On Chandra Shekhar's 89th birthday, it's time to recall a PM with a difference

As an officer serving in the Special Protection Group (SPG), I had the privilege of working with four successive prime ministers — Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar and PV Narasimha Rao. By 'working', I don't mean I enjoyed unbridled access to the prime ministers but I oversaw various aspects of their security from close quarters and that exposed me to some facets of the four VIPs. Among them, I found Chandra Shekhar most simple, caring and accessible to the SPG personnel who remained concerned about  the wellbeing of the officers and men guarding him and his family members.

Even though he lasted for a very short period, he was known for his decision-making based on sound reasoning.

Once, a group of young civil service aspirants came to VP Singh requesting the enhancement of the age of candidates and pressing for an increase in the number of maximum attempts to appear for the entrance exams. VP Singh would always be evasive to their pleas and tacitly convey that their requests could be met, thereby raising false hopes — typical of a politician! Now the same group of young men met Chandra Shekhar when he succeeded VP Singh.

Without committing himself to their demands, he asked the cabinet secretary to examine the issue, and once it was made clear that the relaxation was not possible, Chandra Shekhar, during his subsequent meeting with this group, plainly told them that it couldn't be relaxed.

The group protested and raised anti-prime minister slogans.

File image of former Indian prime minister Chandra Shekhar. Wikimedia Commons

File image of former Indian prime minister Chandra Shekhar. Wikimedia Commons

Undeterred and unfazed, Chandra Shekhar shouted at them and also counselled that the time wasted by coming to the prime minister's home time and again could be better utilised in focussing on UPSC preparations and that way, the protesters would stand greater chances of success. Chandra Shekhar never practiced politics of cheap populism. His decision was for the larger interests and he did not care for any brownie points, which politicians normally go for.

Another important anecdote that comes to mind is about an Assam cadre IPS officer, whose wife was slain by Ulfa terrorists and he was next on their hitlist.

The Ministry of Home Affairs had deputed him to Bihar as a temporary reprieve. This officer's elder brother, an inspector-general with the UP police, was detailed to oversee the prime minister's security bandobast when the latter was camping at his hometown of Ballia. The I-G requested me to facilitate a meeting with the prime minister, wherein he could make a request to have his brother from the Assam cadre permanently transferred to Bihar, away from the Ulfa threats in Assam.

As soon as the prime minister heard this request, he said on compassionate grounds, "I can have his deputation period to Bihar extended by a year or so but I can't have him permanently transferred to Bihar."

The I-G reiterated his plea and said "Sir, the terrorists have even sneaked into Bihar and may kill him, and Assam is a sure-shot deathtrap".

Without taking a second, Chandra Shekhar crisply responded, "I-G sahib, once your brother has joined the IPS, these occupational hazards will continue. If every police officer keeps seeking a transfer because of the fear of terrorists, how will the police function?". The I-G did not have any counter argument and took his leave immediately. He knew his decision would evoke mixed emotions, but sometimes hard decisions have to be made.

That was Chandra Shekhar.

National interests were always uppermost in his mind and decisions he took were quick and conclusive.  It's very rare to find prime ministers not wanting to stay in their designated bungalow. But, Chandra Shekhar was satisfied by continuing to stay in his MP's accommodation at 3, Safdarjung Lane. Never did he attempt to occupy his official residence — on to which he was certainly entitled — at 7, Race Court Road. He lived with his extended joint family and would eat sitting on the floor with the entire household, plus his personal staff.

Simple vegetarian food amid discussions on a wide range of topics.

Chandra Shekhar was very caring of the security detail. In peak winter season, SPG personnel deployed at his house were served hot tea at regular intervals. On festivals like Holi and Diwali, everyone was served sweets. Such gestures were unprecedented and that they were coming from the Prime Minister of India made all the difference. Further, whenever he went out to a marriage or party, he would bluntly tell the host to look after his security detail first .

He invariably spared time to talk to his security complement more often than not, keeping them in good humour. That was characteristic of Chandra Shekhar. Once in 1990 while at Ballia, he asked me about his next programme. Hearing that it was Allahabad and I was going to cover it and knowing that my parents were living there, he directed his staff to load several kilos of sweets and fruits for my aged parents in addition to hand-woven sarees and dhotis .

Such noble gestures were frequently witnessed and I was not the exception.

There are endless accounts of Chandra Shekhar's benevolence, generosity and large-heartedness. His term lasted only six to seven months but the impact he left behind is profound and will last for ever.

1 July is his birthday and these anecdotes are a tribute to that Young Turk — rustic in appearance but packed with so much finesse.

The author is a retired IPS officer who was in the SPG when Chandra Shekhar was prime minister. Views are personal

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Updated Date: Jul 01, 2016 14:59:20 IST

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