It is said that Jawaharlal Nehru wanted his daughter Indira Gandhi to succeed him as the prime minister. But an examination of the accounts of those who were closely associated with both father and the daughter reveals that it is nothing but just another convenient truth.
The Congress party in pre-Independence India was very concerned about succession planning, and often chose young presidents. Most presidents of the Congress party were in their forties (Nehru was 40 when he first became Congress president in 1929), and many like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Subhas Chandra Bose and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad were in their thirties.
One of the many reasons why Nehru was chosen prime minister over Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in 1947 was that Nehru was 58 compared to Patel who was 72, and the former was in far better health.
After Patel’s death in 1950, two key questions that would decide the future of politics in India arose: who would be number two in the cabinet? And who would succeed Nehru as prime minister?
Nehru’s first choice
Nehru was keen on Jayaprakash Narayan, or JP (born 1902) to succeed him, in view of JP’s amazing organisational abilities which were exhibited during the Freedom struggle. The intellectual in Nehru admired JP’s modern education in the US.
Nehru often remarked that he was not infallible. He was also aware that many of his cabinet colleagues were too scared of him to voice their differences. In fact, Nehru had this contempt for many of his cabinet colleagues: they were men of straw who lacked the courage to frankly disagree with him. This had also been observed by Mahatma Gandhi.
After his massive victory in the 1952 Lok Sabha elections, Nehru invited JP to join his government as his deputy, to be his conscience keeper, and to counsel him whenever he felt Nehru was wrong. In fact, Nehru even proposed a merger between the Congress and JP’s Praja Socialist Party.
But JP rebuffed all of Nehru’s overtures. JP had this image of himself as being a saint and as a successor to Gandhi, far above the lure of office. Nehru interpreted this as JP’s not wanting to take responsibility for governance and administration, and he felt let down that the man he wanted to groom as his chosen successor was not willing to take on responsibility for running a difficult country.
The civil servant who recorded the minutes of meetings between Nehru and JP was Nehru’s relative, ICS officer Braj Kumar Nehru.
Braj Kumar Nehru’s aide memoire of Nehru inviting JP to join his Cabinet in 1952 says: “The Prime Minister was naturally delighted at his complete victory in the election. What he was unhappy about was the absence of an Opposition whom he could respect and who could suggest constructive alternatives. The PM told Mr Narayan that he was not all-knowing; he needed somebody to point out where he was going wrong and to suggest alternatives to achieve agreed goals. His Cabinet were all hollow pusillanimous men; whatever their inner qualms were, they did not dare give voice to their misgivings. The Prime Minister invited Mr Narayan to form such an Opposition within his Cabinet…”
“…The Prime Minister asked Mr Narayan, cajoled him, then begged him, then again tried to persuade him to perform such a role, to lead him back to the right path whenever he was about to stray. But Mr Narayan’s answer was steadfastly ‘No’…”
“…Mr Narayan was totally negative, not positive. He was totally destructive, not constructive. He would criticize, he would agitate, he would even encourage violence, but he would not suggest any positive, constructive way to achieve what he thought required to be done. He did not, in fact, know what should, in positive terms, be done….”
Nehru’s offer to JP to join his cabinet and be groomed as his successor, and of JP repeatedly declining, continued through 1952 and 1953. In JP’s Praja Socialist Party, the issue of JP and Acharya J.B. Kripalani taking up Nehru’s invitation to join his cabinet was discussed at length. Asoka Mehta was in favour of it, but Kripalani said that the party should provide support to Nehru’s government from outside and neither JP nor he himself should join Nehru’s cabinet. However, Ram Manohar Lohia and Acharya Narendra Deva were vehemently opposed to any support for Nehru at all.
My father, H.Y. Sharada Prasad, who worked with Nehru and later became one of the closest advisers and spokesperson for Indira Gandhi had written then: “JP’s persistent refusal to assume political authority is a real waste of a vast and unusual national resource….JP is a very baffling philosophical anarchist, ready to fight the aberrations of the state, but reluctant to assume any office of responsibility himself…”
Who encouraged Indira?
H.Y. Sharada Prasad mentions in The Book I won’t be Writing & Other Essays how Govind Ballabh Pant and Uchharangrai Navalshankar Dhebar exploited JP’s reluctance to join the Nehru government and rooted for Indira Gandhi to enter politics, thereby pushing their Right-wing policies by influencing her. They kept telling her that there was no one else that Nehru could rely on, and that it was her duty to assist him because everyone else would let him down, just as JP had.
G.B. Pant and U.N. Dhebar were nearing the end of their lives. Politically, they were more conservative and to the right of Nehru. They wanted to curb Nehru’s cozying up to the communists, and thought that they would be able to influence future policies if they got Indira Gandhi into politics and operated through her as a pliant facade.
G.B. Pant got Indira into various important committees of the Congress, and U.N. Dhebar, president of the party president for five successive terms from 1955 to 1959, engineered her election as his successor as president of Congress in 1959.
Nehru himself was quite equivocal about Indira Gandhi’s entry into politics. While he did not explicitly encourage her, he did not dissuade her or her backers. Nehru did publicly state that it would not be correct for her to be president of the Congress party while he was still the prime minister. But he soon also said that whenever Indira was given any responsibility, she performed brilliantly. He also remarked a few times that Indira seemed to have a flair for diplomacy and international affairs.
Nehru wanted to retire in 1958 when he turned 70. But he could not decide on a suitable successor. G.B. Pant and Maulana Azad were older than Nehru, and in poor health. V.K. Krishna Menon and Morarji Desai were detested for their obnoxious personalities, and had too many enemies. Gulzari Lal Nanda and Lal Bahadur Shastri were too mild-mannered, without the drive required, and were little known outside India’s cow belt. Jagjivan Ram had allegations of corruption against him, and was not acceptable to large parts of the nation. K. Kamaraj Nadar and Y.B. Chavan were regional leaders with no experience at the Centre.
Without Nehru’s knowledge, G.B Pant and Indira Gandhi ousted the Communist government in Kerala in 1959 by inciting riots there, and then claimed that the Communist government in Kerala could not manage the law and order situation. Nehru was absolutely livid with Indira Gandhi.
After one year as Congress president, Indira Gandhi declined to be renominated, and withdrew from politics, to concentrate on being Nehru’s official hostess. Even though she functioned as his official hostess in state functions, and ran the prime minister’s household, father and daughter barely spoke to each other for several months because of the Kerala episode.
H.Y. Sharada Prasad stated in a public lecture in Vienna in August 1984: “More than once she told me that it was Govind Ballabh Pant and U.N. Dhebar, and not her father, who had persuaded her to take an active part in the party councils, and that Pant also showed her many files. There was one corroborative piece of evidence to support her assertion that she had not foreseen that she might one day be called upon to hold the top spot. And that is, she, who took great care about her father’s papers, took none whatever about her own papers – her letters, her speeches, etc. There were no papers with her of her own months as Congress President. She was truly torn between remaining a private person and becoming a public personage”.
The power struggle
After the death of G.B. Pant in March 1961, Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram engaged in a power struggle to be declared number two in the cabinet. In fact, Jagjivan Ram even asked Indira Gandhi and V.K. Krishna Menon for their support. It was Nehru who had to intervene and settle the strife between Morarji Desai and Jagjivan Ram because that would have split the Congress party.
Biju Patnaik urged Nehru to make Indira Gandhi the minister for external affairs, and anoint her as his successor. But Nehru shot down this proposal saying that if he announced a successor, it would doom that person because she/he would attract too many enemies.
Nehru’s views about Morarji Desai too were not very encouraging. He knew that Morarji Desai succeeding him would be disastrous for the Congress party. While Morarji was by far the most competent administrator in the cabinet, he was detested for his rigid views, and he did not have the charisma to win elections.
In 1963, the American political journalist Putnam Welles Hangen, who had served as the Delhi correspondent of National Broadcasting Corporation since 1959, wrote a book, After Nehru, Who?, in which he listed the names of likely successors, in descending order:
- Morarji Desai, Finance Minister
- Indira Gandhi
- Lal Bahadur Shastri, Home Minister
- YB Chavan, Defence Minister
- Jaya Prakash Narayan
- SK Patil, Food and Agriculture Minister
- General Brij Mohan Kaul, Chief of Army Staff
- VK Krishna Menon, who had been dismissed as defence minister after the China war.
Nehru harshly upbraided Indira Gandhi for speaking to Hangen. An upset Indira Gandhi told Sharada Prasad: “There is no doubt at all that it is going to be Lal Bahadur Shastri”.
In early January 1964, after Nehru suffered a stroke and was incapacitated, it was Shastri who looked after the prime minister’s work. This was a clear indication that Shastri was to be Nehru’s successor. Biju Patnaik and K.D. Malaviya lobbied for Indira Gandhi to be included in the cabinet, but Nehru shot down their suggestions.
Sharada Prasad had written: “Nehru planned his succession very ingeniously through the Kamaraj plan. Morarji Desai, one of the leading claimants, always believed that the Kamaraj plan was Nehru’s plot to do him out of his due. The other leading claimant was Lal Bahadur Shastri. It would have been ideal for the nation if there had been a candidate who combined in himself the best qualities of the two. But that was not to be. Shastri and Desai were wholly different in temperament and endowments. Both were divested of office (along with a few others) under the Kamaraj plan, and asked to work for the party. The whole country had a chance to see which of the two would prove more acceptable to the Congress rank and file, to whom they would turn for settling their disputes. They turned to the affable, humble Shastri rather than to the stern and rather imperiously aloof Morarji.”
Kuldip Nayar’s version
Veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, who also served as a press secretary to G.B. Pant and Lal Bahadur Shastri believed that Nehru always wanted Indira Gandhi to succeed him as prime minister, “even though he may have never enunciated it”. Nayar in his book On Leaders and Icons: From Jinnah to Modi has mentioned his interactions with various leaders to give his version of the theory of succession.
Nayar recounted an incident to support his claim. Shastri had once told Nayar that he wanted to go back to Allahabad. Nayar reminded Shastri that he was Nehru’s chosen successor. To this Shastri snapped that Nehru’s heart was set on his daughter, but added that even so it would not be easy for her to ascend to the prime minister’s post.
This might have just been a momentary fit of pique on part of Shastri.
In fact, some of Kuldip Nayar’s commentaries over the decades have been self-contradictory. Nayar wrote: “Kamaraj told me that Nehru had indicated his preference for Shastri as his immediate successor when he appointed him as minister without portfolio after all ministers, including Morarji, had resigned under the Kamaraj Plan”.
However, Nayar also observed that: “When Kamaraj discussed the matter of succession with Nehru, (Nehru) was deliberately vague. He (Nehru) said that the people were the best judge in a democratic polity. Yet he mentioned the names of Shastri and Indira during the discussion…As a true and loyal soldier, Kamaraj had in mind first Shastri and then Indira as the prime minister. In the election of both, Kamaraj played a key role. Morarji was rebuffed every time because Kamaraj represented mainline Congress opinion and he personally did not want Morarji”.
But, on another occasion, well after Shastri’s demise, Nayar wrote: “The truth is that he (Shastri) nursed a burning ambition to take over after Nehru. All of us who worked with him (Shastri) could see that he wanted nothing more than to become India’s next prime minister…” In another column around the same time, Nayar said: “He (Shastri) exclaimed to me: ‘Do you think that I am so much of a saint that I do not want to become prime minister?’” These assertions of Nayar were later objected to by Shastri’s sons.
Shastri’s succession theory
Regarding the succession, Kuldip Nayar wrote: “Shastri did propose two names, Jaya Prakash Narayan and Indira Gandhi, in that order.”
Based on my interactions with senior leaders of the Congress party, Shastri had discussed three possibilities about the succession to Nehru with his confidantes in the Congress party:
1) In Shastri’s opinion, the most probable scenario was that it would come down to a contest between him and Morarji Desai, and that he would be able to defeat Morarji easily, because Morarji was widely disliked. It would be an “anyone but Morarji”, according to Shastri, and he would be the beneficiary.
2) Shastri thought that it would be unlikely that Indira Gandhi would contest against him because she would be in mourning. But in the event that she did so, it would be a close contest between them, but Shastri felt that he still held a slight edge over her, mainly because he had the support of Kamaraj.
3) Shastri stated that the best person to lead the nation was JP. He stated that if there was even the slightest indication of interest from JP, he would step aside in favour of JP at once. But Shastri felt that it was unlikely that JP would be interested at all.
How Moraji failed
After Nehru’s death on 27 May 1964, home minister Gulzari Lal Nanda was sworn in as interim prime minister. Five powerful party bosses – K. Kamaraj Nadar of Madras, Neelam Sanjeeva Reddy of Andhra Pradesh, S Nijalingappa of Mysore, S.K. Patil of Bombay, and Atulya Ghosh of Bengal, were dead set against Morarji Desai.
Kuldip Nayar played a key role in eliminating the chances of Morarji Desai. In his book, Nayar said that Morarji’s son, Kanti Desai had told him immediately after Nehru’s cremation: “You can tell Shastri that we have the overwhelming support”. Nayar immediately put out a story in the United News of India that Morarji had staked his claim even before Nehru’s ashes were cold: “…Morarji’s son Kanti is busy collating lists of possible supporters. In a deeply conservative society like India, this comes across as sacrilegious. In sharp contrast, Shastri spent his time and energy supervising Nehru’s funeral rites. People will never forget that Shastri served Nehru honestly and loyally…”
Nayar later mentioned about the impact of his report: “When my story came out, Congress MPs were disgusted by what they saw as Morarji’s crude ambition. At least 100 hitherto undecided MPs switched their support to Shastri…” Nayar added that Kamaraj personally thanked him for his role in making Shastri prime minister, and that Morarji always maintained that Nayar had destroyed his chances.
Shastri’s political instincts that neither Indira Gandhi nor JP would put in a claim were accurate. Nayar’s article ensured that Shastri was the unanimous choice.
Indira joins govt
According to N.K. Seshan, Nehru’s trusted private secretary since 1944 whom he referred to as the son he never had, Biju Patnaik and K.D. Malaviya pushed then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri to include Indira Gandhi in his cabinet. When Shastri approached her, Indira Gandhi snapped testily that she was in mourning, and that it was not appropriate for him to ask her at that point, Seshan had told H.Y. Sharada Prasad.
Shastri stated that he would have to include one member of the Nehru family in his cabinet. If Indira would not accept, then he would offer the post to Nehru’s sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit. Indira Gandhi and her aunt were at loggerheads since her early childhood, and Indira knew that if her aunt was in the cabinet, her life would be made miserable. It is not clear to me from N.K. Seshan’s statements whether Shastri saying that he would invite Vijayalakshmi Pandit was a bluff to get Indira to join his cabinet, or whether he genuinely intended to have Pandit in his cabinet if Indira refused.
Indira Gandhi accepted Shastri’s offer of a cabinet post. Shastri assigned her the middle-level portfolio of Information and Broadcasting. While not one of the top cabinet portfolios, it would, for the time being, satisfy her ambitions.
Shastri’s death and Indira’s arrival
Kuldip Nayar had written that in the moments just after Shastri’s demise in Tashkent: “Swaran Singh turned to me and asked, ‘Kuldip, who do you think could be the next prime minister?’ I repeated to him what Shastri had himself told me a few months earlier, ‘If I die in the next two years, my successor will be Indira Gandhi. If I survive, it will be YB Chavan’. Chavan, who was also part of our group that day, commented, ‘Kuldip, make sure you write this’….” This assertion of Nayar’s is true, and has been corroborated by my sources.
Home minister Gulzari Lal Nanda was again sworn in as interim prime minister. Morarji Desai moved quickly to publicly declare his candidature. The lure of office bit even a self-abnegating person like Nanda. According to N.K. Seshan, Nanda approached Indira Gandhi, and tactfully inquired if she was a candidate. Indira was evasive. Nanda then hinted that he would be grateful for Indira’s support to continue in office till the 1967 elections. Indira cautiously replied that she would go along with whatever the party decided. Nanda misinterpreted this as her support, and he went to Kamaraj, and asserted that he should be allowed to continue as prime minister until the 1967 elections, Seshan had told H.Y. Sharada Prasad.
But Kamaraj had already set his mind on Indira Gandhi as the person who had the charisma to defeat Morarji. The other four members of the Syndicate wanted Kamaraj himself to take over as prime minister. But Kamaraj made his now-famous statement: “No English, no Hindi. How?”, and set about gathering support for Indira.
Kamaraj asserted: “She knows all the world leaders, has travelled widely with her father, has grown up amongst the great men of the freedom movement, has a rational and modern mind, is totally free of any parochialism — state, caste or religion. She has possibly inherited her father’s scientific temper and, above all, in 1967 she can win the election”.
Morarji’s remarks–“That chit of a girl” further alienated those who held Nehru’s memory sacred, and Indira easily defeated Morarji by 355 votes to 169, to become prime minister.
Nehru wanted JP, but India got Indira
There is no convincing evidence that Nehru positioned Indira Gandhi to succeed him as prime minister, other than a couple of stray remarks like ‘she possessed a flair for diplomacy’. She certainly received excellent grounding while she served as his official hostess, observing national leaders and world statesmen at close quarters. But she was not privy to cabinet papers or government files, and did not receive intelligence or military briefings. During my discussions with him, Kuldip Nayar was not able to provide me any concrete evidence of Nehru actively promoting his daughter. Former finance minister T.T. Krishnamachari had told my father H.Y. Sharada Prasad that the maximum all Nehru hoped for Indira was that she would be minister of state for external affairs in Shastri’s council of ministers.
If JP had accepted Nehru’s pleas to join his cabinet and succeed him as prime minister, the history of India would have been very different.
The only person who probably captured the succession story right was cartoonist K. Shankar Pillai. His cartoon published in Shankar’s Weekly depicted a marathon race, with the winners being Lal Bahadur Shastri (1964), followed by Indira Gandhi (1966) and Morarji Desai (1977), with all the other candidates collapsing on the race track.
Ravi Visvesvaraya Sharada Prasad is an alumnus of Carnegie Mellon and IIT Kanpur, and a New Delhi-based technology and security consultant. Views are personal.