He was not glamorous as Nehru or many of the other national leaders of India. He was not a powerful orator. Nor was he a writer or a scholar. But when Nehru died in 1964, and the whole nation groped in darkness to find a suitable successor to the great man hailed as the successor to the Father of Nation and as the Architect of Free India, the choice fell on the short, simple looking, frail frame of this man, Lal Bahadur Shastri, a true disciple of Gandhiji. His original name was Lal Bahadur Shreevastava. The last name was indicative of his caste and so he did not like to keep it as a tag with his name. Later, when he won the academic title of ‘Shastri’, after four years studious learning, he chose this title of his degree as his last name, and it stayed. But during his later life he was known as Shastri-ji. The Honorific ‘ji’ came as a suffix to the academic title of ‘Shastri’ (as ‘Panditji’ in the case of Nehru, though Pandit indicated his caste).
Shastriji was born in a suburb of Varanasi, the internationally famous temple-town on the banks of river Ganga. It was in the state of Uttar Pradesh from where many of the Congress leaders hailed, including Nehru. His father, Sharada Prasad was a school teacher who later became a clerk in a government office, died when the son was just 18 months. Little Lal was looked after by his grandfather and an uncle who sent him to school.
While in school, Lal had the opportunity to go to public meetings addressed by national leaders like Gopal Krishna Gokhale who inspired even Gandhiji, Bal Gangadhar Tilak and Surendranath Banerjee. When Tilak declared “freedom is our birth right” Lal stood thrilled at the feeling it involved and it radiated. The speeches he heard there inculcated a strong feeling of patriotism in him. He saw Gandhiji when he arrived at the Hindu University of Varanasi for a function this cast a deep and long-lasting imprint. When Gandhiji entered into civil disobedience of non-cooperation, Lal joined the movement, leaving his studies at the high school. Later he was able to continue his studies by joining the Kashi Vidyapith, one of the national schools established to help those students who discontinued their schooling in order to take part in the national movement for freedom. Lal proved his mettle at the Vidyapith and won his degree of ‘shastri’ in philosophy with a first class.
Lal came into contact with Lala Lajpat Rai and joined his Jansevak sanghatan, a voluntary organization for serving the people, and ultimately became its president when Lala Lajpat Rai died. At the time when Gandhiji began his Salt Satyagraha March to Dandi, Lal was serving as the secretary of the District Committee of the Congress in Allahabad and he gave the call to the farmers not to pay any tax. The police came, arrested and sent him promptly to jail for 30 months. That was just the beginning of Lal’s terms in prison. He had to serve imprisonment for nine years in various terms. During this internment, he read hundreds of books and wrote a lot, including the translation of the biography of Madam Curie.
Great opportunities were waiting for him in politics. In 1936 he was elected to the legislative assembly of the state of Uttar Pradesh from his city constituency of Allahabad. He assumed charge of various committees. He went up in the ladders of prominence and was chosen as the secretary of the Chief Minister of his state, and then a minister in the state cabinet. Nehru, the Prime Minister, watched the special capabilities of Lal Bahadur Shastri as a negotiator and so he asked him to go to Delhi. Soon he was appointed General Secretary of the Congress party of which Nehru was the unquestioned president. In 1952 Nehru made him a minister in his cabinet in charge of railways and transport. That was just the opening of another great chapter in Lal Bahadur’s political life. He tried his best to make the railway system efficient by modernizing it. But the frequent occurrence of railway accidents became a headache and in 1956 there was an accident in which around 150 people died. This was something of which the moral responsibility was on him, he thought. And he resigned from the cabinet. He had been always like that – a person of conscience and a sense of responsibility. He did not want to cling on to his chair of power.
More than once the country had the occasion to watch Lal Bahadur at his diplomatic best. One was his interference in Kashmir when the state was in turmoil on the missing of a holy relic which was in fact retrieved later. But the protesters did not accept that the retrieved one was the original. Lal Bahadur sensed the seriousness of this religious issue and so he decided to seek the services of 17 religious men and they checked the relic, convinced of the genuineness of it and made a declaration accordingly. And peace returned to Kashmir as a result of the timely interference by Lal Bahadur.
When Prime Minister Nehru fell ill in 1964, Lal Bahadur was called back to the cabinet and made a minister without portfolio and when Nehru died after a couple of weeks, Lal Bahadur was chosen to be the great man’s successor to lead the ministry. In 1965 Pakistan ventured to attack India and the war lasted for several weeks. The decisions, the new Prime Minister took to face the dangerous situation kept the country united in absolute confidence and resoluteness to protect the borders from the attackers. Finally Soviet Union intervened and arranged a three-party meeting to find a solution to the war problem. The meeting was at Tashkent (January, 1966). Soviet Prime Minister Alexie Kosygin played the moderator, and Pakistan President Ayub Khan and Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Prime Minister of India had a detailed discussion of the issues. It brought about an agreement signed by the three leaders. Nine hours after signing the agreement of settlement, Shastri died of a massive heart attack at midnight.