Chandra Shekhar was a deeply flawed politician but in many ways he embodied an ethos that has little resonance or currency in today’s India.
In this, his seventh anniversary year, an appraisal I wrote in 2007
In extant public consciousness, the facial stubble probably lies copyrighted as signature statement to Anil Kapoor or to Abhishek Bachchan. But that could only be a trick of not knowing. The stubble was launched as street vogue on the face of a fledgling socialist called Chandra Shekhar in the mid-1960s and has endured through the decades as trademark lean and hungry look of the smalltown neta with bigtime ideas and ambitions. There was a tribe of north Indian politicians that came to subliminally believe you had to have a stubble if you wanted to be taken seriously. In an era where there was still some political premium on being and appearing rustic and rooted rather than cityslicker-swish, the unkempt visage was what made first impressions. The stubble was, if you like, the fashion statement of a certain political species — rough and always ready for the road, no time for personal care because public life wasn’t meant to be about any of that.
Chandra Shekhar was no Gandhi, there can be no confusing them. (And even Gandhi was in many ways no Gandhi; didn’t Sarojini Naidu remark how she wished the world knew how much it cost to keep the Mahatma poor?) But if symbolism is a legitimate tool for setting norm and standard, we may have lost in Chandra Shekhar the last great villager-politician. Not because to the end of his days, the man wore nothing but rumpled dhoti-kurta, bandi, ahinsak chappals and, in the bitter cold, a khadi shawl; not because he preferred to squat and chat in the kutia he had had constructed in his 3 South Avenue Lane home; not because he kept open house there even when he was, for a trice, Prime Minister; not because he never went campaigning in choppers; not because he never got seduced by the dazzle of the celebrity-corporate complex that debuted harmlessly on Page 3 and has now extended its insidious grip, octopus-like, to all vital precincts of national life; not even because he was the only contemporary politician to have walked — his 1983 Bharat Yatra was no air-conditioned cross-country in a souped-up rath, it was a sole-splitting marathon at the end of which he had his feet wrapped in reams of gauze — the heart of the land.
It was because he was utterly unembarrassed about his lack of chic. It was because it would have embarrassed him to be seen as enamoured by it or aspiring to. That isn’t true any more of many of those who fashion themselves as sons of the soil. The list includes Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh, both of whom owed much to Chandra Shekhar that they aren’t generous enough to reveal. Mark this contrast — Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh have, in time, turned into prosperous and unabashed little dynasts; Chandra Shekhar, for all his years, access and influence, never promoted his family into politics. Sons Pankaj and Neeraj are private people, barely recognised beyond their departed father’s close circle.
It has become kosher, in some ways even obligatory, for the political classes to flaunt wealth, or the company of the wealthy, these days — the cocktail appearance, the shake-a-leg gig, the flash car or cell, the private jet courtesy so-and-so. In Chandra Shekhar’s book that was strictly schlock. Like most politicians of a generation getting framed up on the walls, Chandra Shekhar took a dim, even contemptuous, view of such ethics; he thought such exhibitionism uncouth and unseemly in a country still overwhelmingly populated by the poor. The last time I saw him — a brief meeting in the improvised hut at 3 South Avenue Lane several months ago — he lay already quite consumed by the rot in his veins but still typically irascible at the way things were. “Matibhrasht neta hain is desh ke jinko GDP ka das ank laakhon mare kisanon se jyada bada dikhai deta hai.” (The leaders must have lost their minds to view two-digit GDP growth as bigger than hundreds of thousands of dead farmers.)
It wasn’t as if Chandra Shekhar didn’t build personal wealth; the modest farmer’s son from Ballia in east UP came to acquire fabled — and dubious — estates in the name of the Bharat Yatra Trust at Bhondsi on the fringes of New Delhi and back in his native Ibrahimpatti. It was not as if he did not deal with big and dirty money; as leader of a political concern that had to be kept going and, later, as Prime Minister, he had to. But he had a way about money; money was not about personal ostentation, it was even less about losing sense of realities and perverting policy as a consequence. If ever he used one, Chandra Shekhar probably needed an aide to operate the mobile phone, but he knew his rabi from his kharif and was familiar with all the miseries that happen in between. And he wasn’t afraid to evoke that sensibility even if he was the only man doing so. He left the Praja Socialist Party to join Indira Gandhi because he became convinced that Congress conservatives were bent upon gobbling her — and socialism — up. He fought off the rightwing syndicate with Mrs Gandhi. He left her side when he sensed her turning autocratic and preferred jail to submission. He fought tooth and nail — and in vain — against the formation of the Janata Dal under VP Singh because he thought VP a Congress crony and an opportunist and said so openly. He wasn’t bothered to know if he convinced anyone.
But at the worst of times, he commanded patient hearing in the Lok Sabha or outside, whether it was running against the national mood and warning of the dire consequences of sending armed forces into the Golden Temple or, in the vortex of the post-Babri demolition turmoil, remonstrating with the Left not to push the Sangh Parivar so hard that there was no room for return. Too much a secular-socialist ever to agree with the Sangh and irate at the horror it had enacted in Ayodhya, Chandra Shekhar still counselled dialogue — don’t forget, they too are people who belong to this country, they have strayed, they need to be corrected, you can’t extern them. Not for nothing did the late PV Narasimha Rao say that the closest the Ayodhya dispute came to a resolution was during Chandra Shekhar’s premiership. But then that was a stint with “short-term” written all over it.
He was a die-hard inclusivist because he was grounded in the contrary pluralities of India and understood that contradictions cannot be fought, they would have to be managed. No wonder his friendships ran deep and across ideological lines. No wonder that little Chandra Shekhar wanted done went unrequited in the power corridors. The man only ever held one post — Prime Minister for seven lame-duck months — but he wielded influence far in excess of what he let on. He became much reviled too for the strings he could pull over the phone from 3 South Avenue Lane. Did he care? He didn’t much. On the contrary, he continued to offer plentiful fodder to critics. His weakness for Thakur aggrandisement — wasn’t the rivalry for the Rajput crown at the bottom of his visceral differences with VP Singh? — his loner’s inability to create an organisation, his clumsy late-life grab for high office, the sordid company he often kept. Suraj Deo Singh and Chandraswami, one a dreaded Dhanbad mafia don, the other a high-flying conman. It can’t be he didn’t know the truth about them. But here again, it was that stodgy streak of personal conviction working against public perception — they were friends, Chandra Shekhar couldn’t be bothered what the world thought of them.
For more than the last decade, Chandra Shekhar stood in the Lok Sabha as lone representative of a party that had no brand recognition and that has probably died unlamented with him — the Samajwadi Janata Party (SJP). But being solitary seldom shook him. He was, from the beginning, an as-is-where-is man, like me, lump me. A little before the end, he made another contentious, and solitary, flip — vote Shekhawat for President, not Pratibha. He was nearer to the Congress than he was to the BJP but then, Shekhawat was a friend. The stubble had by then turned from pepper to salt-and-pepper to pure salt on his face and now it’s turned to ash. But that was the original one and it lies copyrighted in his name.