I.K. Gujral, then Prime Minister, at the 75th anniversary celebrations of the Anandabazar Patrika in Calcutta in 1997
Former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, who was the country’s helmsman for 11 turbulent months in 1997-98, is no more.
Erudite and suave, he had an unusual ability to get along with people of all hues and build relationships across the political spectrum, from the Left to the Right, as he attempted to steer a middle path on issues.
He was among the last of political leaders with a background of the freedom struggle — his parents were freedom fighters, and came from the town of Jhelum in what is now Pakistan where he was born —- though dress wise he sported a more “modern” look. His goatee was his trademark and he moved away from the standard khadi white kurta-pyjama which was the hallmark of Gandhians, and of politicians, taking instead to suits and bandhgalas.
The change may have been brought by his stint in Moscow as India’s ambassador to the USSR, where he was sent in 1976 by Indira Gandhi more as a punishment for not acting tough enough with the media as her information and broadcasting minister.
Gujral was witness to the transition the country made from one-party rule to coalition governance, a process in which he was an active participant. From a backroom boy of Indira Gandhi, he rose to become India’s Prime Minister at the head of the United Front government in 1997.
He was part of her kitchen cabinet in the early seventies, along with Om Mehta and Dinesh Singh, but fell out with her after the rise of her son Sanjay Gandhi and his rough and ready brand of politics, when decisions started to be made at the PMH (Prime Minister’s House) and not the PMO.
Gujral would often remark that had Morarji Desai, Chandra Shekhar, V.P. Singh, Deve Gowda, and himself not quit the Congress, they could never have become Prime Ministers. Their emergence as Prime Ministers was synonymous with the decline of the Congress party, leading to the rise of coalition governments at the Centre in 1977, 1989, 1996-97 and later in 1998/99-2004 under a BJP-led government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Gujral was among the finest foreign ministers India has had and worked under two Prime Ministers, V.P. Singh and H.D. Deve Gowda, both not very familiar with the nuances of foreign policy, and they gave him a free hand. Knowledgeable about world affairs, he floated what came to be known as the “Gujral doctrine” during his premiership, which some of the hard nosed-mandarins of South Block used to dismiss as “simplistic”.
The idea, and he has referred to it in his autobiography published in 2011, was to display more accommodation for India’s smaller neighbours to contain the bigger ones.
“The logic behind the Gujral Doctrine,” he explained, “was that since we had to face two hostile neighbours in the north and the west, we had to be at total peace with all other immediate neighbours in order to contain Pakistan’s and China’s influence in the region.”
As things turned out, India’s relations with its neighbours improved during Gujral’s premiership. He also made a special point of reaching out to Pakistan and soon after taking over as Prime Minister, called his counterpart in Pakistan Nawaz Sharif.
The ice was broken at the Saarc summit in Male. However, and this is significant, though he wanted improved relations with Pakistan, he was neither na´ve nor unmindful of domestic public opinion.
Interestingly enough, though his Punjabi “jhappi” with Sharif at Male was long talked about, later that year when he and Sharif met in the US, Gujral shook the Pakistan Prime Minister’s hand warmly but “resisted his attempt to embrace me as I felt that this gesture would be misunderstood back home because of the increased tension on the border”.
While he had the ability to think out of the box to improve India’s relations with its neighbours — and this is what he will be remembered for — he could also be firm, and was a skilful negotiator. Many remember how, as foreign minister under V.P. Singh in 1990, he had handled the foreign minister of Pakistan, Yaqub Khan.
After a cordial start of talks in Delhi, Khan suddenly stepped up pressure on India and started to make war-like noises over the goings on in Kashmir. Gujral had fixed to meet him in the evening. But he decided to arrive one and a half hours late, and then went on to tell an impatient Khan tough words to the effect, “I have been told to convey to you that we too are ready for a war.” Yaqub Khan’s demeanour immediately underwent a change.
What is not so well known is that Gujral contemplated a nuclear explosion during his premiership, and had his term not been cut short by the Congress’ withdrawal of support to his government, the story might have been a different one.
On January 26, 1998, French President Jacques Chirac, was the chief guest for the Republic day celebrations in Delhi. Gujral, President K.R. Narayanan and Vice-President Krishan Kant were sitting with Chirac in one of the rooms in Rashtrapati Bhavan before going out for the “At Home” reception. Gujral, according to those in the know at the time, had turned to Chirac and asked him what the French would do if India went in for a nuclear explosion. Chirac is believed to have replied that initially they may oppose it but they would support India.
Gujral was criticised for being a weak Prime Minister, as he had to heed the views of powerful chief ministers whose regional outfits were part of the coalition forming the United Front government in 1996-97. When he took over from Deve Gowda, he inherited the Gowda government and was not allowed to change the ministry by the regional satraps.
The so-called “weak” Prime Minister was, however, quite firm in withstanding US pressure on India to sign the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty). Having first created a national consensus on the CTBT, he told the then US President Bill Clinton quite firmly, when he went to the US in Sept 1997, that India could not sign the CTBT when the country was surrounded by nuclear weapons. Clinton, he said afterwards, became silent.
Often he found innovative ways to deflect pressure that would come on the Prime Minister from the regional chieftains during the course of the coalition government, and he had his fair share of them.
One day, speaking on the phone obviously to some bureaucrat to do some work that one of the regional leaders wanted done, he remarked cryptically, “ I am doing my dharma, you do yours!”
Gujral’s baptism into politics came at the age of 10 when he accompanied his parents to the 1929 Lahore session of the Congress, where the party had announced “poorna swaraj” as its goal, and it left an indelible imprint on his mind. From then on it was a journey, from Marxism to disenchantment with it and to joining the Congress party.
After falling out with Indira Gandhi, he drew close to V.P. Singh in the mid-eighties when the Raja of Manda quit the Congress, and he found political relevance again.
Here was a gentleman politician, and this is a dying breed today, secular to the core, a true son of Punjab — as Prime Minister he waived off Punjab’s debt incurred during a decade of insurgency — and above all, a leader who while making tactical compromises for political survival, remained steadfast in safeguarding India’s interests. India was richer for having him and poorer without him.