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Mainstream, VOL XLV, No 31

Chandra Shekhar : A Profile

Saturday 21 July 2007, by Shree Shankar Sharan



Chandra Shekhar’s death has been rightly and widely mourned because there were so few left like him among the Socialists or in any other party. Till the end he was fearless and a great benefactor of people in need. He was ambitious but which politician is not. The important thing was that he could put his ambition to risk to address a popular cause which he did before the Emergency when he lauded Jayaprakash Narayan for his movement even though he was still a Young Turk in the Congress. He was incarcerated after the declaration of the Emergency. His exemplary courage won him the deep affection of JP, and the post of the Janata Party President and later, as his stature in the country grew, the office of the Prime Minister.

Such men as Chandra Shekhar become legends in their life-time. At all stages of his life Chandra Shekhar was strikingly different, irreverent to authority, outspoken and a man of immense courage. Rightly with George Fernandes he was the stormy petrel of Indian politics of his generation.

All this takes you back to the question: why did the socialist movement in India fail despite leaders like George, Madhu Limaye, Chandra Shekhar, S. M. Joshi and, in an earlier generation, JP, Lohia, Acharya Narendra Dev, Asoka Mehta, and a host of others?

Socialism was a revolutionary idea and needed a revolution in Russia and China to be established in these countries. The democratic socialists who rejected violence and the bloodshed and suffering it caused as the means to win socialism tried to do so by the democratic route. But though they achieved extraordinary popularity among the youth in the country, and among the labour and small or marginal farmers by men like Karpoori Thakur or Basawan Singh or Suraj Babu apart from the national leaders, their electoral prospects were outdone by the charismatic leaders of the freedom movement, some socialist and others conservative.

The Socialists lacked the patience to wait out their time before they reached their goal. Losers are fond of playing the blame-game and the more Left you are the more addicted you become to this game, be it in India or Russia because they, the Communists more than them, treat revolutions as a scientific diagnosis of an objective reality which cannot fail unless you are a bad socialist or a deviationist. A mechanistic view of socialism has always been full of bickerings. The democratic reality is far more complex; electors have multiple interests and minds to be commanded in any certain direction.

The Indian elector is not impressed by ideology alone. He has been cheated too often in history to put his trust in promises. He values loyalty to an old and known face putting the Congress party to advantage over others for two decades. Other than ideology the personal character of the candidates, in which many Socialists did not score as heavily as the famous Congress leaders, particularly impresses him. In India saintliness has for long enjoyed a premium.

Revolutions and democratic party management often go ill together because while the former, including the entirely peaceful JP movement in 1974 or Gandhi’s famous satyagrahs both in South Africa and India, filled you with fervour and raised you to a new moral plane, the latter makes for unethical demands like collecting funds and obtaining consensus to push a party programme or even keeping the party together, against the temptations thrown by other less principled parties.

THE socialist movement in India was indeed founded and led by some of the most brilliant young men in the country or any country. Its most famous champion was Jawaharlal Nehru himself but he was also under Gandhi’s spell, was named by him as his successor and chose to lead the Congress party and accept compromises with the more conservative elements of the party. While his declaration of a socialist pattern of society was socialist enough, the path he chose were full of capitalist snares. His policy of a mixed economy was inclusive like Lenin’s New Economic Policy, his planned economy was more indicative than mandatory. He went no further and avoided harsh measures like radical land reforms.

A socialist caucus within the Congress, called the Congress Socialist Party, was founded by the brilliant young men as Jayaprakash Narayan from Bihar, Narendra Dev and Lohia from UP, Minoo Masani, Yusuf Meherali, Purushottam Tricum Das, Achyut Patwardhan and Asoka Mehta from the Bombay Presidency. This caucus was forced to leave the Congress on the plea of refusing dual membership, but Nehru tried to bring back JP to the government as the Deputy Prime Minister which the latter refused unless several conditions were fulfilled. The Socialists were roundly defeated in the first election and others that followed but several individuals won and had a presence. They also had a presence in the trade unions. JP drifted to Sarvodaya nearer Gandhi, and Patwardhan to spirituality.

Lohia, the only powerful leader left among them, devised a strategy of capturing power in coalition with all Opposition parties from the Right to the Left. He succeeded on the score of capturing power but lost on the score of ushering in socialism. So did JP merging all Opposition parties in the Janata Party. He defeated the Congress but his merged parties had no interest in socialism or his ‘total revolution’. Before he could bring them back on rails he was dead.

It is ironical that in an age, after the collapse of the USSR, while democratic socialist parties flourished in Poland and many East European states and Lech Walesa became the Polish President, an old democratic movement was obliterated in India. The two prominent reasons were the frustration of its leaders with failing to achieve instant democratic success and the error of following a coalition strategy which wholly submerged the socialist movement. A further error lay in confusing caste and class by Lohia that laid the foundation of casteist parties which overshadowed all others with the help of caste vote-banks.

Besides, there was a more major problem of a strong overlay of Gandhian thought on Indian Socialists, particularly Jayaprakash Narayan and even Lohia. It had sunk deep into the Indian psyche and his insistence on purity of means and not just the end had a deep influence on both the best and the popular mind in the country, and overshadowed all orthodox ideology.

CHANDRA SHEKHAR was a product of times of both coalition and caste based politics trying to make peace with the new politics and his commitment to old-school socialism. His success was bound to be only partial. He was more home-grown, more deeply involved with the country and with national leaders, popular moods and possibilities than many of them, had none of the sophistication and global image of JP, Lohia or George. The new school of caste and coalition politics was not unknown or abhorrent to him as a pragmatist. He was strongly for reservations and helped caste leaders to lead governments in Bihar and UP. He had grown up in the abysmally poor, educationally backward district of Ballia in UP. He bore a lifelong stamp of his native place and its own peculiar political style.

His ideology ill fitted with his style of party management which he invariably tried to head, shutting the door on other valued colleagues. There was a drift away from his party and leadership. That is how he lost the leadership race in 1989 to V.P. Singh and lost a well-deserved Prime Ministership. It is VP’s strokes of cunning against Devi Lal of accepting the Mandal recommendation and the following trauma among a class of students that brought about his downfall and hoisted Chandra Shekhar to the office of the Prime Minister, but at the cost of breaking the Janata Dal and a parting of ways with many friends.

Even though the Congress party brought him down after helping him to the PM’s office on a bizarre issue, he faced it manfully and advised elections but lost decisively. His government had failed to make an impact on the country and was maligned unfairly of trying to sell the country’s silver. The country lost a leader of stature to which he contributed by his own brashness with other leaders. Had he stayed in power his image and sincerity may have helped to solve some of the seriously divisive problems in the country.

We should honour a leader who, despite his pragmatism, so consistently championed the cause of the poor, of communal harmony and of not mortgaging the country’s sovereignty to achieve more statistical than equitable growth to which the ruling party seemed sold to many.

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