Last month I read, with a wistfulness sadness, of the death of Shri Sita Ram Sharma, ex-MLA from Bilaspur district. He was the MLA when I was posted there as Deputy Commissioner in 1980-82, and I’ve never met a more complete gentleman, politician or otherwise: soft spoken to a fault, self-effacing, humble in his simplicity, he regarded me as a younger brother. MLAs those days travelled by bus and he quite often took a lift with me to Shimla, and we usually had lunch at Bhararighat which served the best “kadhi-chawal” this side of the Sutlej. Sita Ramji insisted on paying every time even though he was a man of very modest means. When he lost his last election he retired into graceful and genteel anonymity, bothering no one and not attempting to cash in on any IOUs or using his old “contacts”. I lost touch with him after a few years, till I read of his passing away last week.
Sita Ram Sharma’s world, of course, had passed away into oblivion long before he did. Comparisons are always odious, and not always fair, but I can’t help feeling that the days of gentlemen in politics are long gone: the political environment today is a take-no-prisoners battle zone where the stakes are enormous (the overwhelming number of multi-crorepatis in Parliament make this point), the struggle is vicious and the qualities required to succeed owe nothing to the Ten Commandments or the Gita, and are an improvement even on Chanakya and Machiavelli. The relationship between the administrator and the politician has also subtly changed: it is no longer one of mutual respect or respectful dislike, but one of either hand-in-glove or knife-in-back. It does not nurture mutual respect.
I served five years in the districts between 1977 and 1982, at a relatively young age, and can even now recollect with fondness some other MLAs of the time, gentlemen all, every one of them older than me, treating me with both the regard due to a Collector and the indulgence due to a younger brother still wet behind the ears. They were simple (in the good sense of the term) people, leading almost frugal lives, without the trappings of red lights, hangers- on and discretionary grants that mark the MLA of today. They had no interest in transfers, contracts and recruitments – the bread and butter issues of his modern counterpart. They were by no means “yes men” toeing the line of the district administration: we disagreed quite often, but never with acrimony. I recollect once when Mr. Kishori Lal Tadu, a veritable giant of a man and a very senior MLA from Bilaspur Sadar, walked out of a meeting I was holding on the Nalwari Mela, when I peremptorily rejected one of his suggestions. I worried that he would complain to the CM, and was therefore surprised when he walked into my office that evening, wearing a half smile. Over a cup of tea he gave me some very good advice: “Shuklaji, we are public men and our public perception and image are everything to us. By all means reject our proposals if you find them unacceptable, but don’t do it in a public forum. If we lose face our voters think we are becoming ineffective, and that is the first step to losing the next election!” Very good advice, which I always tried to abide by thereafter.
Then there was Mr. Sadhu Ram, MLA from Gagret in Una district, coming from perhaps the poorest Scheduled Caste family in his village. As simple minded as they come, he had entered politics with no idea of its arcane rituals and protocols ! I used to give him detailed briefings before every Assembly session on how he should sit, stand, speak, address the Speaker, vote, etc. in the House, so unused was he to these glorified portals of power. One night in 1980 (I think) my phone rang well past the mid-night hour. It was an excited Sadhu Ram from Shimla, informing me that he had just been offered a Ministership and should he accept?!! I recommended that he should do so at once, before the Chief Minister realised his mistake and changed his mind ! The next night, again at the bewitching hour, Food and Supplies Minister Sadhu Ram drove into my residence, even more excited than before. He apologised profusely for rousting me from bed but explained that he just had to show me his new official car and the national flag proudly unfurled on it! (I politely told him that since it was night time he should take the flag down and put on his red beacon light instead. He gleefully switched on the red light but insisted the flag would stay till he could show it to his neighbours in his village). He also gave me four boxes of the best Baljee’s sweets! Next morning he insisted that the SP should not salute him!
Sticking with Una, another prominent politician there was Mrs. Sarla Sharma who was also the Pradesh Congress President. We got along well, once I made it clear to her that I would not “call” on her in the Circuit House as she did not hold any official position. She was a formidable lady and many Congress veterans still hyper ventilate when they think of her, but she was totally straightforward, never dealt from the bottom of the pack, and never troubled me inspite of our little misunderstanding. I had the uneasy impression that I was not among her top ten favourites, but she generously ascribed my “deficiencies” to callow inexperience and young age. She did, however, complain about me to the CM once. I was made aware of this by the Chief Secretary at a meeting of Divisional Commissioners and Deputy Commissioners he was presiding over.
“It has been brought to Hon’ CM’s notice (the CS thundered) that some of you are not properly dressed when meeting lady functionaries of the party; the shirt of one of the DCs was unbuttoned when meeting with Mrs. Sharma !”
This immediately roused the interest of the Divisional Commissioner, Shimla, who was reputed to be a bit of an expert at unbuttoning shirts, and he asked, hopefully: “Sir, was it DC Solan? ” (The DC Solan at the time was an attractive, unattached, young lady, also present at the meeting.) ” I’ll immediately look into the matter and personally button up the shirt.”
“Sorry to disappoint you ABCD,” said the CS, who knew ABCD very well. ” It is not DC Solan, its Shukla.”
He looked at me: “Shukla, you’re no longer in Hindu College. Dress like a Deputy Commissioner, even if you can’t believe you are one. I can’t believe it either.” And with that coup-de-grace he moved on to the next point on the agenda.
The most impressive of these political gentlemen had to be Shri Daulat Ram Sankhyan, MLA from Kot Kehloor in Bilaspur district. He was a truly striking figure, a veritable prophet from the Old Testament: a short but sinewy frame, always clad in a white dhoti and kurta, with a thick white mane of hair cascading from his head, a sculptured Roman nose, and eyes like laser beams. He ultimately became a junior Minister, I think, but he was never comfortable with it. Not for him closed offices, inane meetings, the parry and thrust of power politics. He was a man of the mountains and fields; he loved to walk all over his district, his ” jhola” (shoulder bag) containing his lunch and a bottle of water slung over his shoulder, meeting people personally (he once told me that as a young man he routinely walked from Bilaspur to Shimla – and there was no road then – constantly dodging the soldiers and spies of the Raja of Bilaspur). He was a legend in Bilaspur – he had been one of the leaders of the Praja Mandal movement against the Raja of Bilaspur, and used to regale me with stories of how he and his co-revolutionaries were tortured by the Raja’s soldiers on the banks of the Sutlej – there was no Gobindsagar lake then. He even pointed out to me the spot on the banks of the river (it is now called Luhnu ground) from where he once swam across the Sutlej on a bitterly freezing winter morning, the Raja’s forces hot on his heels – such was the foundation on which he built his political career, a far cry from the dynastic successions of today. But he did not live in the past alone: he quickly grasped the potential for horticulture, established the first orchards in the Jukhala valley which he has left as a legacy – a rich fruit growing belt with good roads and plenty of water. He also built the first hotel in the district – named Chitrakoot, it is located just adjacent to the old bridge at Ghagas and is doing quite well, I’m told. Some of his political opponents complained to me that there was some encroachment involved in the venture. There may have been, I don’t know, for I didn’t pay attention-for Daulat Ram Sankhyan had given much, much more of his life and labours to the state than could be compensated by a few square yards of land in a rocky nullah.
And finally, there was this humble MLA from Bilaspur (he shall remain unnamed) from a Scheduled caste background who had won an election by pure accident and spent his one tenure apologising for it! His brother was a “mali” (gardener) at my residence (which explains everything about the material circumstances of the MLA and his family). The MLA was, however, blessed with a wise and purposeful wife who quickly realised that lightning does not strike at the same place twice and that her husband could not win a second time. But he insisted on contesting again, and was duly given the money by the party for doing so. In those days there was no other source of funding in districts like Bilaspur. The very next day this paragon of a wife took all the money from his cupboard, went to the post office and deposited the entire amount in 6 years National Savings Certificates, safely beyond her husband’s reach! He contested the election without any funds and, as expected. lost his deposit (he would have lost it anyway, even if he was backed by Mr. Adani) but at least he still had the money, and no doubt thanked this sterling woman for all his remaining days.
They are all gone now, this humble, god-fearing breed of politicians who rose from among the people they served, like native plants rooted to their soil, not imported from distant or moated islands of prosperity and privilege. They were an organic breed of public servants who lived in complete harmony with their constituencies and constituents, and aspired to nothing more than to serve them. By their going they have left us, and our polity, the poorer.
They remind us of the words of Socrates:
There can be no greatness without simplicity. To this eternal truth I’d like to add: There can be no sincerity without simplicity, either.