RAJEEV KHANNA | 27 MARCH, 2019
His home turf of Palampur has a special place in the party’s history
DATELINE: With Shanta Kumar bidding adieu to electoral politics after his party did not field him for the forthcoming Lok Sabha polls, the wheel has come full circle for the Bharatiya Janata Party at least in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh. It has transformed from being a party with a difference, to a party of differences.
Reports say that the party stalwart announced a ‘sanyas’ (ascetic timeout) in Dharamshala on Tuesday evening. His contemporaries Lal Krishna Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi are sailing in the same boat after being denied party tickets by the dispensation led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah.
Shanta Kumar and his home turf of Palampur have a special place in the history of the BJP. While the party’s establishment of as one of the main poles of Himachal politics is largely attributed to Kumar and his contemporaries, Palampur was the place from where the party’s engine rolled out for a pan-India expansion.
It was the Palampur resolution of the BJP's historic executive meet in 1989 where the party came out as affiliated with the saints running the Ram Janambhoomi movement. It was also the place where the BJP entered an alliance with the Shiv Sena, until then the main Hindu political party.
Many feel that Kumar epitomised the ‘real BJP’ with its merits and demerits. His relationship with Modi in the years that followed marks the difference between the BJP under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Advani and Joshi, and under Modi and Shah.
Kumar never minced words when taking on Modi and his party. It was in the recent past that he had started publicly speaking in favour of Modi, for whatever reason. Political observers say he will be back to his old self within a week.
They also say that Kumar and Modi never got along well, right from the time the latter was handed charge of Himachal Pradesh in mid-nineties.
“Modi had this habit of asking everyone among the state leaders to carry notebooks to party meetings and take notes. He once admonished Shanta for not following his directions. Shanta had twice been chief minister at that point. He stopped attending the meetings, and as party insiders related at the time, Modi took this to heart,” a senior political observer disclosed.
He further said, “Modi hit back by siding with Prem Kumar Dhumal when the BJP formed the government in 1998 in alliance with the Sukh Ram led Himachal Vikas Congress. The Congress chief minister Virbhadra Singh had preponed the assembly polls by almost a year, so it was being assumed that the Congress would come back to power. But this turned out to be a miscalculation. Shanta at the time had opted to contest parliamentary polls instead. He could never come back as chief minister.”
Old timers relate that while Modi claimed credit before the central leadership for installing a BJP government in the state by working out an alliance with Sukh Ram, the move was roundly criticised by Shanta, who opposed the party’s alliance with a party led by a ‘corrupt’ leader. Modi reaped the reward in terms of being considered for the post of Gujarat chief minister in 2001 to replace Keshubhai Patel.
But the story did not end with Modi’s departure to Gujarat. Shanta Kumar as a union minister did not mince words in attacking Modi on the issue of the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat that followed the burning of the Sabarmati Express. He said he would have resigned had he been in Modi’s place as chief minister. Many observers say that Prime Minister Vajpayee had actually echoed Kumar’s views when he scolded Modi for not adhering to ‘Rajdharma’.
On a later occasion, Kumar also said that he was not among those who do politics over dead bodies.
In 2011, he sought the removal of Karnataka Chief Minister B.S.Yeddyurappa after the latter’s indictment by the Lokayukta, saying reportedly that the BJP was fast becoming a party of sons, daughters and relatives, and the culture of ‘parivartantra’ (family doctrine) was replacing ‘loktantra’ (people’s doctrine).
Many feel that with six decades of service to the RSS and the BJP, having twice been chief minister and five times member of either house of Parliament, Shanta Kumar should have been made a union cabinet minister by PM Modi. “If a person like Smriti Irani who lost the polls could be made union minister, why not a stalwart like him?” said one of his followers.
Despite his differences with Modi, Kumar never crossed the limits of party discipline. He remained quiet even when his protégé Pravin Kumar was denied the party ticket from Palampur in the last assembly polls despite having large public support.
The ticket was instead given to an ‘outsider’ Indu Goswami, party insiders say, only because she was closely associated with Modi. Modi addressed rallies in support of Goswami in Palampur, but the BJP lost on expected lines, from a seat that has immense symbolic value in the party’s history.
Shanta Kumar is among those leaders who are often described as ‘a brilliant administrator but a foolish politician’ by their own partymen. He never resorted to populist politics and never refrained from taking tough decisions, which quite often did not go well even with his supporters.
It also led to electoral defeats on some occasions. He is remembered for implementing a ‘No work no pay’ principle on agitating government employees, curbing the right to strike work. He also paid the price for quelling an apple growers’ agitation with a heavy hand, marked by the killing of three persons in a police shootout in Kotgarh in 1990. His critics also accuse him of promoting caste politics while ignoring the marginalised.
At the same time he is remembered as a disciplinarian and a man of principle. The common people also remember him for the commendable job he did in taking water supplies to the remote corners of the state.
With his ‘sanyas’ announcement after being sidelined by the party he nurtured along with Advani and Joshi, an era comes to an end in the BJP, which now stands totally transformed from the force it was three decades ago.