As farmers look for a farmer leader, thoughts turn to Choudhary Charan Singh, the plain-speaking and contrarian leader. A peasant becoming Prime Minister still resonates across rural India.
Falsely targeted all his life, former Indian Prime Minister, Choudhary Charan Singh, fondly called ‘Choudhary Saheb’, had once remarked that the propaganda would cease as soon as Charan Singh died. He was wrong; the propaganda endures. That notwithstanding, the eldest of five children of Netra Kaur and Mir Singh, Charan Singh was born on a cold winter day of December 23, 1902 in village Nurpur of the Meerut district in Uttar Pradesh and rose to be India’s Prime Minister, even though he remains the most misunderstood leader of India..
Through his formative years Choudhary Saheb experienced the oppressive zamindari system, which kept the peasantry in abject poverty. The depressed state of his own community left deep scars that never healed and that was what he had vowed to undo. Having attained a degree to practice law in 1926, he sacrificed his option to set up a lucrative practice and chose to participate in the Independence movement. He joined the Congress party as a full-time member in 1929; the same party he would later unravel in its own bastion of the Hindi heartland. In 1930 in Lahore, the Indian National Congress passed the ‘Purna Swaraj declaration’, for complete self-rule independent of the British Empire. Soon afterwards he was jailed for six months for his political activism and many times thereafter. Agitating during the Quit India movement, he was jailed for 15 months.
As revenue minister in U.P. he was the chief architect of the revolutionary “Zamindari Abolition and Land Reform Act 1951”. Later, he was forced to resign when he openly disagreed with Jawahar Lal Nehru on his proposed national policy of co-operative farming, which was similar to the ruinous ‘Kolkhoz’ in the Soviet Union. His was a powerful personality; his singular focus on farmer prosperity never wavered and he never minced words. His contrarian nature was increasingly at odds with the Congress party, which was evolving towards subservience and hierarchies.
Charan Singh maintained that the reversal of priorities in the 2nd five-year plan, away from agriculture, was the root cause of India’s prolonged poverty, which ultimately resulted in PL-480 food imports. The subsequent humiliation of insufficiency in food production imprinted a fear factor on the national psyche that impacts policy making even to this day.
Expounding on the Gandhian model, he proposed that “no medium or large-scale enterprise shall be allowed to come into existence in future, which will produce goods and services that cottage or small-scale enterprise can produce.” He opposed the heavy industries development model of Jawaharlal Nehru. Time would prove that both extremes would not work for India.
In 1967, Charan Singh formed the Bharatiya Kranti Dal with the support of Raj Narain and Ram Manohar Lohia. He became the first non-Congress chief minister of U.P. and fuelled the rebellion against the Congress party. He found strength from popular mass support though he had difficulty in retaining power due to his uncompromising nature.
His contempt for ‘urban centric policy’ and nepotism within the upper castes, capitalists and bureaucracy never ebbed. Having found little to accuse him of he was falsely vilified for having been partial to his own caste; the Jats. Yet, while Jawaharlal Nehru would attend meetings of the Kashmir Brahmins regularly, Charan Singh never attended a single meeting of the Jat community, let alone speak of specific Jat demands. He even had the name of the local Jat College in Baraut changed to Janta Vedic college. In 1954, he had proposed reservation for gazetted jobs whereby jobs would be only available to those marrying out of one’s narrow caste circle.
When the caste accusations fell flat, the academics projected him as advocating the interests of only the rich farmers and land-owning classes, even after he singularly broke the hegemony of the zamindars. For Charan Singh, peasants went beyond the limited definition of perceived landowning classes as he included in his struggle the landless, craftsmen and tradesmen too. For this he stands accused of creating a rural middle class of small landholding farmers, which to this day need government support to survive. Truth to say the socialists and the neo-liberals could never digest a mere peasant at the high table of policy-making.
The constant hounding by the academia, media and business houses would have destroyed Charan Singh had it not been for his hard work, integrity and honesty. He was a simple man, said to have never grown his hair long for he was against any sort of partition, wearing a dhoti and the Gandhi cap; his sartorial trademark. He never used soap for bathing and used neem twigs ‘datun’ for brushing his teeth. He had very frugal eating habits and abhorred drinking and smoking. He would play a simple game of cards ‘Kot Pees’ with his brothers.
He was a firm believer in ideals of the Arya Samaj propagated by Swami Dayananda Saraswati to reform orthodox Hinduism. Not only was he a prolific reader, he also authored many papers and books. Amongst the many he published were ‘Abolition of Zamindari’ and India’s Economic Nightmare: Causes and Cure’. Choudhary Saheb was amongst the many leaders imprisoned for over a year during the Emergency and thereafter led the opposition to defeat Indira Gandhi in 1977.
The Bharatiya Lok Dal party led by Charan Singh secured the largest number of members of Parliament followed by the Jan Sangh. To stop Charan Singh from becoming Prime Minister, the smaller Jan Sangh proposed the name of Jagjivan Ram, correctly anticipating Charan Singh’s response. Charan Singh had always maintained ‘those who supported the resolution on imposing Emergency were unacceptable to him and his supporters’. Falling into the trap set by Jan Sangh, paved the way for the compromise candidature of Morarji Desai and, for the first time, big business managed to get a prime minister of their choice. Many decades later they would manage to do so again. The Janata Party experiment failed miserably. Appointed Deputy Prime Minister with charge of the home minister, Charan Singh blundered in arresting Indira Gandhi. Things came to a head when he insisted on probing the scandals of Morarji Desai’s son. Consequently, he was unceremoniously dropped from the ministry.
Seizing the opportunity to topple the Morarji government, Indira Gandhi agreed to support Charan Singh as prime minister. He was reconciled to the fact that time was running out for him to lead a metamorphosis of rural communities and he settled to inspire the generations of peasants to rise, to dream and break free from the manacles set by upper castes and urban society. He was successful in his objective; a peasant becoming Prime Minister still resonates across rural India.
History, however, is written by the urban elite who cannot resist painting Charan Singh as power hungry. If that were the case, on becoming the prime minister, he would not have refused to visit Indira Gandhi to thank her for the support, insisting that the support was directed to breaking the Janata government. Confronted with a choice between principles and convictions, he chose to give up the post of the Prime Minister within weeks. He refused to concede to conditions put forward by the Congress for extending support.
The tallest farmer leader of the nation breathed his last in the summer of 1987 and left a void that is yet to be filled. For the farming community, waiting for a leader, is a pitiful state to be in. Since his passing the rural political landscape changed beyond recognition. The Mandal Commission recommendations cut through the very fabric of rural unity, dividing communities on caste lines. Had he lived, it is improbable that Charan Singh would survive the shifting centre of political gravity from community leadership to caste politics.