Monday, July 6, 2020

Remembering Babu Jagjivan Ram

Remembering Babu Jagjivan Ram

Babu Jagjivan Ram
Today, July 6, is the death anniversary (Punia Teethi) of Babu Jagjivan Ram. He died in 1986 after contributing a great deal to the politics, governance, and social transformational aspects of the country and the society at large. Babu Jagjivan Ram was a leader with his own position and stature both in the polity and society of India with about 5 decades of parliamentary life and many important positions in the governments since the interim government of Jawaharlal Nehru. As a young student in Jalandhar in the 1960s, what I knew about him was that he was a propped up nominee of the Congress Party to counter and undermine the influence and position of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Good or bad, it was a hard reality also. But at the same time, it is also a hard fact that Ambedkar remained what he was and stood his ground in spite of all odds against him created by the machinations of his opponents. Nevertheless, today is the day to remember Babu Jagjivan Ram. He was an alumnus of the Presidency College of Calcutta (Kolkata) and Banaras Hindu University in the good old days. Babu Jagjivan Ram made it to the interim government of PM Jawaharlal Nehru in 1946 as the youngest Minister. Ever since, he remained an important member of all the governments with coveted portfolios and positions till his
Interim Government of India 1946
death in 1986. Obviously, after Babasahib Ambedkar’s demise in 1956, Babu Jagjivan Ram became the sole leader and voice of dalits in the country. He was an able and competent politician and an able administrator and got due space and recognition both in the government and otherwise with considerable mass appeal and base.  With the challenge of feeding millions amidst food scarcity, Babu Jagjivan Ram played an important role as Minister of Food and Agriculture to bring about the Green Revolution. He was the Defense Minister of India in 1971 who oversaw the resounding defeat of Pakistan and creation of Bangladesh by our valiant armed forces. My first hand visual encounter with him pertains to that time in 1971-72. My office in the Interpreter’s Cell of the MEA was located in South Block (Defense Ministry/Army Hdqs. side where the offices of Defense Minister and Chief of the Army Staff are located) and many a times I got the chance to see him from a close distance. Meanwhile, my mental faculty was getting, gradually, a wide view of the things on ground. The stock of Babu Jagjivan Ram went high in my mind and thought and rightly so. More was yet to come. On my career progression in the MEA, I was posted in the PMO in April 1974 as Protocol (Hospitality) Assistant to work closely with the office of PM Indira Gandhi and the Committee/Conference Rooms where important meetings, including Cabinet and Cabinet Committee meetings are generally held. There I got more acquainted with the demeanour and persona of Babu Jagjivan Ram, as a junior official hanging around the corridors of power, where he came often and regularly to meet PM Indira Gandhi and participate in the Cabinet and Cabinet Committee meetings. I found him a man of quite charm and confidence. He was a much respected Minister not only with his colleagues but also with the elite bureaucracy. His weight in the government was clearly visible. PM Indira Gandhi respected him with due reverence. As oral history, I may narrate here what I personally saw. Indira Gandhi would not come from her office to the Cabinet meetings in the Conference Room without checking whether Babuji, as she usually called him, had come. I also saw many a times in the Cabinet meetings, when Babu Jagjivan Ram came late somehow, PM Indira Gandhi would get up and make Babuji sit. She always extended and observed these sweet niceties to Babu Jagjivan Ram being a senior and able colleague.

I witnessed the momentous events pertaining to emergency and movement of leaders like Babu Jagjivan in the corridors of the PMO and the ante-rooms of the personal office of PM Indira Gandhi in South Block. I vividly remember Babu Jagjivan Ram’s coming to meet PM Indira Gandhi sometimes in February/March, 1977 before he parted company with her and forming Congress for Democracy and joining hands with the opposition to contest historical elections which defeated PM Indira Gandhi. The rest is history. Babu Jagjivan Ram was an astute politician. In spite of his administrative acumen and political standing, he was still a dalit leader. There was no light at the end of the tunnel for him. He aspired to occupy the top slot in the hierarchy and rightly so and played his cards accordingly. Babu Jagjivan Ram very well knew that nobody can or will recognize his experience and talent and would offer him the top job. It was to be done by him alone. He did his best with the strategy to hold the balance in his hands with 30-35 odd seats in the Lok Sabha. It was a well considered and thought of strategy to join the election campaign under the leadership f Jai Prakash Naryanan and other leaders in the opposition. The forces of change got a much needed boost with Babu Jagjivan Ram’s plunge against PM Indra Gandhi. During the election campaign and just before results, it was almost evident that Jagjivan Ram will be the next PM of the country. His whirlwind tour of the breadth and length of country set the direction and the Congress Party led by Indira Gandhi was squarely defeated. Jagjivan Ram could get about 30 seats, as expected, for the Congress for Democrocy, his newly floated political outfit but Jagjivan Ram never thought and imagined that Congress will be defeated that badly. The overwhelming support to the bandwagon of change with a huge majority in the Lok Sabha disturbed and changed the scenario. Charan Singh and company, belonging to the Manuwadi mindset - “Shoe is meant to be worn on the foot and not kept on the head” and “How come a brick meant for the gutter would be fixed in the gallery” – came to the fore and spoiled the chances of Jagjivan Ram to occupy the top slot which he richly deserved. Babu Jagjivan Ram felt cheated but what could be done. He was defeated politically by forces of status quo. Again when Charan Singh government could not face the parliament and seek vote of confidence in 1979-80 and fell, Jagjivan Ram made yet another bid and was ready to prove his majority in the Lok Sabha but again President Sanjiva Ready, it seemed, preferred to settle old scores against Jagjivan Ram rather than upholding the constitutional provisions and values and denied that due chance to Jagjivan Ram to hold the coveted post of PM of India. It would have been a game changing development, had Jagjivan Ram become the PM of India in 1977 and again in 1980. The contemporary political history of India would have been different. But that was not to be and Jagjivan Ram died a dejected man, sadly. Before I end this narration, let me add yet another fact which is generally not mentioned. It goes to the credit of BJP (then Janta Party) leadership like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Lal Krishan Advani, Nana Deshmukh among others that they did not oppose, rather supported Jagjivan Ram’s unannounced or unproclaimed bid for the top job of the country. Historians will analyse and record these events in the right perspective.

I did not intend to be lengthy in this narration but oral history tends to be lengthy. It is said Babu Jagjivan Ram was a jovial and confident man. One interesting anecdote narrated by an army General in a social event may suffice to register that fact. Defense Minister Jagjivan Ram was hosting a dinner for his visiting counterpart from a friendly country. Tandoori chicken came as a snack/starter. Jagjivan Ram started eating with his hand while the foreign guests were struggling to eat with knife and fork. Seeing this, Jagjivan Ram observed, in a lighter vein, Excellency, please see how we eat Tandoori chicken and enjoy and added “Eating Tandoori chicken with knife and fork is like making love through an interpreter” It added to the bonhomie on the dining table.

My humble tribute to the memory of a leader – Prime Ministerial stuff – who could not become PM, Babu Jagjivan Ram

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