Why Lal Bahadur Shastri was one of India's greatest PMs

His simplicity earned him a very crucial emotional connect with the people.

 |  4-minute read |   11-01-2016
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Exactly 50 years ago on this day, India's second prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri, or beloved Shastriji of the nation died an untimely death. Although he remains a prime minister who died in office serving for one of the shortest spans of just about 18 months, there are still many things to his credit.

He restored the confidence of the Indian armed forces that had experienced a humiliating defeat in 1962 following the Chinese aggression. More importantly, he very successfully filled the post-Nehru void as during the last year or so of the Nehru era, the political atmosphere in India was agog with the question "Who after Nehru?"

When Shastriji was unanimously elected as the leader of the Congress parliamentary party, there were many doubting Thomases who openly expressed their reservations about Shastriji's selection. Within months, Shastriji silenced them. Once he had famously and very rightly said, "I am not as simple as I look."

A man of unimpeachable character, Lal Bahadur Shastri displayed rare qualities like the highest level of integrity and ownership of responsibility, emotional connect with the people and above all, leadership required for crisis management.

Also read: Remembering Lal Bahadur Shastri's role in 1965 war

Many may not know that Shastriji was responsible for ending disparity in passenger amenities in different classes prevalent in the railways during those days. He abolished the luxury class and the most neglected third class. As the railway minister he improved amenities for the poor and deprived sections of the passenger community.

Known for his soft, accommodative approach, Shastriji very adroitly handled the anti-Hindi agitation and accepted that English too would continue as one of the official languages. He, very successfully, doused the fires of linguistic conflict.

In so far as his visionary policies are concerned, he laid the foundation of the Green Revolution and gave impetus to the Operation Flood campaign that ultimately led to the strengthening of our dairy industry and eventually the White Revolution as well. It was his brief tenure that saw the foundation of the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB).

However, his governance, more than anything else, always had an indelible mark of complete accountability and ownership of responsibility. While he was railway minister, in 1956, there were two railway mishaps, the first in September 1956, at Mahbubnagar that led to 112 deaths. Accepting complete responsibility, he tendered resignation which was rejected by prime minister Nehru.

Three months later, he resigned accepting moral and constitutional responsibility for a railway accident at Ariyalur in Tamil Nadu that resulted in 144 deaths. What Nehru said while accepting his resignation is noteworthy. Nehru stated in Parliament that he was accepting the resignation because it set an example in constitutional propriety and not because Shastri was in any way responsible for the accident.

Being extremely down to earth, simplicity was Shastri's greatest strength. Perhaps, it was this simplicity that earned him not only deep respect but also a very crucial emotional connect with the people. Post-Nehru, this was of great importance.

In 1965, while facing severe shortage of rice and other foodgrains, he easily prepared popular mindset to give up evening meals on Mondays. This was his way of making people participate in the government's efforts to achieve national goals. While the nation was facing challenges on the economic front, a simple appeal by him to women worked wonders and many offered their gold ornaments for the cause of the nation.

His slogan, "Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan" caught the imagination of the people as it underscored the need for involvement of people in both defence preparedness and food security. No wonder, years later, in 1998, the then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee built on the same slogan and added a suffix "Jai Vigyan".

Shastri's leadership was put to test during the 1965 war with Pakistan and later while negotiating peace with Pakistan, from a position of strength. Without mincing words, he told Pakistan that misadventures will cost her dearly.

Without his visionary statesmanship, our issues with Sri Lanka concerning the Tamil population there would have been far too complicated. Provisions of the Srimavo-Shastri pact were remarkable for his quest to find a permanent solution to the Tamil question.

Today, when the Congress finds the going tough, it can take a couple of leaves out of Lal Bahadur Shastri's politics as well as policies. This is relevant as the Grand Old Party of India almost completely lacks emotional connect with the people, leadership and more importantly, faces a grave crisis of ownership as well.


Vinay Sahasrabuddhe Vinay Sahasrabuddhe @vinay1011

The writer is the National Vice President of BJP and Director of Delhi-based Public Policy Research Centre (PPRC)

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