At a time when an inconclusive mandate seems a very likely outcome, we will miss personalities like Atal Behari Vajpayee and Chandra Shekhar, more so the latter, who had larger than life personalities and whose appeal cut across party lines so as to be able to weld together many factions in a united cause. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s acolytes know this well and hence they keep asking: “If not Modi, who?” Clearly, a person like the late Chandra Shekhar will be missed in the next Lok Sabha.
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 to 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 someone I used to see on stage under lights from the dark anonymity of the audience, but I now felt I knew the person in the green room 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.
If politicians are performers and all politics is theatre, Chandra Shekhar was a method actor who would have made that great acting master Lee Strasberg more than proud. He was ordained by history to play a role, but he had imbued the character with his unique personality and every public posture had its roots in a past that had seen enough adversity and struggle. The naiveté of early post-Independence socialism, its innocent hopefulness, its incredulous belief that we humans are all innately capable of great generosity towards each other, and its belief that all social and economic problems have public policy solutions came through in every speech and every political act. There was nothing fake in this. The sheer honesty of it all showed so clearly. Nothing about him was ever contrived.
Today audience tastes have changed. Professional actors, mere singers and dancers, lip syncing words they don’t understand and moving their limbs to the choreographer’s script, have begun to straddle our public life. Politics is now more about inciting passions than exciting our imagination. It is a vocation rather than a calling. It is about base selfishness rather than selfless service to make a great dream come true. We have all become imbued with a cynicism and hopelessness.
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 it and over it. When it came, it came practically without any fuel. We paid for the petrol, and all day long Chandra Shekhar addressed meetings of farmers and small traders who, moved by the idealism and sheer decency of the man manifestly apparent, despite not being able to speak their language, plied him with cash, mostly soiled and crumpled small-denomination notes and coins smoothened by age. I kept counting each take and they amounted to a tidy sum each time. Chandra Shekhar would keep ordering me to dispense this to candidates each time we stopped for him to make the same speech for a different candidate or a different audience. The money never stayed long enough and neither of us had the good sense to keep even our own money from the cause of candidates, many of who were clearly going to lose their deposits.
Anyway, when we reached Lohegaon airport late, partly because of the stalling car, the flight to Mumbai had left, and that was reason enough for the 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. There was a flight to Bengaluru in a couple of hours, which was in any case tomorrow’s destination. After washing up in the small VIP lounge and after fortifying ourselves with some tea helpfully provided by the Indian Airlines officials, we sat down to take stock of our situation. Chandra Shekhar found all this truly hilarious and would, much to my irritation, frequently break out into bouts of laughter. “Don’t worry,” he would say, “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 that 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 did not ask for 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 400-plus 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.”
When we arrived at Bengaluru, the run of bad manners continued. The Janata Party was in power in the state. Once again, an old claptrap Ambassador was provided. The city was festooned with giant cutouts of the chief minister, Ramakrishna Hegde, who had just embarked on his version of value-based politics. As we drove through the dusty back roads of Karnataka, there was not a single poster featuring the party president. But there was not even a single disapproving reaction from Chandra Shekhar. The second day we ran into H.D. Deve Gowda at Mandya’s government guesthouse. This was my first encounter with Deve Gowda. It was early in the morning when Deve Gowda rushed in with tears streaming down his ample cheeks complaining about how Hegde was not even providing him with a seat on the dais in the election meetings. Chandra Shekhar tried calming down Deve Gowda. But this only resulted in more evocative wails. After Deve Gowda settled down somewhat and went to his room, Chandra Shekhar very perceptively remarked:
“Deve Gowda is not a man who forgets, and one day he will get his back on Hegde.” That day came when Deve Gowda, as Prime Minister, threw Hegde out of the party, whatever it was called then, without even a pretence of due process.
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 is 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 that this was something that will not go unanswered. The great lady paid the price a few months later.
I have been educated at one of the world’s great educational institutions. But 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 for 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.