Known as a “Young Turk” for his outspokenness, Chandra Shekhar became India’s eight Prime Minister on November 10, 1990. A committed socialist, he had a reputation for being blunt and opposed to personality cults.
Born in a Hindu Rajput agriculturist family on July 1, 1927 in Ibrahimpatti, a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Ballia district, he secured a Master’s degree from Allahabad University. He got attracted to student politics, and even at a young age became known for his impressive oratory.
He became part of the socialist movement and was made secretary of the Ballia unit of Praja Socialist Party. He rose quickly to the rank of joint secretary of the party’s state unit, and then its general secretary. In 1962, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha.
He joined the Congress in 1964 and entered the Lok Sabha in 1967. Together with other ‘Young Turks’ such as Mohan Dharia and Ram Dhan, a group within the Congress that fought for a more egalitarian policies, he was critical of some of his party’s policies. He shot into prominent in the 1970s after he openly criticised Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. As a result, he was sent to prison during the 1975 Emergency along with Opposition leaders such as Morarji Desai and Atal Bihari Vajpayee (both future prime ministers). Post-Emergency, he became a prominent leader of the Janata Party, a loose coalition of parties that merged together to form the country’s first non-Congress government.
In 1988, he was again part of a broad anti-Congress front that formed a government under Prime Minister V.P. Singh. But this experiment failed too, and Chandra Shekhar’s breakaway splinter group was supported by the Congress, making him the country’s eight prime minister. However, this split with V.P. Singh somewhat dented Chandra Shekhar’s image as a man of principles. In any case, his government barely lasted half a year, with the Congress pulling back its support, a move that did not come as a major surprise to most political observers.
The India Today magazine noted Chandra Shekhar’s rather listless Lok Sabha election campaign in May 1991: “That one word — ‘sanitised’ — sums up Chandra Shekhar’s campaign perfectly. The entire programme is so designed that there is hardly any personal contact with the public. Chandra Shekhar the politician has been trapped in the prime ministerial strait-jacket. Keen on playing the role of an elderly statesman to the hilt, he is, clearly, unwilling to sully his clean image by mudslinging electioneering. The result: his biting sarcasm and earthy humour, which swayed the provincial crowds on his side, is missing.”
Since he was Prime Minister for barely seven months, his government could not even bring out a proper budget. This was also a time when the country’s foreign exchange reserves had fallen drastically, forcing India to pledge gold at the international market. Chandra Shekhar was said to be opposed to the idea of seeking help from global institutions like the IMF and World Bank, but the P.V. Narasimha Rao-led Congress government that came to power after him did exactly that.
Once asked about how the probe into the Bofors corruption scandal (that had hit the Congress) was going, Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar angrily retorted: “It is a job of a police inspector to monitor it.” The internal security situation in the country was also dire during his regime, with unrest and violence in Kashmir growing. Overall, it is fair to say that he was Prime Minister for too short a period to leave an impact or a legacy.
After his stint as Prime Minister, Chandra Shekhar ceased to be a major political player, but was respected by leaders across the political spectrum.
He continued to voice his opinion on various issues. “A crisis has been created due to religious fanaticism which is worsening every day,” he said in an interview to The Tribune in July 2003. “There is no other option but to meet the urges and aspirations of the minorities which have been ignored.” On India-Pakistan relations, he said that no nation facing a conflict situation should say that “we shall not talk”.
He won praise from his contemporaries.
‘‘What strikes me most about Chandra Shekhar is that he has always been a rebel at heart,’’ Prime Minister Vajpayee said during a function to release a book on Chandra Shekhar’s writings in 2004. ‘‘He has demanded answers from his own government and questioned it when it deviated from its socialist path.”
After suffering from cancer, Chandra Shekhar was in hospital for over three months, and died in New Delhi on July 8, 2007.
Putting his life and times into context, senior journalist Saroj Nagi wrote: “Born in the dustbowl of Uttar Pradesh’s Ibrahimpatti on July 1,1927, the 80-year-old leader witnessed the freshness of the Nehruvian era, the loss of innocence between the 1960s and 1980s — when the Chinese and Pakistani attacks took place, Indira Gandhi declared Emergency, the first non-Congress government came to the Centre in 1977 and as the hope and despair that marked politics from 1980 onwards.”
The then Lok Sabha speaker Somnath Chatterjee said in a tribute that Chandra Shekhar was a socialist to the core. “He learnt and practised politics in an era when ideals were sacrosanct,” Chatterjee said.
Also on this day:
1848 — Surendranath Banerjee, Indian nationalist leader, was born
1910 — Kothamangalam Subbu, Tamil writer, actor and director, was born