The indefatigable warrior of social justice, Laloo Prasad Yadav, presently incarcerated in the Birsa Munda Jail at Ranchi, must be fondly remembering Sitaram Kesri. For Kesri was ever ready to extricate Laloo from any and every mess he landed himself in. As an influential Congress leader, Kesri did everything he could to aid the forward march of the forces of social justice. He was the first leader of the Congress who firmly sided with the Tribals, Dalits and OBCs. It will be pertinent to mention here that it was to get a foothold among the OBCs of North India that a party like the Congress chose to appoint him as its national president. Kesri passed away at AIIMS, New Delhi on 24 October 2000 after a long illness.
Sitaram Kesri was born in an OBC Bania family of Danapur in Patna district of Bihar in 1916. He received his primary education at the Rashtriya Vidyalaya and Bihar Vidyalaya at Danapur. Kesri jumped into the freedom struggle when he was barely 13. Beating a drum, he marched on the roads and streets of Danapur, kindling the quest for freedom. Between 1930 and the Quit India Movement, he was jailed many a time and he spent several months behind bars. He became an active worker of the Congress much before Independence. He was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1967 on Janata Party ticket from the Katihar Lok Sabha constituency of Bihar. Thereafter, he joined the Congress and remained loyal to the party till his end. He was appointed president of the Bihar PCC in 1973. In 1980, he was named treasurer of the AICC and remained in this position for 16 long years.
During his term as treasurer, this slogan became very popular, “Na Khata, Na Bahi; Jo chacha Kahe Wahi Sahi” (There is no need for any ledgers or account books; what Sitaram says is right). From July 1971 to April 2000, he was elected five times successively to the Rajya Sabha from Bihar. He also served as a Union minister in the governments of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Narasimha Rao. It was during his tenure as the Minister for Social Justice and Welfare that the entire corpus of Ambedkar’s writings and speeches was published in English and Hindi in a 20-volume Dr Ambedkar: Sampoorna Vangmay (Collected Works of Babasaheb Dr BR Ambedkar). It must also not be forgotten that it was Sitaram Kesri who handed over to an OBC youth, the first letter of appointment issued under the reservations granted as per the recommendations of the Mandal Commission.
On 3 January 1997, he was appointed AICC President and thus became the second non-upper-caste leader after Babu Jagjivaram, to have occupied the top Congress office.
Sitaram Keri was an astute politician. When he took over as the AICC chief, the Congress was passing through a difficult patch. The United Front government, headed by HD Deve Gowda, was ruling at the Centre. Kesri was instrumental in bringing about the fall of the Deve Gowda government and in anointing Inder Kumar Gujral as the prime minister. In the first week of November 1997, a portion of the report of the Jain Commission, probing Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, was leaked to the media. The leaked portion had references to the relations between Karunanidhi’s DMK and LTTE. There were three DMK ministers in the Gujral ministry. The Congress mounted pressure for the sacking of the three ministers but Gujral said no. Subsequently, Kesri withdrew Congress’ support to the Gujral government and it fell.
Kesri was a bitter and uncompromising critic of the RSS and Communal forces. A bomb exploded at a public meeting of Lal Krishna Advani at Coimbatore, killing more than 50 persons. Kesri openly charged that the RSS was behind the bomb blast.
After Sitaram Kesri’s death, The Hindu, in an obituary published on 26 October 2000, wrote, “The Congress has lost its only leader who advocated implementation of the Mandal Commission report. With Kesri’s death, the Congress’ link with forces of social justice has been broken. He will always be remembered as a leader who promoted OBC politics?”
Most of the OBC leaders in the Congress today were groomed and promoted by Sitaram Kesri. It was he who helped former Karnataka Chief Minister Dharam Singh, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, Veerappa Moily, and others, to climb the ladder of politics. Congress appoints only Brahmins as chief ministers. Ashok Gehlot could become the chief minister only because CP Joshi lost the Vidhan Sabha polls. The doors of Kesri’s home were always open for Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Ramvilas Paswan, Nitish Kumar and Kanshi Ram. Nitish Kumar called him the Chacha (avuncular old hand) of Indian politics. He helped Laloo, whom he saw as a flag bearer of social justice, a lot. When the BJP tried to dismiss the Rabri Devi government of Bihar on the issue of the murder of 11 Dalits, Kesri ensured that the move was not approved by the Rajya Sabha.
Kesri managed the affairs of the Congress in the absence of the Gandhi–Nehru family. However, after the advent of Sonia Gandhi on the political scene, he was treated very badly. Despite being an elected president, he was sacked and was replaced by Sonia Gandhi.
Published in the November 2013 issue of the Forward Press magazine
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