US was sure Shastri would succeed Nehru, says book


New Delhi : As early as January 1964, then US ambassador to India Chester Bowles was confident that Lal Bahadur Shastri would succeed Jawaharlal Nehru as prime minister, says a new book based on declassified American documents.

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After Nehru suffered his first stroke in January 1964 (he died after a second stroke in May), Bowles cabled the State Department that Shastri was in a “commanding position” to take Nehru’s place and that he could even defeat Indira Gandhi in a direct election.

“We conclude Shastri (is) in commanding position for succession unless Nehru personally intervenes on behalf of Indira,” Bowles said in a “confidential” Jan 28, 1964, communication reproduced in journalist Kalyani Shankar’s book “India & the US: Politics of the Sixties” (Macmillan).

The book deals with the ups and downs of India-US relations during the Lyndon Johnson presidency from 1963 to 1969. The declassified documents include White House papers, State Department records, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reports and correspondence from US diplomats based in New Delhi.

Bowles’ communications also dealt with how the triumvirate of Indira Gandhi, T.T. Krishnamachari and Gulzari Lal Nanda was formed after Nehru, a man badly broken by the 1962 Chinese aggression, fell ill in the beginning of 1964.

Bowles noted: “At present, Indira is in a key position, having assumed role similar to that of Mrs Woodrow Wilson, to whom she is being compared. She controls access to PM and is the only person who regularly consults him. She is thus in a unique position to influence PM on any issue, particularly on personalities.

“Indira is person of strong likes and dislikes, is ambitious (regardless of her denials) and is reported to be opposed to attempts to put Shastri clearly in position of heir apparent.”

Bowles, however, noted that Shastri began to enjoy support from those in the Congress who were against any dynastic succession in the event of Nehru’s death.

Clearly based on information gleaned from senior figures in the Congress party, Bowles said that Shastri had begun to command a “wide lead” as the “leading contender to replace Nehru.

“Morarji’s (Morarji Desai) position seems to be eroding and, according to some close to him, he is also prepared to lend support to Shastri.

“Morarji’s followers recognize that his stern and rigid views are unacceptable to many elements within Congress and they look on Shastri as best person to keep party together and defeat Indira (Gandhi) should formal or informal contest develop.”

Bowles, who was among the most popular of ambassadors the US has ever had in India, went on to say that although Nanda and Krishnamachari viewed themselves as “dark horses”, they had little popular support.

The envoy also noted that Yashwant Chavan was “young and inexperienced” and that Kamaraj, the grand old man of the party, was expected to back Shastri.