standard, said there “can be little doubt that” Shastri’s economic policies, if not for his untimely death, “would have had significant departures from Nehru’s”. Shastri’s confidence to strike in new directions as prime minister, and to convey to the country that he was his own man, was evident from the beginning of his tenure.
In his first remarks when the Congress elected him its leader six days after Nehru’s death, Shastri emphasised poverty and unemployment would be the primary issues he would address. At his first press conference as PM, Shastri suggested all government projects should mention the number of jobs they would create. Ninan said he asked his ministers to ensure the completion of existing capital-intensive projects before starting new ones.
Shastri, who served as India’s prime minister from June 1964 to January 1966, shifted C Subramaniam, the minister of steel and mines in Nehru’s cabinet and one of its ablest administrators, to agriculture, a decision which gave birth to the Green Revolution, solving India’s food scarcity, Ninan said. In industry, the new PM stressed the production of everyday goods used by ordinary people rather than heavy industry.
When during a no-confidence motion debate, Opposition members quizzed Shastri about abandoning Nehruvian economics, the PM said Nehru’s economic policies had been different from the Mahatma’s, and it was natural to adapt policies to changed circumstances. According to Ninan, Shastri, the grassroots organisation man, was an excellent foil to Nehru, the dreamer and thinker.
“Where Nehru was the visionary who launched ambitious projects and strode across the world stage, Shastri knew that the common man needed jobs, clothing, and health care,” he said.
Shastri was short in height and easy to underestimate, a mistake that not only his peers in the party but also Pakistan General Ayub Khan made. Shastri knew how to exercise power and authority. He created the prime minister's office, with a powerful civil servant as secretary to the prime minister. When Morarji Desai insisted that he be made number two in the new cabinet, Shastri disagreed, and Desai stayed out.
Ninan pointed to three instances where Shastri did not dither, which were proof of his mettle. In 1964, when China carried out a nuclear test, and Shastri’s attempts to get India a nuclear umbrella from the Western powers failed, he gave the green signal to Homi Bhabha, the head of atomic energy. “India’s move to become a strategic nuclear power began in an important way with Shastri,” Ninan said.
During the 1965 war with Pakistan, Shastri readily gave the army the permission it sought to cross the international border and take the battle into Pakistan’s Punjab and threaten Lahore, which forced Pakistan to divert its forces away from the thrust towards Akhnoor in Kashmir, frustrating Ayub Khan’s objective of cutting off Kashmir from the rest of India.
According to Ninan, the devaluation of the rupee in 1965 was another example of Shastri’s determined decision-making. Devaluation had become inevitable, but Finance Minister T T Krishnamachari (TTK) opposed it. According to the memoirs of B K Nehru, India’s ambassador in Washington, Shastri engineered TTK’s resignation. B K Nehru returned to Washington with authorisation to inform the International Monetary Fund and World Bank that the government had decided to devalue. “Shastri would have worked on the devaluation on his return from Tashkent. As things worked out, the devaluation was eventually announced by Indira Gandhi in June,” Ninan said.
According to Ninan, Shastri, as Indira Gandhi described him, might have been an orthodox Hindu, and someone who could work simultaneously with such polar opposites as Purushottam Das Tandon and Jawaharlal Nehru, but he was committed to secularism.
Former president Ram Nath Kovind delivered the first lecture in the Prime Ministers Lecture Series on Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan delivered the second on Jawahar Lal Nehru. Former principal secretary to the PM Nripendra Misra and former Prasar Bharati chairman A Surya Prakash also addressed the gathering.