Monday 30 September 2019

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[Published as An Idealist's Journey, in The New Indian Express, on Sep 29, 2019]

In June, 1991, a newspaper cartoon depicted the fall of the Central government thusly: the royal throne of the Prime Ministership stands empty, while Chandra Shekhar, the prime minister, is walking away from it. Rajiv Gandhi and other Congress leaders are pulling at the carpet underneath the throne. “Come back here, so we can topple the government!” the Congress leaders are quoted as saying. In an era of coalition politics and uncertain government, power was held on to at every cost. Yet Chandra Shekhar, the 8th Prime Minister of India, left his post rather than bow to the demands of the Congress, which had given external support to his government. In “Chandra Sekhar: The Last Icon of Ideological Politics”, Harivansh and Ravi Dutt Bajpai chronicle the life and times of the man, and bring alive a complicated chapter of Indian History.

The story starts from the small settlement of Ibrahimpatti, near Ballia in Uttar Pradesh. From modest beginnings, Chandra Sekhar entered politics, strongly influenced by the marxist/socialist politics of Jayprakash Narayan and Acharya Narendra Dev. Born in 1927, he’d seen the struggle for India’s independence, and identified himself with the common man’s struggles. It was but natural for him to join Narendra Dev’s Socialist Party as a worker from the very beginning. During the first general elections held in 1952, he was an active campaigner for his party, though they did not win as they’d hoped. From here on, it is a long and painful path for a man driven by ideology rather than the lust for power.

Chandra Sekhar eventually shifted from the Socialist Party to the Congress, and then became the core of a clique of progressive politicians in the party, nicknamed the Young Turks. This was also the time that Indira Gandhi took centre stage. During the Emergency, he was jailed for his contrary views. As a result, he left the Congress and become a founding member of a loose anti-Congress coalition that became the Janata Party. This metamorphosed into the Janata Dal (Socialist). As anti-Congress sentiment strengthened in the late 80s, the JD(S) became a part of a winning coalition, supported externally by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress, and became the Prime Minister of India.

It didn’t last long. Chandra Sekhar’s native shrewdness and experience made him almost too good a prime minister for the egoistic Rajiv Gandhi to let continue. These were the initial days of the Gulf War of 1990-91, and also the beginnings of the Payments Crisis in India. Harivansh avers that the Chandra Sekhar government’s budget-in-the-making included measures to tackle the economic crisis. But Rajiv Gandhi wanted the credit to go to the Congress, and so applied pressure to change the budget. Chandra Sekhar simply resigned instead. Thereafter, with Narasimha Rao leading the country, Chandra Sekhar faded from the limelight, though he was an MP for more terms.

The author (Harivansh) has been a close associate of Chandra Sekhar from the 70s, and has seen the latter’s rise from a ground-level party worker to the country’s topmost position. This gives him an inside view of his subject’s career and political philosophy. Several anecdotes in the book are from the author’s own encounters with Chandra Sekhar. The author’s sympathy with the Nehruvian socialist causes that Chandra Sekhar espoused, also shines through in the detailed descriptions of the debates during his time in parliament and in party meetings.

Harivansh also highlights Chandra Sekhar’s willingness to mediate between interest groups to bring them together. Whether it’s bringing up the demands of the “Young Turks” to Indira Gandhi, or balancing the demands of the various leaders in the Janata Party coalition, multiple instances of Chandra Sekhar’s efforts are listed here, within the Congress Party and later in keeping the Janata Party/Janata Dal together.

Although the reader may or may not align with Chandra Sekhar’s politics, he will find this detailed career graph of a seasoned, idealistic politician fascinating.

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