Lal Bahadur Shastri, 1964–1966: Leader at a Glance

Published date01 June 2020
Date01 June 2020
Subject MatterArticles
Lal Bahadur Shastri, 1964–1966:
Leader at a Glance
Rakesh Ankit1
Lal Bahadur Shastri has been recently recalled as ‘the original accidental Prime Minister’ and ‘architect
of India’s real surgical strike’. His sudden death has lately been the subject of a film, The Tashkent Files
(2019) and a book, Your Prime Minister is Dead (2018). A memorial to him is the Government of India’s
National Academy of Administration, named after him since 1972. And yet, there is less written on him
directly, as against approaching him indirectly as (a) Jawaharlal Nehru’s successor, (b) leader during the
1965 India-Pakistan war amidst a food crisis and (c) peacemaker of the 1966 Tashkent agreement. This
article tries to reconstruct, from some of his papers, a slice of Shastri’s political life that has either fallen
through the crack between the larger preceding period of the Nehruvian 1950s and the larger succeed-
ing period of Indira’s India or is resurrected in a reactionary, outsized opposition to these.
Lal Bahadur Shastri, India, Congress, food, war, diplomacy
On 23 November 1964, addressing the Indian Institute of Public Administration on its tenth anniversary,
Lal Bahadur Shastri spoke thus: ‘I am a layman but sometimes I feel that a layman holding a political
office, is not much of a risk … because an expert if he gets to power thinks that he knows everything’
(1964, p. 593). This was a characteristically self-effacing sentiment expressed by a person, who had been
a Minister since 1947, first in his province of Uttar Pradesh (UP) and then at the centre. His experience
of administration encompassed holding the charges of Transport and Home Ministries in the UP (1947–
1950), Railways, Transport and Communications, Commerce and Industry and Home Affairs at the
centre (1952–1963), and the pivotal Minister without Portfolio (early 1964) as a prelude to becoming
Studies in Indian Politics
8(1) 39–57, 2020
© 2020 Lokniti, Centre for the
Study of Developing Societies
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/2321023020918062
1 Politics and International Studies, Loughborough University, Loughborough, UK.
Corresponding author:
Rakesh Ankit, Politics and International Studies, Loughborough University, Loughborough LE11 3TU, UK.
40 Studies in Indian Politics 8(1)
Prime Minister in June 1964. His short-lived stint, sandwiched between the long-serving first and third
Prime Ministers of India, got easily overlooked earlier and, even among the factional politics of UP
(Brass, 1965), Shastri remained overshadowed. His prime ministerial life and leadership, in politics and
beyond, has just been recalled in a latest biography by Sandeep Shastri (2019) and this article follows in
this spirit of remembrance.
The seemingly unlikely answer to the variously asked question After Nehru, who? (Hangen, 1963)
and After Nehru, what? (McGarr, 2011), Shastri was long explained away as a ‘stop-gap successor’ (The
Round Table, 1966, p. 194). The civil servant CP Srivastava, who had served in his Prime Minister’s
Office, gave him his due by writing the fulsome biography Lal Bahadur Shastri Prime Minister of India
1964–1966: A Life of Truth in Politics (1995). Before that, another civil servant Rajeshwar Prasad, who
had been Shastri’s private secretary from 1959, had given a lavish, limited account in his Days with Lal
Bahadur Shastri: Glimpses from the Last Seven Years (1991). After that, yet another civil servant L.P.
Singh, penned a Portrait of Lal Bahadur Shastri: A Quintessential Gandhian (1996). This burst in the
1990s came after a hiatus of 30 years, for the first biographies on him, had appeared, when he was alive
and at his political pinnacle. The journalist D.R. Mankekar produced Lal Bahadur: A Political Biography
(1965), while B.S. Gujrati edited A Study of Lal Bahadur Shastri (1966) and GS Bhargava wrote After
Nehru: India’s New Image (1966). Of late, Shastri’s sons, Shastri (2011) and Shastri and Choudary
(2014), have put their father’s life and lessons in print. Apart from this, ‘the Shastri interlude’ (Ananth,
2010, pp. 51–66) expectedly lies low in the histories of independent India between the end of the Nehru
era and the emergence of Indira Gandhi’s years (Chandra et al., 2008, pp. 275–293) or betwixt Nehru’s
nationalism and his daughter’s populism (Guha, 2008, pp. 387–415).
Based on a selection of the Lal Bahadur Shastri Papers, available at the Nehru Memorial Museum and
Library (New Delhi), this article partakes in the recent spurt of remembrances on Shastri albeit without
their motivations and methods. Instead of his death, its circumstances then and political usages now, it
looks at four key challenges of Shastri’s Prime Ministership and narrates his views and activities on
them. Aligned thus and arranged chronologically, it attempts to show how Shastri functioned between
the imperatives of his governmental power and the compulsions of his national politics. After a prologue
noting his assumption of the premier’s office, the article chronicles the half-year of 1964, which pro-
vided the entry-points for Shastri on the national plane. This framing reveals his major preoccupations,
food paucity and party politics, which gave way to the full year of 1965, its war and diplomacy, the major
focus of this article. A short aftermath completes this narration of national politics on Shastri’s watch.
While brief, his premiership comprised momentous months that repay a revisit. As Medha Kudaisya
showed in her essay on Indian economy during the Shastri years, ‘in a quiet way—almost by stealth—he
tried to bring about radical changes’:
He had signalled a desire to move away from controls to … incentives, with an enlarged role for private capital
and business; he had shown an openness to foreign capital in key sectors of the economy; he had brought the
Planning Commission down from the dizzy heights it had occupied…; and by his personal touch he had indicated
that there could be a partnership between business and government. Last, but not least, he had grappled with
the complex question of devaluation … accepting the likely economic changes that would ensue. (Kudaisya,
2002, p. 219)
Chronologically placed between two larger-than-life Prime Ministers, Shastri’s short stint has been con-
venient to either forget or fabricate. Looking at it, with some distance, detachment and different sources,
allows us to ask more than one kind of historiographical questions. Was his time one of continuity or
change in the eye of contemporary reportage, as well as later reflection? Was he a fill-in at the far end

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