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Shastri, Narasimha Rao did better than Nehru-Gandhis

Shastri, Narasimha Rao did better than Nehru-Gandhis

With the loyalists of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty throwing their weight behind Sonia Gandhi and Rahul, the group of 23 senior leaders (correctly called G-23) may fail in their endeavor. They wanted to check “drift” in and “decline” of the grand old party. But such is the control of the dynasty over the GOP that even polite and earnest beseeching by G-23—many of whom were regarded as family loyalists till a few weeks ago—was construed as blasphemous. The dynasty and its retainers believe that Nehru-Gandhis have the divine right to rule India, so anything even remotely critical of these greater mortals is heretic. This dogma, however, is at variance with facts.

For there have been periods in the past when the party and the country were served by non-dynasts—and served much better than by the Nehru-Gandhis. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Lal Bahadur Shastri and P.V. Narasimha Rao were among the best prime ministers that the country has seen since Independence. Both were inarguably better than any PM who has come from the family.

Consider the case of Shastri, perhaps the first commoner to have ruled in Delhi. This short (but not small) man of slight build did more than anybody else in instilling pride and confidence in a nation that was militarily battered and psychologically shattered after the India-China war in 1962.

Succeeding the aristocratic Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964, Shastri’s appearance was unassuming to the extent of being deceptive. Writing in The Hindustan Times (October 8, 2016), the historian Ramchandra Guha wrote, “Not long after Shastri became prime minister, he stopped in Karachi, then the capital of Pakistan, while on his way home from Cairo. He was met at the airport by President Ayub Khan, who, noticing his tiny frame and 26-inch chest, wondered how such a little man could rule such a large nation. It is said that this sight of Shastri in the flesh convinced Ayub (himself an Army General) that the time was ripe for a fresh incursion into Kashmir. He was convinced that the new leader of India would not be able to effectively defend his country when war came.”

The general apparently had brain fade; he forgot that heads of state/government don’t wrestle in battlefields; soldiers do. And soldiers fight well if the political and military leadership is good. In 1962, it was awful; right from the confused and craven Nehru to the traitorous V.K. Krishna Menon to the generals they deployed—everybody was incompetent. The effect was of the defeat was so cataclysmic we are ruing the war till date.

Unlike Nehru, Shastri was not swayed by speeches, slogans, sanctimony, or subterfuge. He ensured the modernization of armed forces. More importantly, he gave complete freedom to the military top brass and allowed them to open the second front in Punjab, which proved to be the game-changer and tilted the war in our favor.

Shastri was equally perceptive about domestic problems. He laid the foundations of agrarian renewal and economic reforms. His successor, Indira Gandhi, carried forward the good work in the farm sector that Shastri had initiated and the result was the green revolution (she got the credit for it, while Shastri’s role was downplayed). But, unfortunately, liberalization died with Shastri, as instead of opening up the economy, further strangled—and the nation lost a quarter of century to the worst features of socialism.

It was left to the other non-dynast Congress prime minister, Narasimha Rao, to take up the unfinished business of Shastri. If India is today a major economy, it is because of the herculean efforts made by Rao. He got rid of multifarious controls, thus making it possible for the entrepreneurial energies to be released.

His interventions in foreign policy were equally important, though not widely known. He normalized diplomatic ties with Israel. This was not done earlier because our politicians wanted to appease Muslims. Even after several Arab nations befriended Israel, India had refused to do that before Rao. He was also the author of the look east policy, which led to several initiatives.

It was under Rao’s stewardship that normalcy in Punjab was restored. Further, he floated the idea of a nuclear test which was later carried out by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

In short, both non-dynasty prime ministers were extremely competent and effective leaders; they served the country very well. But their contributions have been minimized while the (mostly fictional) feats of dynasts are magnified not only by family retainers in the party but also a wide section of the intellectual class. Hence the dynasty’s hubris..