This October 2nd, I passed the day attending an energetic and pious recitation of Lord Krishna’s legends of demon-killing and his amorous ways with married women. No one appeared to reminisce the birth, 153 years ago, of the man who gave his life for his avowed principle of “Ishwar-Allah tero naam” Nor of another man who was born on the same day as he, though thirty five years later . Both died the same kind of death by treason, though under different circumstances.
The prime minister I fondly recollect had several problems to handle while in office from June 1964 to January 1966: Problem that beset the stability of the Nation. Problems with sword-rattling Ayub Khan of Pakistan. Problem of poverty that the British rule infected the Nation with, but could not be cured even after seventeen years of freedom.
He resurrected the Nation’s self confidence after the shameful debacle of 1962 against China. He persuaded Varghese Kurian to promote his Technology of milk procurement and distribution he developed in Gujarat and spread it throughout the Nation which became a grand success.. He Supported the Green Revolution initiated by MS Swaminathan which evolved India from a food-deficit nation which depended on PL 480 food and milk-powder handouts from the United States. to a food-surplus Nation with plenty of grains to export . With the military loss to China couple of years before, and a war with Pakistan looming like the proverbial sword of Damocles which came down menacingly in August 1965 (in which my brother-air warrior Konnayil Geevarghese Mathai was buried alive by a Pak bomb. He had taken shelter in a trench which caved in when a thoudand-pounder fell near it., Sahastri’s Jai Jawan-Jai-Kisan Kisan clarion call awoke the conscience of the Nation and resurrected its spirit. At his suggestion, many, if not most, citizens missed a meal a day till the food shortage was overcome. The food thus saved helped feed the poor.
Back in the Prime Minister’s own home, I guess there was never enough money to go around. His kids were complaining that they were finding it difficult to travel to and from school in a tonga – decorated and festooned, nonetheless unsafe horse-drawn carriages that plied on Delhi roads. .The security officers had warned that it was not safe for his children to travel in an open tonga . The PM shot down the suggestion that his official car be used everyday for the purpose. Finally, it was agreed that he would buy a new Car. A fiat 1100, the popular and compact Made-in-India car those days.
Now there was a new problem. The car cost Rs. 12,000 The PM had only Rs. 7,000 in his saving account in Punjab National Bank. .
So the Prime Minister took a bank loan of Rs. 5000 payable by equal monthly instalments for a few years. That was some time in 1965. Rs. 5000 probably matched the Prime Minister’s monthly pay check.at that time. (In the fifties, Prime Minister Nehru drew a princely sum of Rs. 3,000 a month. When it was revealed in a Q&A session in parliament that the garden of Teen Murthy Bhavan cost Rs. 900 a month, Shyam Prasad Mukherjee taunted: “ Mr. Prime Minister, you are not saving, but shaving the Country.”)
The EMI was paid from his salary till he died in January, 1966. As per bank reckoning, the late PM still owed the bank Rs. 5,000.
Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s outstanding bank loan was paid by his widow Mrs. Lalita Shastri who had a large family to support with her meagre pension. Unlike most politicians and their families, Lalita Shastri vacated the official residence after her husband’s death. Two years later, Indira Gandhi allotted the house to her where she lived till her death 25 years later. .
That he had to bargain away the fruits of the victory earned by the Armed Forces at the negotiating table in Tashkent moderated by the Soviet Government, they say, was what caused a heart attack later in the night and killed him was what the Indian public were given to believe. Mrs. Lalita Shastri, his wife who fended the family when he was jailed by British rulers for eleven years, never accepted that story. I could earnestly believe the rumour (which was neither accepted nor denied by the Union Government till today) that Shastri was killed at Tashkent by the CIA for authorizing Dr. Homi Bhabha to start India’s nuclear program. CIA officer Robert Crowley was reported to have claimed, “And we nailed Shastri as well. Another cow-loving rag head”,. If that claim needed ratification, Bhabha himslef was was killed 13 days after the great man’s death in an Air crash over Mont Blanc on the border between France and Italy. The cause of the crash was never explained. , but some leaked files carried the report that there was rapid decompression in the cabin due to an explosion in the cargo hold. The twin deaths, underlined the suspicious circumstances. .” Responding to an RTI, the Central Government is said to have declined to give details of Shastri’s death because that would ‘upset India’s relations with a foreign country..
While serving in the Electronic Engineering and Installation Unit of the Indian Air Force in a block just outside the South Block which housed the Prime Minster’s Office, I gathered from his personal staff (some of whom would sit during lunch breaks on the circular gardens facing the military post office (where in 1978 I spotted the then Defence Minister, George Fernandez, standing ahead of me in line to buy postal stamps) that the Prime Minister (Shastriji to them) used to share pot luck with them during lunch time.
When I remember Lal Bahadur Shastri, I can’t help recollecting another person of unmatched integrity and dignity – Gulazri Lal Nanda, two-time Prime minister, both times for 13 days – a record matched by Atal Bihari Vajpayee several years later. If Shastri had resigned as railway minister taking responsibility for a railway accident (a Bitish practice never repeated by any railway minister anytime later in India where rail accidents were a rupee a dozen) and , as the Home Minister, retracted the out-of-turn promotion of his son by a ministerial order, Nanda resigned as the Home Minister admitting his failure to root out corruption. His anti-corruption stance made him unpopular within the party; the reason why he was not even considered for the Prime Ministerial Post (while still being the ‘interim’ Prime Minister) by the Congress Party.
Sometime in 1985, I found this old man, bent with age, waiting at the bus stand outside the INA market in New Delhi. He had a cloth bag in his hand with radish and spinach leaves peeping out of the bag. The old man seemed to raise some kind of an impression in my mind as I drove my Ambassador past him, and then realization dawned like a bolt from the blue : Gulzarilal Nanda, the Congressman who resigned from the party when Indira Gandhi declared emergency. I reversed, stopped the car, got out and greeted him.in all humiliy, only restraining myself from touching his feet in the North Indian fashion.
“Sir, let me take you home,” I said.
He looked at me , his eyes narrowed behind his glasses. After my humble offer sank in, he said: “Shukriya, beta, magar nahin. Aaadat ho jayegi.,.
Thanks, son, but no. That will become a habit..
I was 45, and he was around 87. I would have given my life then and there if I could go back in time and be born his son.
Seven years after my thus meeting him, the 94-year old former Prime Minister was thrown out of his rented house in Defence Colony not far away from the market where I had found him. The man who was a Union minister for several years and a Prime Minister twice but never attempted to do horse trading to keep the seat, did not have a house to call his own. He lived on Rs. 500 which was a Freedom Fighter’s pension at that time. Never to use his influence and rejecting the central government offer to give him accommodation and needs of life. Instead, he went and stayed with his daughter till he died in Ahmedabad, five months short of the centenary of his birth.
Those were the kinds of men of whom Einstein once said in reference to Gandhi:
“Generations to come would scarce believe that one such as this walked on earth.”