This is a day to remember and cherish Chandra Shekhar. He never had an official birthday, but April 17 came to be celebrated as such with a gathering of his faithful in Bhondsi. I once asked him why he chose this day in the middle of summer and the dust storms blew hard. Why not a more temperate day? He laughed and said: “I have always been a difficult person, Mohan!” Indeed he was. Indira Gandhi discovered it when he opposed the Emergency. The RSS discovered it when he forced them out of the Janata Party. Rajiv Gandhi discovered it when he preferred to quit as PM rather than be insulted by him.
I met Chandra Shekhar for the first time in early 1981 shortly after his party was decimated by the Congress(I) in the mid-term elections that followed the collapse of the dismal Janata Party experiment. We were on a flight to Kochi from Bengaluru, and since he and I were seated next to each other, and since it was a hopping flight, we had much time together. Till then Chandra Shekhar was whom I used to see on stage under lights from the dark anonymity of the audience, but I now felt I knew the person as well. It was much later that I came to know the man from the hero, and I learnt that little separated these two. The river of time has flowed some since that day in 1981, but the man and hero continue to be indistinguishable to me.
Chandra Shekhar’s talents, abilities, passion and razor-sharp intellect put him head and shoulders above the rest. This is what made him unique, even when he sat alone, hunched on the front bench of Parliament, eyes intent and ears not missing a single nuance or telling inflection, as eager as a newcomer would be on his first day in the marketplace where national aspirations are reconciled into what is possible and feasible. The politics of policy were his only passion.
I was with Chandra Shekhar one evening in 1985 at Pune airport after a long hot day of electioneering in western Maharashtra. He was campaigning for his candidates as well as those belonging to whatever party Sharad Pawar then had. Those who wanted him had typically provided him with a car that had to be stopped every few dozen miles and cooled down with mugs of water poured into its radiator and over its fuel pump. When it came, it came practically without any fuel. We paid for petrol all day long.
When we reached Lohegaon airport late, partly because of the stalling car, the flight to Mumbai had left and that was reason enough for local party officials to leave. We arrived tired and wondering what next when we discovered to our chagrin that neither of us had any money. “Don’t worry,” he said, “things will work out,” only increasing my irritation.
Now the Indian Airlines duty officer showed up wanting to know if we wanted to go to Bengaluru. Chandra Shekhar told him yes, but we did not have tickets and added, sotto voce, no money either. The IA official didn’t bat an eyelid. He just said: “Sir, I didn’t ask for the money. If you want to go to Bengaluru, I will give you two tickets on my responsibility. The money will come, I am sure.” Two tickets were provided and we were off to Bengaluru. This was soon after Rajiv Gandhi had stormed into office with 425 Lok Sabha seats, and when Chandra Shekhar himself lost his seat from Ballia.
The Indian Airlines officer said something very thoughtful. He said: “Sir, you may have lost an election, but you have not lost your credibility. Even your word is not required. I consider it an honour to be of some assistance to you.”
Chandra Shekhar’s precise perception was unique. It came from a deep understanding of the people of India, our history and our present situation. His wisdom was derived not from Marx, Lenin or even Laski, but inspired by the lives and sayings of Buddha, Kabir, Nanak, Gandhi, Narendra Deva, and Jayaprakash Narayan. It was this perception that made him differ with Indira Gandhi when the Indian Army was sent into the Golden Temple in Amritsar to ferret out a man who should have been nipped in the bud much earlier. After the carnage he remarked to me that anyone who knows Sikh history and understands what has made them so unique would know this was something that will not go unanswered. The great lady paid the price a few months later.
What I have learnt from him far exceeds what any university can give. That politics without passion was meaningless. That policy without compassion was useless. That kindness, courtesy and civility to those less privileged than oneself must not be contrived as an act of magnanimity but should come naturally. That consideration to others is the essence of democracy. He taught me a thing or two about what it took to be a civilised person. It has been my good fortune to know this truly and uniquely civilised man and call him my friend and teacher.