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Y B Chavan on Politics and Society in Modern India

Ashok Chousalkar ( is editor, Samaj Prabodhan Patrika.

Yashwantrao Chavan Reflects on India: Society and Politics in conversation with Jayant Lele edited by Prakash Pawar, Pune: Diamond Publications, 2018pp xvii + 582, ₹ 750.


Yashwantrao Balwantrao Chavan was one of the most important leaders in the history of post-independence India and in his long political career occupied many important positions. He played an important role in the freedom movement of Satara district and joined the provincial government of Bombay led by B G Kher as a parliamentary secretary to the then home minister Morarji Desai in 1946, and retired as deputy Prime Minister in the Charan Singh-led ill-fated government in 1980. He was a self-made man as he had no political lineage. He had a vast experience of working at the state and national levels, and almost for two decades, dominated the Congress party in Maharashtra.

Chavan was a serious student of Indian politics and society, and had a keen analytical mind. Jayant Lele, an eminent political scientist from Canada, who has done substantial work on politics of Maharashtra, interviewed Chavan in 1970, 1974 and 1978, to elicit his views on society and politics in Maharashtra in particular and India in general. The interviews were tape-recorded but Lele could not continue to work on them. But now, with the help of Prakash Pawar, the material contained in the interviews has been retrieved, transcribed, edited and brought out in the book form. It is a welcome addition to the growing literature on the life and times of Chavan.

A Long Political Career

Chavan’s political career can be divided into three phases. The first phase includes his role in the freedom movement. The second one involves his role in the politics of Maharashtra and his achievements as chief minister of the state. We can say that this was the most creative phase in his life. The third phase is about his role in national politics, when he emerged as one of the important national leaders of the country. In Lele’s interviews, all three phases are admirably covered.

Lele has divided this book in three parts and each part is again divided into chapters. In the first part—the introduction—there are three chapters. In the first chapter, Prakash Pawar has written a brief note on the literature available on Chavan in both English and Marathi. The second chapter is written by a senior Marathi journalist and friend of Chavan, Govind Talvalkar, who characterises Chavan’s politics as the art of possible, and the third is written by Lele himself titled “Indian Society at the Time of Chavan.” In the second part, Chavan’s views on state politics are included. In the third part, his views on national politics are discussed. There are six chapters in both these parts.

In his introductory note, which consists of 43 pages, Lele tries to give a social and political background for Chavan’s leadership in the light of emerging neo-liberal politics. He points out that in the era of neo-liberal casino-crony capitalism, Chavan remained loyal to Nehruvian philosophy of social justice. He sought to follow the left of centre policy, but was not very close to the pro-Soviet leftist lobby in India. Lele says that Chavan was a pragmatist and supported democratic socialism. He wanted economic growth with proper distribution of its benefits to different sections of society. Planning, mixed economy, growing role for the public sector industries and welfare state policy were the key aspects of Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy that were followed by Chavan. Therefore, instead of supporting community farming, he supported cooperative farming. It is difficult to categorise him as a leftist because he always steered a middle course and avoided extreme positions.

In Maharashtra, Chavan brought about social change by deftly implementing social policies and promoting institutional practices that shifted the balance of power from the upper castes to the middle peasant castes. He knew that he had non-antagonistic contradictions with the upper castes in Maharashtra, but he handled them with a lot of sophistication. The upper castes also included the feudal elements from the Maratha community. Second important contribution of Chavan was the development of the agro-industrial society with the help of cooperative institutions, the panchayati raj bodies and different departments of the state government. Due to successful implementation of this policy for nearly 15 years, the state became one of the strongholds of the Congress party. It provided strong support to Chavan in national politics. In many districts of rural Maharashtra, there was considerable development due to this policy. His departure adversely affected its implementation. The social compact he entered into with different communities got disrupted after 1977. In this part of the book, we get valuable information about different trends in state politics.

In national politics, Chavan occupied important positions in different cabinets as he held defence, home, finance and external affairs portfolios under the first three Prime Ministers. There is a lot of new information about different events that took place during this phase. When he assumed the post of defence minister, there was lot of interference in the functioning of the ministry by T T Krishnamachari and Biju Patnaik. The Delhi elite did not like the arrival of Chavan. They thought that this was over-promotion. In disgust, Chavan sent in his resignation to Nehru. Nehru called and gave him advice, almost like a father advising his son. This incident clearly showed that Chavan lacked experience in Delhi politics. As the defence minister, he went to the United States (US) and the United Kingdom (UK) after the Chinese aggression, for the purchase of sophisticated weapons. TheUS Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told him that India did not require an advanced air force and considering its poor economic conditions, cannot maintain it. In the UK, he went to meet Prime Minister Harold Wilson and requested him to supply a submarine taking into account the Chinese threat. Wilson told him that the Himalayas did not need submarines. Chavan concluded that the Western nations did not want to give sophisticated weapons to India.

Answering Lele’s questions about the causes of the Chinese aggression of 1962, Chavan cites three reasons. First, China wanted to bring down India’s international prestige, which it enjoyed because of non-alignment. Second, China wanted to derail the planned development of the country, and third, it wanted India to change the policy of non-alignment. The Chinese goals were political and not territorial, and hence Chinese withdrew their forces. In reality, these were not the causes of invasion. The Chinese were apprehensive about the Indian support to the Dalai Lama. They wanted to capture the Aksai Chin area to construct a road between Sinkiang (Xinjiang) and Tibet, and they wanted to teach India a lesson for not accepting their peace formula proposed by the Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, and for undertaking the so-called Forward Policy. Chavan here repeated the self-serving propaganda of the Congress government.

Politics in Delhi

Chavan was of the opinion that the syndicate was formed to prevent Desai from becoming the Prime Minister and right from the beginning Lal Bahadur Shastri was their candidate. He pointed out that the syndicate was against Nehru as well as Desai. Though for many years, Chavan was Desai’s protégé, when he expected Chavan to support him against Shastri, Chavan decided to go along with K Kamaraj, thus forcing Desai to withdraw from the contest. In January 1966, Desai lost the election by a heavy margin against Indira Gandhi. However, in 1967, he again wanted to contest elections, but suddenly withdrew. According to Chavan, it was because of the intervention of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister C B Gupta that Desai decided to withdraw and join the government as the deputy Prime Minister. But, after 1968, there was a realignment of forces within the party and Chavan supported and voted for the syndicate candidate Neelam Sanjiva Reddy for the post of the President of India. But Gandhi’s candidate V V Giri won the election. Chavan told Lele that there was no plan to replace the Prime Minister, but it is difficult to believe him on this. Chavan’s responses made it clear that he had moved closer to the Desai camp, but after the defeat of Reddy, he went back to Gandhi. Desai’s supporters criticised him for his politics of opportunism. Thus, the Chavan–Desai relationship was complicated and Desai’s right-of-centre policies were anathema to Chavan. Again, in the July crisis of 1979, which was caused by Chavan’s ill-conceived no-confidence motion, he could not help Desai and both of them saw the eventual decline of their political careers.

Chavan was of the opinion that due to his social background and the lack of sophisticated upbringing, he faced several difficulties. He could not articulate his views properly. Though he stayed in Delhi for 22 years, he could not become a part of the Delhi elite and remained an outsider. He pointed out that he faced the hidden hostility in Maharashtra from the established social class. He was of the view that there was subtle hostility for the Maharashtrians in the social circles of Delhi, though outwardly, they would admire Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and the Marathas for their exploits in history. This shows that he could not develop a pan-India following in national politics.

Chavan was a supporter of parliamentary democracy and he was not ready to abandon it for the system that assured higher growth and development without distributive justice. He was of the view that the parliamentary democracy could also achieve higher growth if the leadership showed commitment to the cause and took effective steps to implement the programmes. It is better placed to implement the principles of social justice.

Thus, the book is a good addition to the growing literature on post-independence Indian politics. Lele and Pawar deserve credit for bringing out this important material after a gap of more than 40 years.


Updated On : 26th Apr, 2019


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