Chandra Shekhar is a rare phenomenon in Indian politics. A man of transparent sincerity, honesty, courage and commitment in these cynical times when self-aggrandizement has become the rule in our public life. Now he has become a unique phenomenon. No other Indian, not even a Jain monk, has ever walked 4,000 kilometres at one stretch.
It will appear mean to sound a sceptical note in respect of such a feat by such a man. The man deserves our highest respect and his padayatra our deepest admiration.
For all we know, Chandra Shekhar is a yatri (a pilgrim) at heart. For all we know, every inch of the Indian soil is holy ground for him. So it is possible that what appears to be a remarkable feat to us has been no more than padayatra in the literal sense – a pilgrimage on foot – for him. Great Indian saints such as Buddha, Mahavira and Sankaracharya are known to have undertaken such yatras in the past. Gandhiji’s Dandi march was different. It was geared to the specific purpose of mobilizing the Indian people for the specific task of ending the British rule.
If the walkathon was essentially a yatra, it will be irrelevant to raise other questions. A pilgrimage is an end in itself. The hardships involved are more than justified by the impact on the individual. He or she feels elevated and ennobled by the experience.
On the face of it Chandra Shekhar is not a religious man. But nationalism can be a form of religion for certain individuals. It was that, for example, for Nehru. He said in his will that his ashes should be scattered all over the country precisely because he wanted his remains to become part of the soil of mother India of which Sri Aurobindo wrote and spoke as if she was a living goddess. And even the apparently most secular Indian is often religious at heart. The arch priest of secularism in India himself was in search of spiritual uplift. Nehru not only visited Anandmayi often but also discussed spiritual questions with Dr. Radhakrishnan in his last years.
Search For Power
Even so it may not be illegitimate to ask the question whether Chandra Shekhar also wants to become a mahatma and thereby acquire the power to influence the course of events in the country. There are some good reasons why it is pertinent to raise this question, though it may be necessary to say that Chandra Shekhar may not be conscious of this urge within him.
To begin with, it should be noted that the search for extraordinary powers through certain practices (brahmacharya), penances (fasting) and disciplines (various forms of yoga) is as old in India as Indian civilisation itself. This pursuit has dominated the lives of outstanding individuals in the country for several millennia. In our times, we can cite numerous examples, Gandhiji among them.
It has been said about Gandhiji that after a tour of India on his return from South Africa, he concluded that only a mahatma, of course a very non-traditional one, could help raise the Indian people out of their stupor and degradation, and that he, therefore, decided to be a mahatma. As the story goes, he said so in so many words to Hakim Ajmal Khan in Delhi. The story may be apocryphal. He might not even have reached such a conclusion consciously. Two facts are, however, incontrovertible. He became a mahatma and this gave him enormous power to shape India’s history.
Vinoba Bhave and Jayaprakash Narayan also sought to acquire a similar status and power for themselves. Both failed for a variety of reasons which we need not go into here. But it cannot be denied that they made the attempt. Vinoba Bhave sought to combine an activist role (Bhoodan, Gramdan and cow protection) with traditional disciplines (brahmacharya, austerities like fasting and silence) and learning (commentary on the Gita). JP renounced politics (in the party sense) and attempted to be a tribune of the people.
It is well known that Chandra Shekhar regarded JP very highly and was greatly drawn towards him. Of course, it does not follow that he is trying to model himself after JP. But whether accidentally or otherwise, Chandra Shekhar’s political career seems to fall into a pattern not very different from JP’s.
Appeal Of Gandhiji
Like JP, Chandra Shekhar was also attracted to socialism in his youth. Like JP, he too has found the appeal of Gandhiji stronger in his later years. Like JP, he feels that corruption in public life has become an issue of great national importance. While, unlike JP, he has not yet given up party politics, he must find it rather frustrating in view of his own party’s ineffectiveness and the pettiness of many of the participants in active politics. And in some ways, Chandra Shekhar’s decision to undertake the 4,000-km. padayatra is comparable to JP’s decision to join the Bhoodan movement led by Vinoba Bhave.
These references to Gandhiji and JP do not clinch the issue. They do not prove that Chandra Shekhar is wanting to be a mahatma. We are left with only the negative argument, which is that if he is not wanting to be a mahatma, his odyssey would not make much sense. After all, he did not need to undertake this long and arduous journey to discover that there is still a lot of degrading poverty in India, especially in the countryside, that the fruits of development have not reached the majority of the people there, and so on.
Chandra Shekhar has clearly been proving himself. Through his padayatra he has demonstrated his physical and moral stamina. The comparison with Gandhiji’s activities becomes less inept than it might otherwise appear. The mahatma, too sought to prove himself in a variety of ways whenever he faced failure, the biggest being partition and the holocaust that followed.
But Gandhiji was a very uncommon person. In many ways, he was quite extraordinary. He was cast in the heroic mould. He was born to lead. He had only to appear on the scene for others to yield the top place to him. The touch of genius was evident in everything he did. In short, he was what Nehru called him – a great master. And a master cannot be copied. That is one reason why Vinoba Bhave and JP failed.
But even Gandhiji succeeded where other factors favoured him and he failed where the objective situation was adverse. He could lead India to independence because the two world wars weakened Britain to such an extent that it lost both the will and the capacity to hold on to the Empire. He managed to give educated Hindus a feeling of guilt about the plight of Harijans because Islam, Christianity and western liberal education had been driving home the same point. He failed to prevent partition because powerful adverse forces were at work.
In respect of the freedom struggle, two other points are pertinent. The western educated intelligentsia inspired by the concepts of nationalism, liberty and equality had emerged as a significant factor in India by the time Gandhiji returned from South Africa. And during World War I, Britain itself encouraged Indian entrepreneurs to move from trade to industry. Both these classes were to provide valuable support to Gandhiji in his battles with the British.
The situation in India today is too complex either to produce a mahatma of Gandhiji’s type or to yield to him. If we can speak of an Indian psyche in the Jungian collectivist sense, it can be said to be dominated by two main urges – the passion to raise one’s own economic and social status whatever the cost to others, and the desire to define and assert one’s identity in terms of caste, creed and language. Both these elements cannot but aggravate existing conflicts and produce virtual moral chaos.
In theory it must be tempting for an individual sure of his own worth to cast himself in the role of a messiah (an avatar or a mahatma in the case of the Hindus) and for others to await his arrival. But in reality India has moved too far on the road to modernity to think and respond in those terms. India is perhaps the most secular of all developing non-communist countries. It has to seek secular solutions to its problems. Mrs. Gandhi appeals precisely because she is seen to be a fighter.
These general propositions may be relevant, if at all, to a discussion on Chandra Shekhar only tangentially. I make them in order to underscore the point that magic solutions are not open either for politicians or for the country. India faces all the problems that any country in the world faces. So it speaks for the maturity of the people that they are not expecting a messiah to arrive and resolve their difficulties.
As for Chandra Shekhar, it is, of course, open to him to leave party politics as JP did in the mid-‘fifties. But if JP’s example is a guide, he may only add to the complications the country faces unless, of course, he quits politics altogether. In JP’s case, it can be said in all conscience that he intervened on vital political issues again and again, and that these interventions produced serious adverse consequences for the country.
The Times of India, 29 June 1983