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H. N. Bahuguna, ‘Natwarlal’ who refused to take Indira Gandhi’s ‘son’ across Uttar Pradesh

On his 30th death anniversary, ThePrint recalls the ever-changing politician who served in the Congress governments as minister but left the party twice.

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For a freedom fighter who was put behind bars for his participation in the Quit India movement, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna went on to be a Union minister and later the chief minister of India’s most populous state, and left an indelible impact on how we understand Indian politics today.

From being the general secretary in the party to his appointment in the Congress governments at the Centre, to breaking away from the grand old party of India, to floating a new party and joining the Janata alliance, to returning to the Congress fold two years later before leaving it again, Bahuguna was dubbed the “Natwarlal of Indian politics” by his opponents.

In his book All the Janata Men, senior journalist Janardan Thakur describes Bahuguna’s political influence through an incident dating back to 1951.

Bahuguna was asked by Lal Bahadur Shastri to organise a massive rally for prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in Allahabad (now Prayagraj). On the day of the rally, Purushottam Lal Tandon Park in Allahabad was packed with people but Bahuguna was not allowed to go onto the stage. So, he went to a food stall behind the congregation and started eating some ‘chaat’. Shortly after, there was a power cut, the venue became pitch dark and the leaders on stage could no longer be heard. A huge commotion ensued and the crowd started chanting Bahuguna’s name. He rushed towards the stage and as soon as he stepped on it, the power supply came back and the crowd cheered, “Bahuguna Zindabad”.

On his 30th death anniversary, ThePrint recalls this ever-changing politician who remained in active party politics for over three decades.

Steady rise

Bahuguna was born in Pauri Garhwal area of present-day Uttarakhand in 1921 but moved to Allahabad for his education in his later years.

It was during his college education in the 1930s at Allahabad University that Bahuguna’s political career began — a profession that has been passed on to two successive generations of his family.

His growing participation in the freedom struggle, especially at the time of the Quit India movement in 1941, made him a rebel in the eyes of the British rulers. It is believed that the British had placed a bounty on his head and Bahuguna was arrested and put behind bars from 1942 to 1946.

Out of prison, Bahuguna went back to university. Following India’s independence a year later, he worked with labour unions in Allahabad which led him to be appointed as a member of the Indian National Trade Union Congress.

His first electoral victory came in 1952 when he was elected as an MLA in Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha from Karchana and Chail constituency in Allahabad. He followed that up in 1957 assembly polls with a win from Sirathu. His electoral success coincided with his elevation in the Congress government.

In 1957, Bahuguna was made a parliamentary secretary in the state’s ministries of labour and social welfare. A year later, he moved up the ranks and served as a deputy minister for industries. Later, he worked the labour department in 1962.

The 1960s and early 1970s continued to witness Bahuguna’s steady rise in the government as well as the Congress party — he was given the charge of the ministry of finance and transport in 1967 and the All India Congress Committee general secretary in 1969.

In 1971, he was elevated to Union ministry of communication as minister of state.

Four years later, Bahuguna was appointed the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh — a post that he would resign from on 29 November 1975.

Also read: YB Chavan, the Congress leader who was key to creation of Maharashtra & its first CM

Disillusionment with Congress

In an interview to BBC, Bahuguna once spoke about his disillusionment with the Congress leadership and then prime minister Indira Gandhi during his tenure as Uttar Pradesh chief minister.

“As soon as I took an oath for the CM’s position, I had a fight with Indira Gandhi on a foundational issue. She felt that I should consult her for every work. My stand was that “back seat driving” was not possible. A CM who runs such a big state has to take his own decisions…She wanted that I take her son (Sanjay Gandhi) across UP just like the CMs of Rajasthan and Maharashtra. I declined (to do so). I told her that he should walk on his feet, work, move ahead but this cannot happen on my shoulders.”

In his book An Indian Political Life: Charan Singh and Congress Politics, 1967 to 1987, Paul R. Brass writes about Bahuguna’s chief ministerial days.

Bahuguna introduced “measures of benefit to the Harijans”, establishing “a happy rapport with the Muslims” by acting boldly to suppress “anti-Muslim rioting”, and taking measures to eliminate “rural indebtedness”, Brass writes.

However, “Indira Gandhi had no interest in such issues as she moved steadily toward total power by installing political lackeys who had little if any popular support in their states. Insofar as UP was concerned, this meant that the rather garrulous Bahuguna had to be displaced from power by Indira Gandhi — or rather by Sanjay Gandhi — within a year and replaced as chief minister by N.D. Tiwari,” reads an excerpt in Brass’s book.

Brass also writes about Bahuguna in a section on the imposition of Emergency and how most chief ministers were “kept in the dark concerning the plans for an Emergency or its implementation”.

“The chief minister of UP, H.N. Bahuguna, testified that he “came to know about the proclamation of Emergency” at breakfast with two central government ministers, who “were as surprised as he was” about it.”

Also read: Remembering Madhavrao Scindia, Prince Charming who could have become PM

Tumultuous period

Journalist Krishna V. Ananth in his book India Since Independence: Making Sense of Indian Politics elaborates on the later years of Bahuguna after he resigned from the CM’s post in 1975 and formed a party called Congress for Democracy (CFD) with other disgruntled Congress leaders Jagjivan Ram and Nandini Satpathy.

Their exit “…indeed, was the decisive factor that led to Indira’s Congress being wiped out of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar”, writes Ananth.

Bahuguna first served as the general secretary of the CFD which was merged in the Janata Party on 5 May, 1977.

Following the victory of the Janata alliance and the appointment of Morarji Desai as the prime minister, Bahuguna joined the Union cabinet for the second time and held two portfolios in the Janata government — ministry of petroleum, chemicals and fertilizers in 1977 and ministry of finance in 1979.

However, he went back to the Congress in 1979 and the next Lok Sabha elections saw him win the Garhwal seat as a Congress leader in 1980. But he left the Congress party yet again, and in 1984, he contested his last Lok Sabha polls as a Lok Dal nominee.

Allahabad — a seat from where he had begun his political journey — became the ground for his last political battle. Bahuguna, however, lost the seat to Congress candidate and film star Amitabh Bachchan by a huge margin of 1,87,000 votes.

Four years later, Bahuguna fell ill and had to undergo a heart surgery. He passed away on 17 March, 1989 at a hospital in US.

Vijay Bahuguna, son of one of the first Congress rebels that India witnessed, is currently a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party after having served in the Congress party till 2014.

Bahuguna’s daughter, Rita Bahuguna Joshi, who was with the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh for at least two decades and had even served as the party’s UP president, also defected to the BJP in 2016. She is currently a cabinet minister in the BJP-led state government in Uttar Pradesh.

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