June 11: Veteran Congress leader Vidya Charan Shukla died in a Delhi hospital today, battling bullet injuries suffered during the Maoist attack in Bastar on May 25. He was 83.
Shukla, who is survived by his wife and three daughters, was a master of power politics and intrigue and infamous for his iron-fist handling of the media during the Emergency.
A warhorse, he had served under many Prime Ministers, from Indira Gandhi to P.V. Narasimha Rao. He left the Congress and after trying his luck unsuccessfully in Chhattisgarh politics, returned to the party for what proved to be the last time.
Shukla was part of the Congress’s “parivartan yatra”, organised to drive the BJP out of power, that was ambushed by Maoists last month. He was shot thrice. While still conscious, he was witness to a remarkable act of loyalty: his security guard, Praful Shukla, shot himself dead for failing to save Shukla.
Son of Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla, the first chief minister of the Central Provinces, Vidya Charan was a budding industrialist when he expressed a strong desire to join politics. His elder brother, Shyama Charan, was equally keen, pleading with their father and Jawaharlal Nehru to allow them to do so. Ravi Shankar, a freedom fighter, would not relent in his lifetime.
When he died in 1956, Nehru drafted both Shyama Charan and Vidya Charan into the Congress. He advised Vidya Charan to contest for the Lok Sabha while Shyama Charan confined himself to state politics, a division the brothers observed for decades.
Vidya Charan achieved both fame and notoriety as a close Sanjay Gandhi aide during the Emergency. He was part of a key group, that included Bansi Lal, Siddhartha Shankar Ray, Om Mehta, Yashpal Kapoor and R.K. Dhawan, during the 21-month period that saw the Indira regime severely curtail civil liberties and suspend elections. There were several instances when Vidya Charan was accused of “high-handedness”.
Indira Gandhi’s cousin Nayantara Sahgal was not arrested during the Emergency but on one occasion, her sister was told by Ray, then the Bengal chief minister: “We could pick her up under Misa any day.”
Misa, which stood for Maintenance of Internal Security Act, was a dreaded law.
Nayantara later wrote that Vidya Charan, who then headed the information and broadcasting ministry, had told her mother Vijayalaxmi Pandit “with a concealed sense of satisfaction” that Nayantara would not be able to write about politics. Nehru’s sister retorted that politics was not the lone subject Nayantara was capable of writing on.
Freedom fighter and industrialist Ramkrishna Bajaj had also found himself at the receiving end. The Gandhian — he loved to describe himself as “Gandhi’s coolie” — was harassed throughout the Emergency. Along with Om Mehta and Ambika Soni, Vidya Charan had reportedly tried to take control of the Vishwa Yuvak Kendra, an apolitical youth training and development centre in the heart of Delhi.
Ramkrishna, never a man to take quick offence, sought help from Indira, a childhood friend, and the Nehru-Gandhi family retainer Mohammad Yunus, but the harassment did not end.
Vidya Charan subsequently advised him to resign as trustee and hand over the Kendra to Sanjay. The Gandhian took up the matter with Indira, who spent six hours with him while visiting Wardha to see an ailing Vinoba Bhave. On board the plane, Ramkrishna asked her: “Aapki mujh se koi narazgi hai kya (Are you upset with me for something)?” To which she replied: “Haan shikayeten to hoti hi rahti hain (Yes, there are always issues).”
The industrialist tried to draw Indira’s attention towards the Kendra but the Prime Minister chose not to respond.
On May 18, 1976, income tax sleuths raided 114 residential and business establishments across the country. As many as 1,100 officers raided factories and residences in Bombay, Pune, Bangalore, Madras, Kanpur, Calcutta and elsewhere. The income tax department did not even spare his mother, 84-year-old Jankidevi, who was leading a secluded life since the demise of Jamunalal Bajaj in 1942.
Ramkrishna later learnt that his close association with Viren Shah, who later became governor of Bengal under NDA rule, and his politician brother Kamalnayan’s move to leave Indira in 1966 were held against him.
Vidya Charan was also accused of clamping down on violence in Hindi films during the Emergency on the grounds that it could trigger civil unrest. When Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay was being released, writers Salim-Javed were tense whether the film would pass the censors but actor Amitabh Bachchan’s association with the Gandhis came handy, prompting Vidya Charan to clear it with minor cuts.
Singer Kishore Kumar was banned on All India Radio and Doordarshan and Pran and Dev Anand suffered after they refused to speak in favour of the Youth Congress and Sanjay on television and radio, which were then government run, following a fundraiser Geeton Bhari Sham for Sanjay and Rukhsana Sultana’s controversial family planning programme in 1976.
When Indira lost power in 1977, Vidya Charan deposed before the Shah Commission of inquiry owning up his decisions but internal politics in the Congress forced him out. He returned to the national scene again when V.P. Singh revolted against Rajiv Gandhi over Bofors in 1987. Vidya Charan became a leading light of the Jan Morcha but when V.P. Singh became Prime Minister, his name was missing from the cabinet. He served as a minister in the short-lived Chandra Shekhar regime. After Rajiv’s death, Vidya Charan was drafted back into the Congress by Narasimha Rao.