Lal Bahadur Shastri: Making of the Second Prime Minister of India
How an article by journalist Kuldip Nayar led to Lal Bahadur Shastri becoming the second Prime Minister of India.
(This story was first published on 10 January 2019, and is being reposted from The Quint’s archives on the occasion of Lal Bahadur Shastri’s birth anniversary.)
On the evening of 27 May 1964, just hours after of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s demise, the question of who will become the next Prime Minister of India was ringing high in the political circles of India.
Between conjectures, the two names that prominently came up were Morarji Desai and Lal Bahadur Shastri.
Around the time, journalist Kuldip Nayar visited Desai at his residence to enquire about the candidature for the prime ministerial office. Nayar could not meet Desai, but was told by his supporters that Desai would contest for the post.
Nayar had been a spokesperson for Shastri in the past. As per Nayar’s autobiography Beyond the Lines, Desai’s son Kanti told Nayar, “Tell Shastri not to compete.”
Nayar then paid a visit to Shastri’s residence to understand his views. Shastri told Nayar that he will go by the decision of the Cabinet. Shastri suggested two names for the post of the Prime Minister: Jayaprakash Narayan and Indira Gandhi.
Shastri also said he can fight Morarji Desai and win the elections, but he cannot fight Indira Gandhi.
After his meeting with Shastri, Nayar again went to see Desai. After Nayar told Desai about the names suggested by Shastri, Desai said Narayan was “delusional” and called Indira Gandhi a “little girl.”
He further said that the only way to stop the competition within the party is for the Congress to accept him as their leader.
K Kamraj, who was the Congress president at the time, was busy figuring out the mood of the party on the issue.
However, Kamraj personally was not a fan of Desai. Meanwhile, Nayar wrote an article for UNI, a news agency. The article read:
“Mr Morarji Desai, former finance minister, is the first one to throw his hat in the ring. He is believed to have told his associates that he is a candidate. Mr Desai is understood to have said that there must be an election and he, for one, will not withdraw. The minister without portfolio, Mr Lal Bahadur Shastri, is considered another candidate, though he himself is reticent.”
According to Nayar, after the story was out, Morarji’s ambitions were questioned by many, saying he didn’t even wait for Nehru’s ashes before publicly announcing his candidature.
Desai’s supporters claimed the article cost him at least 100 votes. However, Nayar maintained he didn’t intend to benefit or harm anyone with the story.
Nayar realised the consequences of the article when Kamraj, on the steps of the Parliament House, whispered “Thank you.” Kamraj then announced that the majority was in Shastri’s favour, paving the path for Shastri to be the next Prime Minister.
(The story was first published on Quint Hindi and has been translated by Tahira Noor.)
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