From this aspect, his life which was tragically cut short at the age of 61 can be regarded as one of unfulfilled expectations.
The time of his ascent to the prime minister’s position after Jawaharlal Nehru’s death provided the first inklings of his own high capabilities and the assurance of a smooth succession in a nascent democracy.
The uneventful transition, brokered by the strong, silent man of Indian politics at the time, K. Kamaraj, provided the much-needed sense of continuity which was necessary after years of speculation in India and abroad about “After Nehru, who?”
As The Statesman wrote in an editorial/obituary, quoting a Tagore poem, that just as earthen lamps were lit in the gathering darkness after the sun had set, Shastri was “India’s earthen lamp in an hour of destiny”.
The imagery reflected Shastri’s quiet, earthy, soothing, understated personality in contrast to Nehru’s dazzling flamboyance. It took time for the ordinary people to become accustomed to the fact that Nehru’s successor was not an Oxbridge man, but an unassuming person from Kashi Vidyapith.
In the newsreels of the time, people used to burst into laughter as the meek, short-statured Shastri appeared on the cinema hall screens.
But it did not take long for the ridicule to turn into admiration after the 1965 war against Pakistan which saw the Indian Army advancing towards Lahore.
After the humiliation of the 1962 conflict with China during which Shastri and other Congressmen had compelled Nehru to remove V.K. Krishna Menon from the defence minister’s post, the 1965 war raised the new prime minister’s prestige sky high.
His “Jai jawan, Jai kisan” slogan of the time is still remembered, as is his decision to resign as the railway minister in 1956 following an accident which claimed 144 lives. Nehru described the resignation as an act of “constitutional propriety”, which hasn’t been emulated by any other railway minister since then.
The 1965 war was however not the only time when Shastri revealed the steeliness of his personality. This side of his character could be seen within days of his assuming office when he dropped the acerbic Morarji Desai from the cabinet for insisting on the No.2 position. Shastri also constituted the prime minister’s secretariat, which is the precursor of today’s Prime Minister’s office (PMO).
For the Congress, Shastri was the ideal man for enabling the party to retain not only its primacy of position in politics but also for reinvigorating the ideals of Gandhian simplicity and honesty which the party was gradually beginning to lose.
In this respect, Shastri’s down-to-earth nature revived the Congress at the grassroots level by making the ordinary people remember the sterling qualities which had marked the party during the independence movement.
Had he lived, there is little doubt that the Congress would have retained its influence for a longer period than it has been able to do.
Not only that, the greatest service which a normal spell of life would have enabled Shastri to render to his party was to nullify the dynastic factor by creating a big enough gap in terms of years between Nehru’s death and the succession of his progeny.
It is even possible that Nehru’s descendants might not have made it to the top at all if the party had developed in a normal way instead of turning into a “feudal oligarchy”, as prime minister Rajiv Gandhi said on the occasion of the Congress’s centenary celebrations in 1985.
Unfortunately, there was a gap of a mere year-and-a-half between Nehru’s death in May 1964 and Shastri’s in January 1966. Moreover, Indira Gandhi’s ascent as prime minister in January 1966 and her long tenure as well as that of her son, Rajiv, ensured that Congressmen began to associate their party so closely with the Nehru-Gandhis that the latter retained the whiphand even when the party was not in power.
The ill-effects of this association between the dynasty and its sycophants have undermined the Congress’s idealism and political health.
Shastri took charge at a time when the country’s morale was at a low ebb after the 1962 setback. It would sink even lower after his death with the Congress experiencing its first major electoral defeats in the 1967 assembly elections.
But, unknown to Shastri, the 1965 war had set in motion the process of Pakistan’s disintegration as it led to Ayub Khan’s ouster, Yahya Khan’s installation and the liberation of Bangladesh.
Of the two prime ministers from outside the Nehru-Gandhi clan who will be remembered by history, Shastri will be held in high esteem because he represented the “idea of India” as a secular, multicultural nation governed by high-minded leaders.
As a believer in a “socialist democracy”, he was different from P.V. Narasimha Rao, who followed another path of development by opening up the economy. But the two together underline their party’s potential for adapting to the exigencies of varying periods when it is not stifled by feudal norms.