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Chandrashekhar: End of an Era

At a time when when politicians had begun living five-star lives, he was still an old-style politician, anchored to his rural roots, writes Vir Sanghvi.
Hindustan Times | By Vir Sanghvi
UPDATED ON JUL 14, 2007 11:51 PM IST

I don’t suppose you cared too much that Chandrashekhar died last weekend — assuming, of course, that you even remembered who he was. Press coverage was grudging and matter-of-fact; the news channels are all run by people who were still in school when he was at his peak; and the few obituaries that appeared were personal tributes written by a succession of yesterday’s men, most of whom owed a personal debt to him.

But I have to say that I felt sad and moved by the news of his passing. There was a phase in my life when I knew him reasonably well but it wasn’t just the personal connection that accounted for my feelings. It was also a sense that his death marked the end of an era; that it was finally time to say goodbye to an Indian political tradition that many of us believed in — but which withered away and died, its promise never truly fulfilled.

I knew him best during his time at Race Course Road (though he never actually moved in there, preferring his homes on South Avenue Lane and at Bhondsi) and though contemporary historians remember that time differently, I always thought that he made a good Prime Minister, nurturing the office with simplicity and earthiness.

His style derived from his background. Though the obituaries will tell you about his worship of Acharya Narendra Dev, he was essentially a reformist Congressman of the late 1960s. At that time, the party was controlled by a Syndicate of regional bosses, most of who were corrupt and venal. Chandrashekhar and many other young leaders rebelled against the machine politics that dominated the party and tried to get it to focus on India’s poor.

When Indira Gandhi split the Congress in 1969 — and then won an electoral landslide in 1971 — Chandrashekhar was one of her key allies. He believed in the socialist rhetoric that was fashionable at the time and supported many of the left-wing economic measures that we now know, with the benefit of hindsight, were huge mistakes: the nationalisation of banks, the penal rise in tax rates, the takeover of the grain distribution trade etc.

Obviously, these measures did nothing to benefit the poor and as corruption increased within Mrs Gandhi’s Cabinet, Chandrashekhar grew disillusioned with his former mentor. He was among those drawn to another well-intentioned but foolishly ineffectual ideology — Jaiprakash Narain’s call for Total Revolution — and became one of Mrs Gandhi’s biggest critics. When Emergency was declared, he was thrown into prison and spent time in solitary confinement.

His moment of glory came with the formation of the Janata Party in 1977, after Mrs Gandhi’s defeat. Chandrashekhar became party president and because the party was run by a triumvirate of extremely unsavoury old fogeys, he seemed like a refreshing contrast: youngish, dynamic, honest and not motivated by ambition. (The fogeys? The urine-swilling Morarji Desai, the frog-like and dodgy Jagjivan Ram and the petty and medieval-minded Charan Singh.)

Janata collapsed under the weight of this triumvirate’s ambition and Mrs Gandhi returned. But most people reckoned that when she lost the next election (due to anti-incumbency), Chandrashekhar would be Prime Minister at the head of some avatar of the Janata Party. In 1983, when he went on a Bharat Yatra he received rapturous press coverage and those of us who had never forgiven Mrs Gandhi for the Emergency regarded him as the future of Indian politics.

But of course, it was not to be.

Mrs Gandhi was assassinated and her son, Rajiv held out the irresistible hope of change with continuity. I met Chandrashekhar one evening during the 1984 campaign and told him that I thought Rajiv would sweep the country. To my surprise, he conceded the point. Worse still, he said, he feared he would even lose his own seat in Ballia.

The Congress victory of 1984-85 finished Chandrashekhar and his brand of politics forever. The socialist ideals he had spent his life propagating seemed sadly out of date. Rajiv had a vision of the future. The BJP had a Hindu appeal. But Chandrashekhar and his party had nothing to offer. Their policies were discredited and they were all defined more by the things they loathed (chiefly, the Gandhis and the Congress) than the things they stood for.

It was downhill from then on. His old Janata colleagues elbowed him aside to follow VP Singh (who had enthusiastically supported the Emergency) and even when the Congress lost its majority at the 1987 election, Chandrashekhar stood no chance. Devi Lal and VP Singh tricked him while nominating the next Prime Minister. Chandrashekhar retreated to Bhondsi where he sulked and complained bitterly about VP Singh (“agent of foreign power” was a favourite epithet).

I visited him often in that era and three things struck me about him. The first was that he really had no beliefs left, no vision of India. The second was that he was the worst judge of people I have ever met. All the good politicians had deserted him believing he was finished so he was left with the garbage, with people who had nowhere else to go: shady swamis and Subramaniam Swamy, racketeers, dacoits and dalals. (Plus a few good guys, it must be said: Yashwant Sinha, Digvijay Singh, Gopi Manchanda, Kamal Morarka etc.)

But it was the third thing that drew me to him. At a time when Indian politics was changing, when parties were playing the caste card (this was during Mandal) or the Hindu card (the Ayodhya agitation had begun) and when individual politicians had begun living five-star lives, openly flaunting their wealth, he was still an old-style politician, anchored to his rural roots, free from caste or communal politics and with no interest at all in the things that money could buy.

There would be many evenings in his study at South Avenue Lane where he would sit on the floor, wrapped in a blanket (Amitabh Bachchan memorably described him during that period as looking like a man squatting on a railway platform, waiting for the mail train) and we would sit in a circle around him sipping hot tea. He was never mealy-mouthed, said what he believed even if it damaged him and cheerfully used English insults that he did not fully understand: for instance, poor Kuldip Nayyar was called a ‘social climber’ (pronounced ‘so-sull climber’) for accepting a high commissionership from VP Singh.)

Sophisticated journos sneered at his lack of pretension. Shortly after he became Prime Minister, an interviewer from a video magazine taunted him by asking if it was right that the leader of our country should go around without combing his hair or ironing his kurta. Any other Prime Minister would have thrown the journo out but Chandrashekhar was philosophical. “Merely by using harsh words, you do not become a great journalist,” he told him.

I was glad when he became Prime Minister after VP Singh’s government fell but I knew it couldn’t last. Congressmen wanted Rajiv to take over (the Congress, already the largest party in the House, gained a majority when the Janata Dal split). But Rajiv wanted to wait for an electoral mandate. So Chandrashekhar’s reign was only a stopgap arrangement till the Congress was ready for an election.

A shrewder man would have recognised this and made arrangements to merge his party with the Congress, hoping to be elevated to Rashtrapati Bhawan eventually. But Chandrashekhar ran a chaotic shop, where his aides fought with each other and the delicate subject of relations with the Congress was left to Subramaniam Swamy — and of course, the government fell amidst a welter of bad feeling.

For all that, he did a good job of calming passions over Mandal and mandir/masjid. He took the right decisions on the Gulf War (allowing US planes to refuel in India) and he built up a warm relationship with Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif. His economic stewardship remained dodgy (this was when we mortgaged our gold reserves) but given his views, this was probably inevitable.

After the 1991 election and the liberalisation of the economy, he never quite understood India or recognised how wrong he had been on economic policy. His dodgy friends deserted him, he did a series of silly things (including a stint as the world’s worst TV interviewer) and became a lonely irrelevance in exile at Bhondsi.

India had moved on. And not only were his policies discredited but his kind of politician had faded. Now, they all carried Mont Blanc pens, rushed off on foreign trips, drove imported cars and stashed millions away in numbered accounts. Even some of his old socialist colleagues become the pimps of crony capitalists.

But I miss him. I miss his sincerity, his warmth and his view that there was a space between the Congress and the BJP. Now, that space has vanished. And Chandrashekhar, too, is gone.

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