Editor’s Note: The following excerpt has been taken from the book Chandra Shekhar: The Last Icon of Ideological Politics written by Rajya Sabha deputy chairman Harivansh and writer Ravi Dutt Bajpai. The book was launched on Wednesday by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and chronicles the journey of former PM Chandra Shekhar from his humble lower middle-class background to becoming one of the most prominent political icons of India.
During the launch of the book, Modi lashed out at the Congress stating that non-Congress prime ministers have not been given the credit that they deserved. Modi praised Chandra Shekhar for undertaking the marathon walk from Kanyakumari to New Delhi, and showered his admiration on the late leader during the book launch for being a man of integrity and courage.
The following excerpt details the formation of the first non-Congress government in India and shows how Chandra Shekhar became the Janata Party president.
First Non-Congress Government in India
A number of events helped Morarji Desai’s rise to the prime ministership. JP trusted the advice of Acharya Kriplani, Radhakrishna and Narayan Desai and all of them were in favour of Morarji. Amidst hectic lobbying, Chaudhary Charan Singh sent a letter to JP, stating that he favoured Morarji Desai as the prime minister. He mentioned that Jagjivan Ram had not only supported the Emergency, but had also presented the proposal in the parliament to impose Emergency. On the other hand, Morarji Desai had opposed the Emergency and had endured imprisonment for nineteen months.
Desai was also elder to Charan Singh, and that, for him, was a reason why Morarji should have been nominated as the prime minister. Jagjivan Ram and his supporters were distraught and stayed away from this meeting at the parliament. Ramdhan resigned from the post of the party’s general secretary, alleging the process as unfair, while George Fernandes objected to the undemocratic method of Morarji’s election. Jagjivan Ram was then adamant that he be made the deputy prime minister, failing which he and Bahuguna did not take part in the oath-taking ceremony.
JP then wrote a letter to Jagjivan Ram to defuse this escalating crisis. Bahuguna insisted on having certain modifications to JP’s letter. Chandra Shekhar had a telephonic conversation with JP in Bombay and informed him that Bahuguna wanted JP’s letter to be changed. JP authorized Chandra Shekhar to make whatever changes he deemed fit. After Chandra Shekhar made the necessary changes in JP’s letter, Jagjivan Ram and Bahuguna joined the cabinet. It seemed quite apparent that the new Janata government was beset with problems of factionalism, pettiness and egotism of the leaders, while the common people expected a politics of transformation from these very leaders.
Adhyakshji: Chandra Shekhar as the Party President
After the government formation, the next task was to get its organizational structure in order. Thus, a committee was formed to select the office-bearers. Even though he understood the rationale behind the decision, JP was upset that Chandra Shekhar had not joined Morarji’s cabinet and therefore he offered him to become the party president. Though JP was undergoing treatment in a hospital in Bombay, he wished to write to all the prominent leaders of the Janata Party, recommending Chandra Shekhar for the role of party president. Chandra Shekhar argued that since JP had already achieved the primary goal of restoration of democracy, he should not embroil himself in insignificant issues.
Chandra Shekhar then explained that should he become the party president with JP’s backing, it would always bother him that he had achieved the role through JP’s benevolence rather than because of his own abilities. Also, if he failed to become the party president despite JP’s backing, it would be an insult to JP, something entirely unacceptable to Chandra Shekhar.
During these discussions, a common friend, Brahmanandji, was also present and recounted that immediately after Indian independence, Gandhiji had advised Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel to select Acharya Narendra Dev as the Congress president, but both of them had ignored Gandhi’s advice. Chandra Shekhar promptly replied that JP was not Gandhi, neither was he Acharya Narendra Dev, and Morarji, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram were most definitely not Jawaharlal Nehru or Sardar Patel. They all had a good laugh; later, JP left for the USA for his treatment and Chandra Shekhar saw him off at the Mumbai airport.
The next morning in Delhi, Charan Singh asked Chandra Shekhar to visit him for some discussion. However, by the time Chandra Shekhar reached Charan Singh’s home, he had already left for the party workers’ convention. Chandra Shekhar arrived late for the same meeting and took his place on the stage. He silently observed the discussions about the potential nominees for the party president. He did not show any interest in these deliberations, nor did he participate in any of the talks. There was no agreement on any of the names even after prolonged discussions. Suddenly, veteran socialist leader, Ramanand Tiwari, suggested that instead of engaging in fruitless debates, they should nominate Chandra Shekhar as the president.
Tiwari argued that not only was Chandra Shekhar the most suitable person for that role, he was also JP’s preference. Chandrabhanu Gupt, Nanaji Deshmukh and George Fernandes readily concurred with Ramanand Tiwari’s suggestion. Raj Narain argued that by proposing Chandra Shekhar’s name, the consensus of not having a consensus was lost. He along with the others vociferously supported Chandra Shekhar’s name. Morarji tried to delay the announcement; however, in the face of massive support, he had to give in.
Once he was nominated as the party president, most of his friends and associates started to address Chandra Shekhar not by his name but affectionately as ‘Adhyakshji’ (Mr President). It did not take too long for ‘Mr President’ to realize that he was wearing a crown of thorns. The party was nothing more than a potpourri of diverse components. Each part was very keen to make itself bigger and more significant than the other, and each leader was determined to protect their own political turf while simultaneously trying to usurp the other’s.
It seemed bizarre that as an organization, Janata Party was inaugurated on 1 May 1977, while the Janata Party government was already functioning since 24 March 1977. The irony was not lost on Chandra Shekhar who called it an unprecedented event when the government formation preceded the creation of the political party. Chandra Shekhar realized that during the organizational setup, despite electing him as the party president by consensus, all the factions within the party had also ensured their representation in the party hierarchy through the nomination of general secretaries.
The central government decided to dissolve the state legislative assemblies in nine states and hold fresh elections in June 1977. Chandra Shekhar had less than a month to prepare the party for the massive tasks—building party infrastructure, developing the party’s electoral strategy, ticket distribution, campaign launch and electioneering. He adopted a pragmatic approach in dealing with the simultaneous assembly elections in nine states and allowed the veteran leaders from different regions greater autonomy in the selection of party candidates. Since Chaudhary Charan Singh was considered the tallest leader in Uttar Pradesh, Chandra Shekhar entrusted the responsibility of the ticket distributions for the state to Chaudhary Saheb. However, the latter went ahead with the ticket distribution in the most partisan manner, in order to maximize his own influence while undermining other leaders.
Charan Singh’s approach to ticket distribution revealed why it was almost impossible to build Janata Party as one political entity. He still saw himself as the leader of the Bhartiya Lok Dal rather than of Janata Party, and out of 425 seats in the State Assembly, he kept 250 seats for his own party, giving Jan Sangh 150 seats and leaving only 25 seats for others.
Charan Singh’s extremely parochial approach to ticket distribution left a number of leaders extremely frustrated, and as the party president, Chandra Shekhar, was obliged to address this issue. He had a discussion with Charan Singh on this matter to which Chaudhary Saheb said, ‘Pradhanji, I have distributed these tickets only after careful considerations, hence I cannot make any changes.’ In order to break the impasse, Chandra Shekhar brought in Madhu Limaye who was very friendly with Charan Singh. The three of them discussed for hours, in order to resolve this dispute but could not reach an agreement. Amidst these negotiations, Chandra Shekhar realized that only three days were left to file all the necessary papers for the Janata Party candidates in the assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh. He then requested Banarasi Das, Nanaji Deshmukh, Madhu Limaye, H.N. Bahuguna and others to make the necessary changes to the list prepared by Charan Singh, overruling several names from the original list.
As the party president, it was entirely Chandra Shekhar’s prerogative to make the final decisions on the distribution of poll tickets. He had made serious efforts to salvage the situation by engaging Charan Singh, but to no avail. Once he realized that his efforts to make Charan Singh see reason had failed, he was compelled to take some harsh decisions and made eighty- six changes to the list prepared by Singh. He worked throughout the night to put his signature on each of the forms required for assigning the election symbol to the candidates and then released the official candidate list for the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. This was the time when Janata Party was still operating on Bhartiya Lok Dal’s election symbol. A resentful Charan Singh shot off a letter to the Election Commission asking them not to allot his election symbol to Janata Party candidates. The Election Commission then contacted the Janata Party’s office in New Delhi advising them about Charan Singh’s request for the withdrawal of the election symbol. The commission also advised that Janata Party should either ask Charan Singh to withdraw his letter or the party should request for a new symbol. The deadline was set to four o’clock the following day.
On hearing this news, the party’s general secretary, Rabi Ray, who was also an old associate of Charan Singh, requested him to withdraw the letter, but Charan Singh flatly refused. Rabi Ray then rushed to Chandra Shekhar to inform him about this new crisis. Chandra Shekhar hurried to meet Charan Singh, who repeated that he had serious reservations about the list of candidates and declined to withdraw his letter. Chandra Shekhar told Charan Singh that if he refused to withdraw his letter, then he should come to the meeting of the party’s national executive scheduled for the next day to discuss the new election symbol. He also informed Charan Singh that he would take a unilateral decision to get the new election symbol before the Election Commission’s deadline expired. Charan Singh thought about it for some time and then sent someone to recall his letter from the Election Commission.
The election results in the state assemblies were very encouraging for the Janata Party and it ended up winning eight states (including Delhi), while the Left Front won West Bengal. It seemed quite obvious that Charan Singh had worked out a cosy alliance with the Jan Sangh faction within the Janata Party to divide the spoils of the state elections between them. The Jan Sangh leaders were elected as chief ministers in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh and Delhi while Bhartiya Lok Dal occupied the chief minister’s post in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa (now Odisha), and Haryana. Chandra Shekhar was not unaffected by these egotistical battles for supremacy in the party and was caught in the crossfire during the elections of the chief ministers in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
In Uttar Pradesh, his old associate from the Young Turks days, Ram Dhan, challenged Charan Singh’s nominee, Ram Naresh Yadav, for the post of chief minister. On the day when the results of the party legislature’s ballot were announced in Uttar Pradesh, Charan Singh’s followers put on a disgraceful show of indiscipline, raising slogans against Chandra Shekhar, their own party president.
(The excerpt has been published with permission from Rupa Publications. Written by the deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha, Harivansh, and writer Ravi Dutt Bajpai, the book Chandra Shekhar: The Last Icon of Ideological Politics costs Rs 595.)