Note: This article was published in the Daily Chhattisgarh newspaper on 25.02.2007, on the eve of Mr. Shyama Charan's teravi (thirteenth-day ceremony). Its Hindi translation, done with assistance from Mr. SNT, was printed in Haribhoomi on 02.03.2007.
The Absent Writer
As a rule, all statesmen upon turning 65, more so those who have borne witness to, or participated in, what Arjun Singh once described as “the cavalcade of History”, should document- in most cases, this would simply mean, dictating to their longtime secretaries- their memoirs, both as a Testament to a bygone Era and as a Beacon for Posterity. Never before in the five-year young history of Chhattisgarh has the breach of this normative-rule been felt more acutely than in the passing away of Shyama Charan Shukla, thrice chief minister of the erstwhile state of (undivided) Madhya Pradesh. The fact that it was not uncommon for his contemporaries to do so- D.P. Mishra, his sometime adversary and R.P. Noronha, his first chief secretary, to name two, did indeed pen riveting, even brutally honest, accounts of their ‘Days under the Sun’ (in the latter’s case, this was titled ‘A Tale told by an Idiot’)- makes the paucity of Mr. Shukla’s would-be memoir even more unfortunate.
The most obvious question then is this: why did Mr. Shukla not leave behind his memoir, not even a diary? The answer, in my opinion, cuts to the core- the sine qua non- of his life and politics: to the very end, he remained a never-say-die fighter. “I shall return,” he told his grandson, Bhavani, some four days before he was finally airlifted back to Raipur, “walking on my feet.” In retrospect, that sounds overtly optimistic, even naïve. The carcinoma of prostrate had been detected some four years ago; back then, it was in its early- curable- stage. However, discounting allopathic treatment for fear of its ‘side-effects’, he opted for a regimen of ayurvedic herbal remedies. This is in sharp contrast to my father, who would gladly become a guinea pig for an as-yet-untested therapy in order to be able to walk again.
To me, this signifies the major difference in their respective approaches to statecraft: for Mr. Shukla’s generation of khadi-clad Gandhi-topi politicians, principles, even discredited ones, prevailed over pragmatic considerations. (Why else refuse treatment against sound medical advise?) After a late-night meeting with ‘Shyam Bhaiya’ to discuss the blueprint for Raipur’s master plan, Papa came out fuming: “he wants to me to bulldoze every building from the airport to Shankar Nagar (the place of his residence) to make a road!” Indeed, Mr. Shukla’s proposed roadway would have been the shortest one but it also meant uprooting thousands of citizens from their homes.
Bhagirathi, the Giver of Water
Yet, it was this same sense of impracticability, when fused with his remarkable Vision, which led him to propose the construction of Madhya Pradesh’s largest irrigation projects that were, in the words of his close associate and a former irrigation minister, Ram Charan Singh Deo, “to forever transform the rural economy of central India.” Anybody visiting the site of the Gangrel dam near Dhamtari would know exactly what this means: Gangrel has become the single most important lifeline of Dhamtari, Kurud, Rajim, Raipur and Bhilai. In this respect, he was no different from Pandit Nehru.
Not too long ago, I remember sitting next to him on a flight to Delhi. He said that it was regrettable that of the two projects he had proposed- Sardar Sarovar (involving as it does the displacement of tens of thousands of tribals) and Bodhghat Hydel- the latter was shelved by the Planning Commission of India because it was felt that it would ‘endanger the environment and anthropology of the Bastar tribes’. What this really did, was to ensure that Bastar remains frozen in time, as a perpetual human-zoo. In his opinion, the cost-benefit analysis of both the projects is such that while the main beneficiary of the former is Gujarat- with all the submergence area falling in M.P. even as canals pump water into the dried bed of Sabarmati, paving, among other things, the way for a Narendra Modi victory in 2002- in the case of Bodhghat, the principal beneficiary would have been Bastar. In fact, without Bodhghat, there is every chance that Bastar, what with the shifting of the Indravati’s course, might well turn into an arid zone. If at all good sense prevails, and the project is revived, then it is only fitting to name it after Mr. Shukla.
The other, even more telling, aspect is that he had decided to keep his illness a closely guarded secret. “It wasn’t as if medical science didn’t have a cure for his illness,” opines a family doctor who happened to accidentally stumble upon Mr. Shukla’s test-reports while treating him for what he thought was a simple case of benign enlargement of prostrate (which happens with age), “it’s just that Bhaiya didn’t give us a chance to cure him.” The reason for the shroud of secrecy was to ensure that ‘leaks’ about his medical condition did not hinder his political career. Till at least one year before his death, he could be seen in Delhi, lobbying for a gubernatorial assignment (something which my father wholeheartedly supported). For a man who had never tired of electoral politics, why the sudden fascination with ‘the politics of dole-outs’?
Warrior against Time
The answer probably lies in Mr. Shukla’s post-Chhattisgarh politics. It cannot be denied that at the time of his death, all the three members of his family in active politics, including him, had recently been ousted in elections with unprecedented margins: both he and his younger brother, Vidya Charan Shukla, lost their respective last Lok Sabha elections by over 100,000 votes each from Raipur and Mahasamund (2004) even though they contested from opposing parties; his son, Amitesh Shukla, lost his paternal assembly seat, Rajim, by almost 30,000 votes (2003).
Mr. V.C. Shukla is quick to explain these multiple losses in terms of ‘a breach of understanding’ that was reached between the two brothers during the lifetime of their father, Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla. “During Kakka ji’s time,” he once told me, “it was decided that Shyam bhaiya would be in state politics while I remained in central politics.” That agreement was broken at the fin de siècle (1999) when Mr. Shukla contested from his younger brother’s parliamentary seat, Mahasamund, and gave his assembly seat, Rajim, to his son, Mr. Amitesh Shukla. In short, Mr. V.C. Shukla was left ‘high and dry’, and with no option but to leave the Congress. I, for one, cannot subscribe to such an exclusively dynastic- feudal-interpretation. The reason has got to be deeper, more fundamental, than that. Here, I will quote from my ‘brief history of Chhattisgarh’ (a candid work-in-progress):
“Historically, they (the Shukla Family) had been opposed to the very idea of Chhattisgarh, and it was not until the very end- when Mr. VC Shukla had been totally marginalized under Sonia Gandhi’s leadership (he had been denied a party-ticket in the previous Lok Sabha), and Chhattisgarh had become an inevitability- that that family finally succumbed to the demand for separate statehood: typically, he decided to grab the mantle of its leadership. With not more than seven MLAs (the rest were with the Raja of Raghogarh) he floated his ‘Chhattisgarh Sangarsh Morcha’, and declared himself the Founder of the new state. The only other person who saw him as that was Charan Das Mahant- a one-time Raja loyalist who had served as his Home Minister, and when he had become too big for his boots, was booted out of state politics, to Parliament, where he was a small-fish in a very big ocean. Mr. Mahant, as possibly the only Congress speaker from Chhattisgarh, gave him full credit for the creation of the state, during the debate on the Bill.”
The association of the Shukla family, therefore, isn’t so much with Chhattisgarh as it is with the erstwhile (undivided) state of Madhya Pradesh. To put it bluntly, most Chhattisgarhis do not- cannot- identify with them. The reasons are obvious: our ways of life have very little in common; they do not speak our language, eat our food, or participate in our festivals; their sons and daughters do not marry into families here; what is more, in the over seventy years that they have been our rulers, they have never made efforts to do so. In short, it is clear that they have not been able to adapt to the changing times.
It can always be argued that at Mr. Shukla’s age- he was already touching 80 when the state was formed- it would have been unreasonable to expect him to change. Yet, there are reports, unconfirmed of course, to suggest that he did in fact endeavour to do precisely that. It is said that a Chhattisgarhi-dialectician was engaged to teach him the nuances of the vernacular. But linguistic obstacle wasn’t the sole impediment. When finalizing the list for NSUI (National Students’ Union of India) district presidents, he was asked to name his choice for Mahasamund. The name he suggested created quite a scandal in the press: the ‘student’ in question was well past 50. It would appear that just as the tide of History over-swept his family, the Ravages of Age had finally overtaken Mr. Shukla.
However to his credit, I believe that Mr. Shukla, unlike his younger brother, conducted himself with remarkable dignity, grace and poise even in the face of humiliating losses. That, in my opinion, proves his true mettle: that he was indeed ‘made of sterner stuff’.
Unfortunately, the Time of such men is past, and in the absence of memoirs, even echoes of their voices shall be heard no more.