A star in a glittering galaxy

On September 1, 1946, when India’s first interim government — with Jawaharlal Nehru as vice-chairman of the Viceroy’s Executive Council — took over, I was still in college and hadn’t yet joined the trade of journalism. Even so, like almost everyone of my generation, I was elated at this advance towards Independence.

Pandit Nehru, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, Maulana Azad, Rajendra Prasad, and C. Rajagopalachari, adorning the list of the council’s members, were household names. But one of the unfamiliar ones in the new dispensation was Jagjivan Ram’s. However, the word spread fast that he represented the Harijans or the Scheduled Castes (the word dalit hadn’t entered the political vocabulary then). Also, he was the youngest of the glittering galaxy. The heights to which he was to rise still lay ahead, but the promise in him was visible in the manner in which he handled his responsibilities as member in charge of labour. Having been both a freedom fighter and a trade union leader, indeed a promoter and protector of the rights of the depressed and deprived classes since his early youth he was evidently equipped with all the attributes necessary for the task that was to be his lifelong passion and preoccupation.
During the first general election in 1952, as a rookie reporter in a news agency, I got a golden opportunity to get to know him. A Congress candidate in a constituency a few hours’ drive away from Delhi suddenly fell very ill. Babuji offered to canvass for him. Luckily, I was assigned the task of travelling with him in the candidate’s private car, for the use of official vehicles for electioneering was taboo. Conversations with Babuji, all too often spiced with his wit, were stimulating.
Since then I never had any difficulty in meeting Babuji. In fact, among the high and mighty, he was one of the few easily accessible leaders — an endearing trait that never deserted him through his enviably long stint as a powerful minister at the Centre. With the possible exception of Swaran Singh, no other minister presided over so many ministries as Jagjivan Babu did. When, in the early Fifties, private airlines were nationalised and merged into Indian Airlines, Babuji was appointed aviation minister. Air India, too was nationalised, but he left it to its founder, JRD Tata, to run it. Babuji later moved to the railways and made a big success of it, as he did of every other responsibility assigned to him. This was possible only because he was a man of exceptional administrative acumen and remarkable parliamentary skills.
No human being is perfect and Jagjivan Ram surely made no claims to infallibility. Critics picked on his flaws and foibles. His enormous success also caused jealousies. This might explain why, under the Kamaraj Plan in August 1963, Babuji was one of the six Central ministers asked to quit. Lal Bahadur Shastri — who also went out, returned as minister without portfolio when Nehru fell in January 1964 and became Prime Minister after Nehru’s death four months later — never invited Babuji to join his Cabinet. Nor did Indira Gandhi on first becoming Prime Minister in 1966. A year later, after a second bout of struggle with Morarji Desai (who agreed to become deputy Prime Minister), she included Babuji, too, in the Cabinet. Interestingly, she offered him the labour portfolio he had first handled two decades earlier.
However, in the course of her all too frequent Cabinet reshuffles he moved from one important portfolio to another. He earned high praise for his stewardship of the crucial food and agriculture ministry. This was the time when the country, slowly recovering from the disastrous drought years, was ushering in the Green Revolution. By the time of the 1971 War for the liberation of Bangladesh, Babuji was defence minister. It was he who gave Parliament the daily report on the lightning campaign in his usual lucid and unruffled style.
Babuji had nothing to do with the imposition of the Emergency in 1975. But he was asked to move the resolution in Parliament endorsing it. However, when Indira announced the 1977 election, he left the Congress, formed the Congress for Democracy (CFD), and aligned himself with the newly formed amalgam of Opposition parties, the Janata. The combination easily defeated Indira Gandhi and rode to power on a tremendous wave of goodwill. But the Janata government collapsed ignominiously in 30 months flat and Mrs Gandhi was back in power.
There are those who say that the Janata regime could have completed its full five-year tenure, had Jagjivan Ram, rather than Morarji Desai, been Prime Minister. There is no point speculating about ifs and buts of history. Even so, the underlying tribute to Babuji’s competence, flexibility and leadership qualities is obvious. Of the Big Three of the Janata — Desai, Charan Singh and Jagjivan Ram — Babuji contributed to the country’s governance the most.
During the last four years of her life when Indira Gandhi was in power and Jagjivan Ram out of it, she treated him with conspicuous respect. Arun Nehru, who was then cutting his political teeth, told me that “Indira Phupi” often sent him to go and see Babuji. “Kuch seekho gey (you will learn something)”, she used to say.

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