In October 1963, four prominent Congress leaders came together at the Tirupati temple: Kumarasami Kamaraj, the former Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and then Congress party president, Siddavanahalli Nijalingappa, then Chief Minister of Mysore (as Karnataka was known until 1973), Neelam Sanjiva Reddy of Andhra Pradesh and Atulya Ghosh of West Bengal.
The foursome (soon to be joined by Sadashiv Patil of Maharashtra) were important regional leaders who were individually of little consequence outside their respective states. Collectively however, they could wield tremendous clout, controlling as they did, party cells in the most (electorally) important states outside the Hindi speaking region.
The foursome who came together at Tirupati had something beyond mere pilgrimage in their minds. There was one single factor unifying them: the health of the prime minister. The machinations they set in force that day would have repercussions far bigger than they could have possibly foreseen. This is the first part in a series of articles dedicated to the era between the end of the Nehruvian era and the era of Indira Gandhi.
India at 17
In 1964, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was serving his fourth term as Prime Minister of India. In 17 years since independence, the Prime Minister had not changed. Everything else had.
The euphoria of independence was long forgotten, so was the idealism and the optimism of the Nehruvian era. Nehru the man was still around, but the era he once personified was long gone. The humiliation in the 1962 war against China and an agrarian crisis had plunged the country into despondency. The country was on the brink of starvation, unemployment was high and economic conditions gave little room for optimism.
Nehru’s condition mirrored that of his country. His spirit broken after the debacle of 1962, Panditji was an old man in failing health. By the end of 1963, the state of his health left no doubt that the end was imminent.
After Nehru Who?
The Congress party, which had been virtually unchallenged since independence and still did not have a serious contender in the horizon, now faced a serious crisis. The arrogance and hubris inevitable after nearly two decades of nearly unchallenged rule had destroyed the sheen that the party of Gandhi and Nehru once enjoyed. If the Congress still enjoyed a virtual monopoly over power, it was due in no small measure to the stature of Panditji. It was but natural that Congress leaders were apprehensive about life without him.
The heir apparent to the Prime Ministerial was finance minister Morarji Desai. A veteran of the freedom struggle, Desai had been a part of the Congress right since the 1920s. Not only was he one of the most senior Congress leaders, he had also held a number of key positions in the government including the vital finance portfolio. In the impending battle for succession, he was bound to be one of the frontrunners.
But support for Desai was far from unanimous. His abrasive, take no prisoners approach had alienated several leaders. Besides, there also was the very real fear of loss of autonomy. Whereas Nehru normally took regional leaders on board while taking major decisions, there was nothing in Desai’s track record to suggest a capacity for taking others along. Regional satraps, long used to a high degree of autonomy, had reason to fear and loathe Morarji Desai who made no secret of his prime ministerial ambitions.
Consequently, it was imperative to plan for the day Panditji would be gone. That was the reason why the regional satraps met in October 1963.
The foursome of Kamaraj, Reddy, Nijalingappa and Ghosh (soon to be joined by S.K. Patil, the ‘uncrowned king of Bombay’), would form a clique that would come to be dubbed as ‘the syndicate’. To understand how that clique came into existence, its essential to describe the condition of the Congress party at the time.
The states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, which sent nearly one fourth of the MPs to the then 520 member Lok Sabha, were naturally the most important states. Any would be successor’s ambitions depended on support of the Congress committees of those two states. But by 1963, the numerical strength of those two states had become inconsequential, as the party organisations in both states were faction ridden.
Satraps from other regions were inevitably going to fill in the vacuum of leadership. They could not become kings themselves- that honour could only befall a person from UP or Bihar- but they collectively had the numerical strength to be king makers if they could take those two states along.
Such were the circumstances under which the syndicate came into existence.
The Heir Non-Apparent
The first challenge confronting the syndicate was to find a candidate who would be at once a political lightweight as well as a non-controversial candidate, as support from UP and Bihar party organisations would be indispensable. Fortunately for them, there was one man who ticked all boxes- Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Shastri, who shared his birthday with his idol Mahatma Gandhi, had been involved with the Congress right since the 20s. After a four year stint as minister of police & transport for the government of Uttar Pradesh, Shastri was promoted to a cabinet role in Nehru’s government in the mid 50s. By the early 60s, he was one of the men closest to the prime minister. Although he was nominally a minister without portfolio in 1963, he had for all practical purposes become Nehru’s right hand man.
Known for his decisiveness and energy, the dimunitive Shastri was important enough to enjoy wide acceptability within the party but not powerful enough to pose a threat to the would-be kingmakers. In him, the syndicate had the perfect man to checkmate Morarji Desai. Having decided the heir to the prime ministerial throne, the syndicate manoeuvred behind the scenes to garner support from UP and Bihar.
The gunpowder was dry. All eyes were now on a dying Nehru.
The Battle for succession
After a prolonged struggle against ill health, Jawaharlal Nehru breathed his last on 27th May 1964. Minister for home affairs Gulzarilal Nanda was sworn in as the acting prime minister. Everyone knew that he was only there as a caretaker until the battle for succession reached its conclusion.
The wily Kamaraj was known to keep his cards close to his chest at all times. It used to be said of him that his standard response to any question was paarkalaam, Tamil for “let’s see”. True to style, he spoke not a word about the succession in the days following Nehru’s death. The fact that he was the party president meant that there was no public discussion of the topic.
Even as they maintained a studious silence in public, Kamaraj and co. were involved in hectic behind the doors negotiations with party organisations in other states. Within 48 hours, factions within UP and Bihar and the entire organisation in the other big 5 states: Maharashtra, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Mysore rallied behind the syndicate.
On the night of 1st June 1964, Morarji Desai had an in camera meeting with party president K. Kamaraj. What was discussed during that meeting is anybody’s guess. What is known beyond doubt is that after the meeting, Desai declared to the press that Lal Bahadur Shastri was unanimously chosen as the new prime minister. And so on 9th June 1964, Shastri took the oath as the second prime minister of the Republic of India.
- Lal Bahadur Shastri would prove a more than adequate replacement for Nehru, deftly handling a succession of crisis over the course of 1965. Despite his short reign, he remains to this day one of the most respected prime ministers in the history of independent India.
- The syndicate’s victory would prove short lived, as Shastri passed away in January 1966 after serving just 18 months as Prime Minister, triggering another battle for succession in which the syndicate would checkmate Morarji Desai a second time
- Morarji Desai would eventually realise his dream of becoming the Prime Minister in 1977, aged 81
- The syndicate would go on to control the party apparatus until the crisis of 1969