A most misunderstood PM

Book cover of Chandra Shekhar and the Six Months that Saved India
This much is true: That the prime ministership of Chandra Shekhar has never really got the attention it deserves. Though leaders like Sharad Pawar, PV Narasimha Rao, Pranab Mukherjee and R Venkataraman, and a clutch of bureaucrats, have described their experiences with India’s eighth prime minister, the seventh to hail from UP and the first to sport a beard (acquired by Chandra Shekhar quite by accident: he went to Jaipur on a student trip, was unable to find a barber and decided to keep the chinful of bristles, the author notes), there are few systematic accounts of the chaotic political circumstances in force at the time. 

Roderick  Matthews holds the reader’s hand and leads him through the alphabet soup of India’s political parties, the splits, divisions and upheavals. This is done as dispassionately as it is possible to do, for it is easy to lapse into judgmental finger-wagging about a man who rose to become prime minister of India from nothing (not even a tea stall) and was considered an intellectual force of his time (without having to resort to dumbing down with alliterative abbreviations or monthly broadcasts on radio). Chandra Shekhar never saw power as a means to itself but never apologised for being ambitious in seeking it, with the aim always, of making India a better place. 

Mr Matthews strives to be objective in his evaluation of Chandra Shekhar as prime minister, but like most of those who came into contact with him, acknowledges the dazzle and the charisma of the man. 

Mr Matthews traces the rise of V P Singh painstakingly and goes deep into the personality and political clash between the two leaders, the betrayal by Chaudhary Devi Lal and the resultant anointment of Singh as prime minister, a remarkable and authentic account of the events as reporters who have covered politics at the time will testify. He also paints the political portrait of the two leaders: V P Singh, owlish, soft-spoken, a man who had collaborated with Indira Gandhi at every stage; Chandra Shekhar: Irascible and unable to camouflage his sharp edges, an admirer of Indira Gandhi who had questioned and defied her at every stage. There’s a lovely conversation between him and Mrs Gandhi on Punjab: She tells him to go, sort it out. He says all the Sikhs want is recitation of the “Gurbani” on All India Radio and they’re ready even to pay for it. She says: “Can’t allow that, everyone will want it’. He says: “You can allow advertising for lipstick and shoes, but not God’s name, which will be paid for? Give in to small things….” 

Chandra Shekhar and the Six Months that Saved India 

: Roderick Matthews; Publisher: Harper Collins

Pages: 318

Price: Rs 699

This, the ability to negotiate, was to be his strongest point when he became prime minister. He saw himself as the negotiator-in-chief on many political fronts, while adopting an extremely collegiate approach to the technical and administrative side, always delegating. He got the Hindus and the Muslims to agree on a formula with the Muslims voluntarily giving up claim to the mosque if they got an equal-sized piece of land elsewhere — roughly what has happened today— and would have clinched it, had he stayed in power. 

Chandra Shekhar’s foreign policy was overshadowed by the Iraqi annexation of Kuwait and the Gulf war. Much has been written about this. But what is less well known is what he told then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at a SAARC summit at Male in 1990, his first foreign engagement after he became PM, on Kashmir. He said in Hindi: “Today, I am Prime Minister. Tomorrow, there will be another Prime Minister. Nobody can give you Kashmir. For us, Kashmir is not just a piece of land: If it was , we would have given it to you — we have a lot of land. For us it is a question of secularism. If we give you Kashmir on the basis that it is a Muslim majority state, are you prepared to take 15 crore Muslims from us?” He then explained the dilemma: If Kashmir were given away, the Hindus would never let the Muslims live in peace. “Make your noise, ask for Kashmir — all that. Go on demanding Kashmir but understand that it will never come. And it’s not just me, anybody coming can’t do it”. Soon after this, a hotline was established between the two PMs. Later, when Swedish engineers working in Kashmir were kidnapped, the Indian prime minister rang Sharif and said: “What mischief are you up to?” Nawaz Sharif said he had no knowledge of the kidnapping. The newspapers reported the next day the Swedish engineers had “escaped”. He was completely at ease with Nepal — the country had just become a republic and half of the ministers were buddies who had at one or other time, hung around at his South Avenue Lane residence planning strategies to overthrow the monarchy with Chandra Shekhar. None of it needed labels like “Neighbourhood First”. 

Popular history will always record him as the man who pledged India’s gold. But faced with a sovereign default, was any other option open to him? 

This is a wonderful exploration of Indian politics at its diabolical and confusing best: And the role of one of the most misunderstood men in India’s recent history.

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