New Delhi, Nov. 30: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh could credibly claim he acceded to the job without having to try. Inder Kumar Gujral, who died today aged 92, was one better — he became Prime Minister without trying or even knowing.
He was lying in bed reading at his Maharani Bagh home in southeast Delhi, quite unaware that he was about to become collateral beneficiary of a succession battle between United Front chieftains that none was prepared to lose but none could win.
April 1997: Delhi had become capital of a kingdom without a king. The Congress, led then by Sitaram Kesri, had withdrawn support to the H.D. Deve Gowda government in a spike of pique. The United Front, for all its protestations over principle and annoyance with the Congress, had resolved to sacrifice Gowda, not the government.
But for a week and more after Gowda’s near-lachrymal exit from power, they hadn’t come to agree on a successor. India’s prime ministership had become an agonising palaver not much unlike the murky palace intrigues that littered the latter decades of the Mughal empire, a swing-door of namby-pamby figureheads who were foisted and finished off as often as the nobles pleased.
None of the court nobles of 1997 wanted Gujral. The problem was they wanted each other less.
Mulayam Singh Yadav would scuttle Lalu Prasad, Lalu Prasad was out with the dagger for Mulayam. Ram Vilas Paswan? But neither Yadav would accept him. Chandrababu Naidu? But how could UP and Bihar surrender the prize away to a southern leader?
G.K. Moopanar of the Tamil Maanila Congress? But lo, that’s as good as accepting a Congressman as boss. Moopanar represented too much of the culture UF leaders had grown up opposing. Besides, he was too close to Sonia Gandhi even though she was still a withdrawn dowager who didn’t openly dabble in politics.
Too many contenders, but not one that had good enough numbers. Former Prime Minister V.P. Singh was a rallying point but he had vamoosed from the centre stage, adamant on sanyas from power politics; he was on a dialysis bed in Apollo Hospital, immune to pleading that he announce his return. Time was running out.
Naidu, convener of the UF, had called another meeting of Front bosses on the morning of April 19 at Andhra Bhavan in Delhi. But as the day wore on, it became apparent that few had heeded his summons, the action was elsewhere.
Mulayam was closeted with Left leaders — Jyoti Basu and A.B. Bardhan among them — at Banga Bhavan, pushing his case for power. The UF needed a strong leader who could fight off the BJP in the heartland, he argued, who better than me?
In a bungalow not far away, the other two Yadav protagonists — Lalu and Sharad — were plotting their own counter-moves. If Mulayam entered the race, Lalu was firm he would challenge. He, after all, had been equally, if not more, stout in the fight against the BJP, he had halted L.K. Advani’s rath in Bihar and had him arrested.
Naidu, who had been in telephone touch with both Yadav groups, was convinced that if either entered the fray, there would be bloodshed, so much that it could also cost the UF its tenuous lease on power. He was holed up in his Andhra Bhavan suite, hiding from a growing media siege because he had nothing to say.
Mid-afternoon, Mulayam returned home, a smile on his face. The Left was prepared to back him, he could sense he was getting there. He readily posed for cameras and mouthed sweet, though suggestive, nothings. “We will come to a decision soon,” he said. “It will be a good choice.”
His minions were busy stapling newly updated copies of his curriculum vitae. Was he to be the man of the moment?
Lalu had other plans. Getting the Left’s drift, he effected sabotage. If he wasn’t getting the job, neither would Mulayam. He quietly dispatched an emissary to V.P. Singh’s bedside at Apollo with Gujral’s name as consensus candidate. There’ll be hell to pay if there is a contest, Lalu reasoned, we might even lose the government.
The ailing VP, only too well acquainted with how blindly suicidal UF factions could get, gave tacit assent.
The photo-session on Mulayam’s lawns was still on when Lalu called curtains on the UP leader’s bid. He put a call through to Gujral. “Gaadi bhejwa raha hoon Gujralji, aap fauran aa jaaiye (I am sending a car Gujralji, come rightaway)....”
Lalu had an established equation with him, having invited Gujral to fight a Lok Sabha election from Bihar (which was countermanded) and then having found a Rajya Sabha perch for him instead.
An interesting tale hangs thereby too. Gujral was very far from being a resident of Bihar. Lalu ensured his candidacy by getting another crony, Anwar Ahmed, to vacate his nameplate in Patna’s Sabzi Bagh area and replace it with a plaque that attested his address as Gujral’s. That is how Gujral came to be elected as a Bihari entrant to the Upper House.
It was while running Gujral’s Lok Sabha campaign that Lalu had come up with the famed chutzpah Gujral would never live down.
Faced with criticism that an “outsider” had been imported to contest a Bihar seat, Lalu decided to introduce Gujral as son of the soil. “Yeh bahar ke nahin hain, Gujar hain Gujar, padha-likha Gujar ko Gujral kehte hain (He isn’t an outsider, he is only a Gujar, educated Gujars are known as Gujrals).”
Prem Gupta, a Haryana businessman and Lalu crony, drove out of Sharad Yadav’s residence in his off-white Toyota sedan to fetch Gujral. A few hours later, he was named UF choice for Prime Minister. Lalu had calculated well in propping Gujral, he was aware that apart from V.P. Singh, the Left too would back him. The Left eventually played a key role securing Mulayam’s assent.
The night’s drama wasn’t over, though. The Tamil Maanila Congress was still playing hard to agree, intent on Moopanar. They came to the UF steering committee meeting that evening — Moopanar, P. Chidambaram and M. Arunachalam — but left before Gujral’s name was announced. It was only the next day, and upon some backroom prodding from the Congress, that they came on board.
Chidambaram was able to resume his innings as finance minister, a job he would return to more than a decade later and still holds.
But Chidambaram may not be the only surviving chip of the story of Gujral’s appointment as Prime Minister. That was a drama that could yet repeat itself in the years to come — a fractured House, a divided leadership, a calcified deadlock that would be broken not by the strongest bidder but by the weakest denominator. That’s what, in a sense, Gujral was — a lamb who brought consensus among the wolves.
Many of the dramatis personae of the theatre of April 1997 survive — Mulayam Singh, Lalu Prasad, Chandrababu Naidu, Ram Vilas Paswan, Sharad Yadav, just to name a few. And with them live their ambitions. Only, Gujral has gone away.