‘Why! Are you in a hurry to die, Madam?’ Chandrashekhar had asked Indira Gandhi in 1984. Gandhi replied with a smile, “Chandrashekhar, one has to make a place in history.” A small encounter, but it spoke volumes about Chandrashekhar’s vision and foresight. He was virtually telling Gandhi that she would have no control over an event she had created. He had the courage and vision to term Operation Blue Star as most unfortunate when the rest of the political class was applauding Gandhi’s move.
Chandrashekhar could take the liberty of asking such a question of Gandhi as they’d enjoyed a relationship of love and hate and of admiration and fear ever since their first meeting in 1963, soon after he joined the Indian National Congress. He was then moving away from the socialist movement, having worked for two decades under the tutelage of Acharya Narendra Dev. Yet, what remained with Chandrashekhar of those 25 years was his vision, fortitude and zeal to intervene against injustice.
It was because of this that he fearlessly took on then Deputy Prime Minister Morarji Desai on the issue of growth of monopoly in industry even though this compromised his chances of being renominated for the Rajya Sabha. He was largely instrumental in driving Gandhi to take a Left of the Centre stance on social and economic policies.
He also goaded her to stand up to party stalwarts after the Congress Parliamentary Board rejected her candidate for the presidential election due in August 1969. Many believe that Chandrashekhar was the author of the ‘Stray Thoughts’ that Gandhi presented at the AICC session in June 1969, which became the basis for the party’s split in November 1969. The defeat of Congress candidate Neelam Sanjiva Reddy at the hands of independent candidate VV Giri was her achievement, aided immeasurably by Chandrashekhar, who toured the country to campaign for Gandhi’s unofficial candidate.
Chandrashekhar had confidently predicted a massive mandate for Gandhi in the March 1971 election. Yet, he was disillusioned when Gandhi showed no sign of delivering on her electoral promises and instead embarked upon a political battle with JP Narayan, whom Chandrashekhar admired because of his resolve to remain outside the power structure. Pained at the efforts to denigrate JP, he had even held a tea party in his honour at his residence in March 1975.
During the Emergency, Chandrashekhar preferred solitary confinement in Patiala Jail to cooperating with the government. Even later, prior to the 1977 elections, he spurned all efforts to bring him back into the Gandhi fold. His anti-establishment nature did not make him many friends in the Congress, though most admired his courage to take on a fight with Gandhi and get elected to the party’s Central Election Committee at the Shimla Conclave in October 1971.
From January 1983, Chandrashekhar undertook a six-month-long, 4,700 km trek on foot from Gandhi Mandap in Kanyakumari to Rajghat in Delhi. This made him realise how far removed New Delhi was from the masses and how poverty prevailed despite several well-meaning development projects.
Chandrashekhar emerged as a leader, but made the mistake of joining the Opposition conclave in August 1983. He abhorred the efforts of other Opposition leaders to form an alternative to Rajiv Gandhi in 1989 by distributing offices among themselves instead of leading a mass movement. He was under constant attack for not accepting the new leadership of the Janata Dal, which was formed to contest against Rajiv Gandhi but without a clear economic agenda. He was aghast when the economic programme he had prepared was adopted even without anyone reading its contents since each was in a hurry to reach the seat of power. He was furious that the leaders of the new party had conspired to hoist VP Singh by keeping him in the dark. He thus refused to join a government headed by a person whom he did not accept as a leader.
But he could not escape the burden of office when the country was set ablaze by VP Singh’s Mandal policy. He knew before he accepted the office that his was a fragile political force and he would be largely dependent on the whims and fancies of the Congress.
Chandrashekhar had the vision to see that State power was not an effective instrument against militancy and extremism. In his few months in office, he succeeded in breaking the ice with them through political dialogue. He could also persuade both Hindu and Muslim factions to negotiate on the Ayodhya issue. Had he more time, he might have achieved his objectives.
However, when the Congress refused to allow his government to present a full Budget and instead insisted only on presentation of Vote on Account, he knew what was in store. At the first opportunity, he resigned and recommended mid-term polls in early 1991. All efforts to persuade him to take back his resignation proved in vain. Yet he has been condemned for heading a corrupt government. No one was willing to consider that a corrupt man would never have rejected the opportunity to remain in his seat.
Chandrashekhar remained a loner in politics as he would not compromise on his views. He was candid and cared little for the impact his remarks would cause. He knew history had a long list of heroes who were misunderstood because they were ahead of their time.