Lal Bahadur Shastri: Farmer’s PM, Epitome of ethics, integrity, honesty, hard-work, simplicity & austerity

Lal Bahadur Shastri doing office work while being in flight & even while posing for a portrait painting

In the history of Indian politics which is dominated by dynasty, corruption, wealth & raw power, one figure with ethics, integrity, simplicity & austerity stood out as an odd man, like an oasis within a desert. He was Lal Bahadur Shastri.

Born on the same day of the year as that of the Mahatma (2nd Oct) in 1904, Shastri unfortunately lost his parents at a very young age. A few inspirational anecdotes from his childhood were shared here. (Mahatma Gandhi was born in 1869).

Deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi’s call for independence movement, Shastri joined the bandwagon and became a disciple of Gandhi. During freedom struggle, he demonstrated exemplary characteristics of honesty which had impressed even the British officials. While he was jailed under the British, he was informed that his daughter was sick. He requested for 15 days to visit her and was granted under the condition that he must not participate in freedom struggle in those 15 days. Unfortunately, by the time he reached his home, his daughter had died. After performing the funeral & last rites for 3 days, he immediately returned to jail inspite of having 12 more days of freedom from jail!!

Similarly, in another event, while in jail, he was informed of his son’s serious sickness and this time he got a permission of 7 days of leave from jail. He stayed with his son all the 7 days and although his son had still not recovered, Shastri went back to jail to keep up with his words!! (Fortunately, his son survived)

After the freedom struggle & independence, politics was inevitable & he became the Railway minister under Nehru and went on to take up other roles including that of Home Minister. Such was his moral stanards at his job that immediately after a train accident, he took moral responsibility and submitted his letter of resignation!! (However, Nehru did not accept his resignation)

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A rare photo of Shastri when he was a railway minister

 

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After the death of Nehru in 1964, he was given the responsibility of taking up the PM position which he took with great dedication & determination but was initially met with skepticism since he was in contrasting terms compared to Nehru. While Nehru was an English educated intellectual and part of the elite club (son of Motilal) with vast network of contacts in the global scene, Shastri was a simple, soft spoken activist with farming background. However, within the next few weeks, his efficiency, ethics, simplicity, hard work proved his caliber, and over the next few months, he surprised everybody with his courage followed by triggering of a slew of reforms & revolutions which transformed India & instilled confidence among Indians.

One of the first challenges he faced was the provocation & tension at Indo-Pak border which led to the inevitable i.e A war against Pakistan. One of the reasons for the provocation was that Pakistan underestimated the caliber of Shastri and assumed that India would quickly decay after Nehru’s death and hence thought it was the right time to strike. When Pakistan army crossed the International border with 100 battle tanks, Shastri surprised everybody by taking the challenge upfront and asked his army chief to retaliate with full force. During the independence day speech, he said “Hathiyaron ka jawab hathiyaron se dange. Hamara desh rahega to hamara tiranga rahega (Weapons will be replied with weapons. Our national tricolor flag will survive only if our nation survives). This was a great morale booster for the whole of India and he also further played a great role in motivating the army (which was morally depressed after the humiliating defeat by China in 1962). The way in which he led the war to victory made him an overnight hero in India and it left Pakistan trembling for the next few years.

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Shastri motivating Indian Army

Around the same time, Shastri had begun to observe a revolutionary movement in a village in Gujarat in the form of milk cooperatives while Amul was still in infancy. He personally invited Kurien, who was the General Manager at Amul & was leading the milk revolution in Gujarat, and requested him to replicate it across India as well and ensured him full support. This triggered the White Revolution (also called “Operation Flood”) which drastically increased milk production throughout India through the means of several cooperatives which were administered by villagers themselves, thereby producing large scale employment as well.

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Shastri with Kurien (White Revolution)

The next major challenge was that of food crisis. India was facing a severe drought situation in 1965 & literally “begging” for grains from USA. This was the time when Shastri took up the challenge upfront & created large teams of agricultural scientists & motivated them to come up with solutions. In the meantime, Shastri gave up one meal every day so that it could be given to the needy and motivated his countrymen also to do the same. For long term solution, had personally identified M.S.Swaminathan’s pioneering work in agriculture & requested him to head the team and ensured him full support. This triggered the Green Revolution which made India self sufficient in grains within a decade!!

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Shastri with M.S.Swaminathan (Green Revolution)

Farmers who were ignored till then (As Nehru was more interested in factories & dams) got their due respect & importance. A series of reforms by Shastri helped them participate in the Green Revolution & Shastri did everything possible to motivate them including the conceptualization & popularization of the slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”. Also, he had cleaned up his backyard & converted it into a mini farmland where he grew his own crops. When news of the “Prime Minister growing his own crops” reached the common man & farmer, he became a role model and a source of inspiration for the nation which had all the resources to solve it’s food problems but was lacking a political will & a sense of direction which was solved by Shastri. That is one of the reasons he was called “India’s farmer PM”.

The next major challenge for Shastri was in administration which was neck deep in corruption. By his hard work & austerity, he had already motivated his high level team to work towards eliminating corruption, but that was not sufficient because corruption existed everywhere in India, right from top officers, trickling down even to levels of clerks & peons in Govt offices. So, he setup a committee to look into ways of stopping corruption and started departments to deal with corruption.

Shastri was seriously considering the appointment of a Lokpal to curb corruption but he could not stay long enough to implement it. Within the next few days, Shastri breath his last in Tashkent during a treaty. The reason for his death is still unknown to the common man. My friend, Anuj, had filed an RTI requesting for information & reason for Shastri’s death but was surprisingly his request was rejected by the Govt citing security reasons.

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Excerpt from Kuldip Nayar’s book: “Beyond the Lines”

Unfortunately, the Congress party did not show sufficient courtesy to perform his last rites & wanted his body to be taken to Allahabad for cremation. It was only after his wife, Lalita Devi, fought with the party, they finally agreed to cremate him with national honors at Vijay Ghat.

At the time of his death, Shastri had no money for his family. All that he had was an old car which was purchased on monthly installment. He was born in a poor family, led a simple personal life, austere family life, ethical professional life & finally died a poor man. He was one of the rare breed of politicians who made no money.

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Shastri with family (Image courtesy: LIFE magazine)

Looking back in hindsight, one can say that although Shastri was in power for just 17 months, the kind of work and inspiration he instilled among Indians could not have been possible by any other PM even if they were given 17 years. He was truly “Farmer’s PM”, deserves to be called the architect of self-sufficient India and is the epitome of ethics, integrity, honesty, hard-work, simplicity & austerity.

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