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Commentary/Janardan Thakur

Right from the day JP made him Janata Party president, Chandra Shekhar has fancied himself as the only man to make an authentic prime minister of India

It is not surprising that both Kalpnath Rai and Jagannath Mishra should be plugging for Chandra Shekhar as H D Deve Gowda's successor. They have a lot in common. Both Deve Gowda and Chandra Shekhar were in the same party at one time, they belong to the same part of the country, and above all, they have the same approach to the country's foremost problem -- corruption. Left to them, corruption would become a non-issue, banished from the Indian scene.

Chandra Shekhar may not be an obvious contender for the prime minister's job, but at heart? That's a different matter altogether. Look how he has positioned himself. Those who watched the Lok Sabha on April 11 would have seen how even-handed the Angry Old Turk was -- he leaned neither toward the defenders nor toward the aggressors. He even has a seat bang in the centre of the House, as though he spans both sides of the floor. Quite the man to salve the country's fractured polity, many might say.

Does he want to be the prime minister again? Well, well right from the day Jayaprakash Narayan made him the Janata Party president, Chandra Shekhar has fancied himself as the only man to make an authentic prime minister of India. Both Moraji Desai and Charan Singh as prime minister were anathema to him. Within a year of the installation of the Janata government, Chandra Shekhar not only questioned its performance, but even challenged JP's locus standi to 'interfere' in the affairs of the Janata Party. Chandra Shekhar's curious dalliance with the party's Jan Sangh constituent perhaps stemmed from a deeper design, for it was from this component of the Janata Party that Morarji had drawn his main strength.

But let it pass, for it was the bigger and more open contender to the throne, namely Chaudhary Charan Singh, who pre-empted Chandra Shekhar and toppled Morarji. All too soon the razzle-dazzle of power was gone and there was nothing left for Chandra Shekhar except the party presidentship. But there was little he could do. He had neither grass-root support (he was soon to get a drubbing in his own home ground, Ballia) nor much support at the higher political levels. He did have a personal following, but this was largely composed of a coterie of henchmen, some of them with a lot of ill-gotten wealth and muscle power.

Chandra Shekhar had suddenly soared in the late sixties with his Young Turk rhetoric in the service of Indira Gandhi, who was then battling against the Syndicate bosses. Later, Chandra Shekhar had turned a dissident against the empress-in-making, which brought him close to JP and landed him, rather pointlessly, in jail. He emerged with the halo of a martyr and became the Janata Party chief.

When Jagjivan Ram raised the issue of "dual membership" in January 1980, Chandra Shekhar sided with the Jan Sangh constituents, virtually forcing Ram out of the Janata Party. However, within a month Chandra Shekhar himself made a big hullabaloo about "dual membership" for he had to somehow counter Morarji Desai's influence in the party, even if it meant the exit of the Jan Sanghis. All this may sound irrelevant now, and yet it is important for an understanding of Chandra Shekhar's politics. His tragedy seems to be that every time he has ridden a high horse he has had a bad fall.

In 1983, when his profile was utterly low, he suddenly set out on a "Bharat Yatra" and was hailed as a new messiah. Such was the new elan of the padayatri that it seemed he was going to walk straight into the prime minister's chair, brushing Indira Gandhi aside. But it did not take even weeks for the fizz to go. All through the yatra he had bewailed the great decline in the credibility of political leaders and parties and had proclaimed that he would change the "character of politics," for there was no way he could "return to the politics of vote banks and manipulations in New Delhi".

But very soon the country witnessed one of the crudest exhibitions of crass politics, or rather "cash politics", as a wit had it -- the crude and brazen manoeuvres during Rajya Sabha and council elections in Bihar. At one stroke all the moral facade was ripped apart. One still remembers the comment of a national daily: 'To build his image as the future prime minister of India, Chandra Shekhar undertakes a country-wide padayatra on the one hand, and on the other he takes money from the mafia to buy legislators a la Moily of Karnataka... Some day a new politics will come to India, but in that there would be no place for men like Chandra Shekhar.'

When Vishwanath Pratap Singh took up arms against Rajiv Gandhi, Chandra Shekhar was quick to debunk him as 'opportunistic' and made carping comments on the Raja of Manda's political antecedents. "Let him first disown all that he did as the finance minister of Rajiv Gandhi," he remarked acidly.

However, not long after this, he joined a four-party front, with the Jan Morcha in it, to contain the growing influence of V P Singh. He started making joint tours with him, but he soon found that it was V P who stole the limelight. What was particularly galling was the crowd behaviour at a meeting in his homeground, Ballia. A big responsive crowd listened to V P Singh but when it was Chandra Shekhar's turn to wind up the meeting, three-fourths of the crowd left.

Close watchers of the Opposition scene had noticed the shifts in Chandra Shekhar's attitude toward Vishwanath Pratap Singh -- from open scepticism to co-operation to cooling off. Behind the changes was, perhaps, the public profile of Vishwanath Pratap Singh. During the initial stages of the Jan Morcha, Singh had kept saying that he was not in the run for the prime ministership, which much have sounded like music to the ears of the other contenders.

Chandra Shekhar at least saw no reason why he should not join hands with the Raja. They go together at Bhondsi, and their meeting paved the way for a joint endeavour against Rajiv Gandhi. Everything changed when V P Singh began to be seen as a contender for the prime ministership. Over the heads of his party colleagues Chandra Shekhar had declared a merger of the Lok Dal with the Janata Party.

In what he must have thought was a master-stroke, he had announced that Ajit Singh had been made the working president of the party. Endless was his capacity for manoeuvres and manipulations.

Now with the country's politics in a flux, Chandra Shekhar has been striving to get back into focus. Behind all the hype of holding a 'dialogue' to find a new direction for the country was his anxiety to create a new force that could make him the prime minister again.

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Janardan Thakur

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