The second succession

The Congress top brass rallied around Indira Gandhi in the leadership tussle after Shastri's death

LAL BAHADUR SHASTRI'S death, unlike that of Jawaharlal Nehru barely 19 months earlier, was sudden and utterly unexpected. Moreover, in 1964, succession to Nehru by Shastri had been all but settled before the iconic prime minister's passing. This time the issue was wide open. The decision-making machinery, headed by Congress president K. Kamaraj, that had then masterminded the transition, was still intact. But the new situation was entirely different.

A supremely important difference was that in 1964, the seamless succession was settled by consensus, ascertained by Kamaraj. This was ruled out in 1966. For, Morarji Desai — who had grumbled bitterly on the previous occasion that he was "outmanoeuvred" by the powerful party bosses and thus "cheated out of what was rightfully his" — made it crystal clear that he would contest for the leadership. At the same time, he insisted that there should be a free and secret ballot by the Congress Parliamentary Party without any "interference" by organisational bosses or state chief ministers. All concerned promptly accepted the inevitability of a secret ballot by the CPP. But they tersely told Desai that the Congress's "Grand Council", consisting of the Congress Working Committee, of which all top Central ministers were members, and state chief ministers, all of whom were then Congressmen of substance, had an equal stake in the choice of the new PM, as was underscored in 1964.

Yet another new element in the situation that some considered bizarre was that caretaker PM G.L. Nanda had decided to throw his hat, or rather Gandhi cap, in the ring. On the morning of January 11, even before the plane carrying Shastri's body had left Tashkent, Nanda went to see Indira Gandhi and asked her whether she wanted to be PM. As was her wont, she disavowed any such ambition. Whereupon, he inquired whether she would support his candidature. Her carefully worded reply was that if all others supported him, she wouldn't "stand in his way". Nanda interpreted it as her unconditional support. From there he went to Kamaraj and told him that he was tired of being a "stepney" PM again and again and should therefore be "confirmed" in the top job.

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