Forgetting for Stalwarts

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The Congress seems to be afflicted with amnesia about some of its past stalwarts like GB Pant. Even Lal Bahadur Shastri, the simple and honest man who led the nation in war and died for it

THE Congress party is extremely jealous about claiming the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, though the Father of the Nation belongs to the whole of India. In fact, the legacy of the apostle of peace, the wonder of the modern world, transcends national borders.

But for the Congress party, the Mahatma is its own icon. Under the modern day Gandhi’s, it is afflicted with an infantile mindset regarding its claim over its past leaders and heritage.

First it forgets and ignores its own stalwarts in the freedom movement, particularly those who are outside the so-called Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Its degree of amnesia is directly proportional to its obsession with the current leadership of Sonia-Rahul-Priyanka and even extending to Robert Vadra at times. But when others, specially its political rivals, choose to celebrate forgotten heroes, the Congress cries foul – “Look, they are hijacking our leaders!”

This has happened in the case of Sardar Patel and then Dr B R Ambedkar. The party accuses BJP and BSP of ‘usurping’ Congress heritage for electoral gains. This is typical childish mentality.

The Congress suffers memory loss also regarding scores of others like Jaya Prakash Narayan, Jagjivan Ram and K Kamaraj. But you can trust the party to come running to claim ‘ownership’ over these leaders if it politically suits them anytime in the future.

The party’s latest instance of amnesia, surprisingly, was over Bharat Ratna Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant on his 128th birth anniversary that fell on September 10. It is surprising because, Pant was the strongman of undivided, now poll-bound Uttar Pradesh and a close associate of Nehru. And to think Rahul Gandhi was in the state too in the thick of his campaign to shore up the sagging Congress prospects! Did the thought of Pant ever cross his mind?

Congress, which is normally quick to see prospects of electoral gain in any given situation, seems to have ignored the fact that UP is going to polls next year and where rival parties are busy engaging in ‘social engineering’ – trying to get the votes of every caste and community. Brahmins are particularly sought after this time by SP and BSP who are trying to wean them away from their natural constituency – BJP. And the Pants are Brahmins.

The Congress leadership at the Centre is not known to have organised any function in memory of GB Pant at its AICC headquarters in Delhi. At least there was no news report of any such event. What was more Congress leaders, at least the top ones, gave amiss to the memorial function organised by the central government.

Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari and Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu along with BJP patriarch LK Advani, paid floral tributes at the statue of Pant near Parliament House. The Vice-President was received by Ila Pant, former MP and daughter-in-law of Pandit Pant. Ansari said that Pandit Pant was “a towering figure of the freedom movement” who served with “distinction as Home Minister of India and Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh”. Delhi BJP President Satish Upadhyay, Advani’s daughter Pratibha Advani and several other dignitaries, too, attended the function. There was no report of any Congress leaders attending the function.

The Congress government of Chief Minister Harish Rawat in Uttarakhand placed a simple advertisement in some newspapers on Pant’s birth anniversary.

In Lucknow, chief minister Akilesh Yadav and governor Ram Naik, a prominent BJP leader, attended a function to celebrate Pant’s birth anniversary. There was no report of any Congress leader attending the function.

Does Congress amnesia stem from the fact that members of the Pant family – from the late KC Pant, son of GB Pant, to Ms Ila Pant, have moved away from the Congress to the saffron party?

Is the grand old party not cutting its own nose to spite its face?

There is another true Gandhian and a Congress man to the core whom the present day Congress hardly remembers though the humble man was prime minister of the country. He shares his birthday with that of Mahatma Gandhi. He is none but the diminutive and doughty fighter Lal Bahdur Shastri, the man who gave the nation the slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” at the height of the Indo-Pak war of 1965. After Govind Bhallab Pant’s death on 7 March 1961, Shastri was appointed India’s Home Minister.

“Shastri’s simplicity and modesty were as impressive as Pant’s sagacity and maturity. Both represented the best of the Indian independence movement and its traditional values. They wanted to do all they could to take the country forward, personal interest never so much as crossing their minds. Nehru depended a great deal on Shastri who literally worshipped him, writes Kuldip Nayar in his book “Beyond the Lines.”

Though Nehru himself treated Shastri with respect, the attitude of his immediate family members towards Shastri was rather condescending and even hostile at times.

Shastri was extremely careful when dealing with Nehru’s two sisters – Vijayalakshmi Pandit and Krishna Hutheesingh, and daughter Indira Gandhi. As Home Minister, he was startled when he received a copy of the letter Vijyalakshmi Pandit had written to Nehru that the Raj Bhawans (she was the governor of Maharashtra) were being used as dak bungalows by central ministers. Shastri received the complaint after he had stayed at Raj Bhawan, Bombay. From then onward, Shastri and his staff stayed at the airport even at night, with the attendant discomforts, but never at any Raj Bhawan.

Shastri, who like Nehru belonged to Allahabad, was conscious that he was way down in the social ladder in comparison to the Nehru family. After all Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal’s father was an iconic figure and a dashing social personality, while Shastri was a struggling lower middle class individual.

“I recall Indira Gandhi’s remark about ‘middle class living’ when she visited Shastri’s residence whether she could move there after his death,” Nayar who was Shastri’s information officer, writes in his book.

Shastri, a simple man from the village, was overawed by the English speaking ‘elite’ who he thought came from highly educated families.

Shastri had a different view of China from that of Nehru’s and always thought China would one day betray India. It was a pity that Panditji did not see the writing on the wall.

Nehru had appointed a Citizen’s Council to generate public opinion against China’s attack in 1962 and Shastri was a member of the Council. Indira Gandhi headed this council, an example of Nehru’s way of building up his daughter.

Shastri addressed many meetings not only to criticise China but also to defend Nehru who was pilloried for having trusted China.

Nehru was smarting under the criticism by key cabinet ministers on his China policy when Congress president K Kamaraj, suggested he let his top cabinet members work in the organisation to strengthen the party. Kamaraj was only mouthing Nehru’s sentiments. Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram, the two principal critics, and Shastri, were dropped from the cabinet to work for the party.

Nayar asked Shastri why he had been ‘Kamarajed’ when he had been loyal to Nehru. Shastri said that

Panditji had been obliged to do so because he did not want to be accused of using the Kamaraj plan to get rid of his critics.

On the day Shastri left the government, Nayar went to his bungalow in the evening as usual. It was dark at his house, with only the drawing room lit. Nayar thought he was not at home because the one man guard was also not on duty.

Nayar found Shastri sitting in the drawing room all by himself, reading a newspaper. He asked him why there was no light outside. Shastri replied that from now on he would have to pay the electricity bill for his house himself, and could not afford extravagant lighting.

It is reminiscent of an incident involving Rajajai when he was chief minister of Madras state. Whenever he stayed at a Dak bungalow while on tour, after finishing his official work and clearing files, he would switch off the light and light an oil lamp and begin writing his personal letters and also his literary work. Asked why he was not using electricity, he would reply it was his personal work and he would not like to use government money for that.

Though it may look a bit too

farfetched and needless in today’s environment, it only showed the

high standards of probity in public life in a bygone halcyon era. It is difficult for today’s ministers to understand the mindset of those clean-living, simple people.

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