It Could Happen to You

What would Gandhi and Shastri have done had they been alive?

May be, they would have started yet another Satyagraha for 'truth' in a post-modern world.

 |  It Could Happen to You  |  6-minute read |   02-10-2017
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“Is Gandhi relevant today?” In October 1976, India Today magazine asked that question in a cover story. It mentioned how each year on October 2 a parade of commemorative meetings, speeches and seminars took place with unfailing regularity, “only to be forgotten till next October". 

It’s a question that has been asked hundreds of times in the past four decades: in civil service exams, in classroom interactions (JNU to IIMs), in countless essays, books and speeches. This year, the answer seems to be blowing in the wind.

“Happy Gandhi Jayanti and happy birthday Lal Bahadur Shastri ji,” has been the mantra this October 2. Government ads across newspapers are no longer displaying the Bapu’s smiling visage alone: he is sharing space with India’s second prime minister (and sometimes with the current PM). #JaiJawanJaiKisaan” (hail the soldier, hail the farmer) is trending.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has laid floral wreaths at both at Raj Ghat and Vijay Ghat. So has President Ram Nath Kovind, Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia. Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has paid verbal tributes to both. 

Not the first time

Social media netizens are expressing outrage and pain at the cavalier attitude with which the Congress has treated Shastri. As someone tweets: “The Congress was so full of itself and Nehru and Gandhis that most of us don’t even know that Sri Lal Bahadur Shastri ji was also born on Oct 2.” 


Not really correct. Indian PMs and presidents have always paid floral homages to Shastri on October 2. An exception was PM Modi in 2015, when Shastri's family members had expressed indignation as the first PM in 50 years not to have paid tributes at the Vijay Ghat. In fact, a grandson of Shastri, Vibhakar Shastri, questioned why: “(PM Modi) uses the slogan of ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’, but he should have come to pay tribute. He did not even come to Parliament to pay tribute to Gandhi ji.” 

Limelight and Shastri

But the sense that we did not even know that Shastri, too, was born on October 2, is real. Why is that? According to some, it could be because his tenure as PM, even though it left a deep impact on the country, was very short (1964-66) - no more than 19 months. He was also one of the most self-effacing leaders India has ever had.

In his own words: “Perhaps due to my being small in size and soft of tongue, people are apt to believe that I am not able to be very firm. Though not physically strong, I think I am internally not so weak.”

And in spite of his many achievements, he did not get his due "either from the nation or from the Congress party", as historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in a column in 2016.

Shastri’s sudden catapulting to memory could be because we have over-celebrated the Mahatma and are in search of new inspiration. It could be because Shastri, a common man and a neglected Congress icon, has become a political metaphor: Since 2014, PM Modi has talked passionately about Shastri, remembered him at his Clean Indian campaign and focused pretty much on Shastri’s administrative legacy: the bold decision to go to war with Pakistan over Kashmir and switching India’s economic priority to agriculture and its farmers.

BJP president Amit Shah has even drawn parallels between the public response to PM Modi's call to give up LPG subsidy for the poor to Shastri’s appeal to give up one meal during the severe food shortage of the mid-1960s. 

Sons and brothers

India may have forgotten him, but his children have not. Shastri’s sons and several of their children are into politics. They have contested elections, held leadership and ministerial positions, their voices are heard and they have consistently lobbied for greater recognition of their father. 

Hari Krishna Shastri has been a Union minister with the Congress. Sunil Shastri has held different portfolios with the UP Cabinet under the Congress and later joined the BJP.

Anil Shastri, an alumnus of St Columba’s School and St Stephen’s College, once with the Janata Dal, is now a Congress leader. Anil’s son, Adarsh Shastri, who relinquished his plum post as the India head of Apple Inc to join the Aam Aadmi Party, is now an MLA of the Delhi Legislative Assembly.

For long, the brothers and sons have lobbied various former PMs to declassify the files relating to their father’s mysterious death in Tashkent in 1966, and to set up inquiry committees.

They have also hit the headlines, on and off, for criticising various governments for showing little interest in their father’s legacy. They have been in the news recently for requesting PM Modi to complete the work of a memorial to their father.

Mahatma's legacy

The Mahatma’s legacy, in the meantime, went through ups and downs. The 1990s witnessed political tug-of-war, when Congress claimed that the BJP was trying to "hijack" Gandhi and the BJP declared that the "Mahatma Gandhi (was) not the monopoly of the Congress".

Then in the new millennium, the debate over Gandhi reached a new low, as his secret private life started to unravel. Authors claiming access to “diaries” and other exclusive never-seen-before sources started to pen essays and books on the "un-Gandhian Gandhi", all the "controversial truths", and the "shocking secrets". 

Today, Gandhi is there on the colourful new rupee notes, as well as on the new logo of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. A copy of his translation of the Bhagavad Gita is gifted to esteemed foreign dignitaries. Famous world leaders now call on the Gandhi Ashram in Sabarmati - Barack Obama to Xi Jinping to Shinzo Abe - instead of the Taj Mahal. 

PM Modi keeps Gandhi’s memory alive: visiting Sabarmati Ashram, spinning the charkha, paying floral tributes, unveiling Gandhi statues in foreign countries, showing displeasure when government officials remove Gandhi’s photos from government calendars or diaries and put his, and asking cow vigilantes to stop lynching in the name of Gandhi. So much so, that many of his ministers (Mahesh Sharma to Shivraj Singh Chouhan) have started calling Modi “another Gandhiji in the form of our prime minister.”

If the dead could speak

What would the Mahatma and Shastri have done had they been alive? The Mahatma, to be sure, would have engaged the nation in a great Indian debate. After all, that’s what he did all his life: with the imperialist rulers, with the Communists and believers in armed struggle, with radical Muslims and radical Hindus, with Subhas Chandra Bose, with Nehru, with Tagore, with Ambedkar.

And, may be, he would have started yet another Satyagraha, insisting on “truth” in a post-modern world. And Shastri, typically, would have stood by his mentor, the Mahatma.

Also read: What Gandhi's reading list can tell you about India's last Mahatma


Damayanti Datta Damayanti Datta @dattadamayanti

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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