J. M . Barrie’s story of the Little Minister anticipated the story of the life and career of Lal Bahadur Shastri. The Little Minister of Barrie’s story was small and drew the amused ridicule of the parishioners when he first came among them, but he had a way with him, which little by little drew his people to respect and later to love him. So was Lal Bahadur Shastri. His size which he reduces, as it were, still further by his shy appearance and humble carriage used to tickle cinema audiences into ribald laughter whenever he appeared on the screen in documentary films in the early months of his Prime Ministership. But after the unceremonious bundling out of suspect Orissa Ministers and his firm handling of the Indo-Pakistan conflict the laughter began to stop and a growing respect began to appear among those audiences–and they were representative of the general public. It was a triumph of life over nature, of character over physique, of the human personality over the human person.
The triumph was illustrated from the very beginning of his life. A child of very poor parentage, his physique was probably due to under-nourishment on account of poverty in which he like millions of his countrymen lived, and he had to fight his way through school and the later stages of his education. Attracted by the appeal of that apostle of austerity and nonconformity Mahatma Gandhi, he put a violent stop to his educational advancement and took to the path of civil disobedience which landed him in prison so many times. In political office he continued that habit of plain living and high thinking, which he learnt early in life. He renounced office when he was Minister of Railways on account of the number of accidents, including the disastrous one that one at Ariyalur that took place during his Ministership , taking constitutional responsibility for the failures of his department and setting a precedent which has rarely been followed.
Called to the high office of the Prime Minister of India, he displayed the same qualities of humility, deference, loyalty to facts and persons which had always distinguished his earlier life and career. As Prime Minister these qualities made him restore the Cabinet to its proper position in the Government of the country. His conviction that he was not all-knowing and self-sufficient brought the practice of collective responsibility of the Cabinet into practice. Most of the decisions of the Cabinet, in his brief period of office, were reached after full dress discussion in the Cabinet. The same regard for the opinion of others made him initiate the practice of consulting leaders of the Opposition on the eve of taking important decisions. Step by step he would have introduced the conventions of parliamentary government. Not the Constitution alone but nature and good sense would have done it.
Little as he was Lal Bahadur Shastri symbolized the little man who lived in millions in the villages and towns of India. The little man was forgotten by the politicians and planners. The seep seemed to call to the deep. And the little man of India was his concern from the very beginning of his Prime Ministership. He was distressed about the lack of food for the little man, felt worried whether the policies and programmes of his Government would put a little more than food into the platter of the little man. He preferred plans and programmes that would bring immediate and quick relief to the little man–minor irrigation works, small-scale industries, promotion of rural employment. He wanted peace, as it is the little man that benefits most from it–the big men making money out of war here as elsewhere. And in the interests of peace he would give and take as he did in his last great performance–the Tashkent Agreement. He has been denounced for it as being an act of betrayal by leaders of the Socialist and Jan Sangh parties. But the little man of India will bless him for it as for his refusal to allow the Atom Bomb to be made in India. It is the little man of India that will regret most the passing of the little minister.
This article was written by M. Ruthnaswamy and appeared in the 22 January, 1966 edition of Swarajya.
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