Congress leader Yashwantrao Balwantrao Chavan’s name has starkly gone down in India’s contemporary history for several reasons.
He was the first chief minister of Maharashtra. He became defence minister when India was still fighting its war with China and held that post even during the country’s second war in 1965 with Pakistan. He is also remembered for presenting one of India’s epoch budgets as finance minister due to a high deficit.
On his 106th birth anniversary, ThePrint takes a look at Y.B. Chavan’s life and work.
Early political career
Chavan was born in a poor Maratha family on 12 March 1913, in a village that was then part of Maharashtra’s Satara district and is now in the Sangli district. He took an active part in India’s freedom struggle, participated in the Non-Cooperation Movement, the Quit India Movement, and even served time behind bars.
A lawyer by qualification, Chavan was a Congress activist since his student days and headed the Satara district Congress in 1940.
He became the chief minister of Bombay, then a bilingual state before the formation of Maharashtra, in 1957 and took over as the state leader of the Congress. He went on to become the first chief minister of the state of Maharashtra in 1960.
Maharashtra’s first CM
A close aide of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Chavan’s role in the emotive and violent struggle for Maharashtra’s formation is seen as contentious, but also key in ultimately creating the state on linguistic grounds.
“Chavan was a person of inclusive instinct, so when the Congress went ahead with the experiment of a bilingual state, they asked Chavan, who was the chief minister of Bombay, whether the concept was working. He reported that people weren’t happy and there were far too many problems,” writer Neeta Kolhatkar said of him in DNA.
Smt. Indira Gandhi interacting with then Defence Minister YB Chavan, 1966. pic.twitter.com/7BUBaIP53Y
— Congress (@INCIndia) March 18, 2016
Vaibhav Purandare, author of Bal Thackeray and the rise of the Shiv Sena, however, wrote that Chavan’s remarks of Nehru being greater than Maharashtra and his slamming the Samyukta Maharashtra movement as “home-grown colonialism” did not go down well with the Marathi youth.
Chavan, still, was that rare CM for whom the leader of opposition moved a resolution in the House to appreciate his services when he moved out of state politics to the Centre in 1962.
The leader served as Union minister for defence, home, external affairs as well as finance, and even the deputy prime minister. He is, perhaps, most remembered for his role as defence minister, for which he was specially summoned by Nehru after the incumbent controversial defence minister Krishna Menon resigned.
— Defence Spokesperson (@SpokespersonMoD) September 12, 2015
“YB (Chavan) had just earmarked on building a brand new state, which was born on May 1, 1960, after a considerable struggle, in which he participated. He wrote to Nehru that he had zero knowledge or competence to become defence minister of India. But owing to the affection and confidence reposed on him he had to bid farewell to his dear state,” economist Ajit Ranade wrote for the Mumbai Mirror.
Former civil servant R.D. Pradhan, in his book Debacle to Revival, outlining Chavan’s years as the defence minister, wrote, “Chavan assumed from the outset that the Chinese offer to withdraw was a tactical move and there was no guarantee that they would not resume hostilities once the snows had melted and mountain passes reopened. In the intervening period of three to four months, he was determined not only to restore the morale of the army, but also to provide the wherewithal to repel further aggression.”
— Defence Spokesperson (@SpokespersonMoD) September 11, 2015
— Defence Spokesperson (@SpokespersonMoD) August 29, 2015
As finance minister, Chavan is also remembered for his ‘Black Budget’ in 1973-74. While the term usually refers to those budgets where funds are kept for secretive or classified projects, his was labelled as one due to a high deficit of Rs 550 crore.
Avid reader, litterateur
Besides a politician, Chavan was a voracious reader and a prolific writer with several books under his name. He founded the Marathi Sahitya Mandal and was closely associated with a number of poets and writers.
In his book, Unfinished Innings: Recollections and reflections of a civil servant, Madhav Godbole recalled how Chavan’s work desk was always spotlessly clean and how he would clear all files the same day and send them back to Godbole, his private secretary when he was home minister.
“I still remember the day when I got to office in the morning and found that not a single file had come back from the minister,” Godbole wrote.
When the minister reached office, Godbole asked him about the files. The minister smiled and told him, N.S. Phadke, a well-known Marathi author, had sent him his autobiography. Chavan told Godbole, as written in the latter’s book, “I started reading it after dinner and was so absorbed in it that I continued reading it and put it down only at five this morning when it was time to go for my morning walk.”
Chavan died of a heart attack on 25 November, 1984, after working for about five decades as a politician in the state and the Centre. Speaking at the launch of a book on the late leader in his birth centenary year in 2012, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) Chief Sharad Pawar, known to be Chavan’s protege, said the leader wanted to write a three-part autobiography, but unfortunately could complete only one during his lifetime.