When he was anointed Prime Minister, Bhavdeep Kang profiled him for Outlook in April 1997: Cocktail Socialist, Scholar And Pacifist:
INDER Kumar Gujral takes great pride in his pacifist style; he claims never to have fought with his wife in a half-century of marriage. Mild-mannered, non-controversial, inoffensive, he is ever the gentleman. Something of a wimp? Perhaps, says former prime minister Chandra Shekhar, but holds that to be a virtue in the present circumstances. "He is not majboot (firm)...but that's good in someone who is to head a coalition."...
His earlier term, under V.P. Singh, is best remembered for his post-war visit to Iraq, where he was photographed hugging Saddam Hussein. "The Kuwaitis didn't speak to us for years," recalls a bureaucrat. His 'Gujral doctrine' is equally controversial; dubbed progressive by some and spineless by others: "In essence, we must make amends for our size with unilateral concessions and a saintly attitude to our neighbours." But, as one critic says, he is silent on China—perhaps simply because the size ratio is inversed.
Born in Jhelum, now in Pakistan, he studied in Lahore and took to both Marxism and the freedom movement early. His father, Lala Avtar Narain, was a member of the Constituent Assembly. A principled and austere man, he ran a home for destitute women in Jalandhar after Partition. The young Gujral went into business with his Delhiite cousins. That didn't last, as Sucheta Kripalani weaned him from Marxism to active Congress politics. His artist brother, Satish, introduced him to Nehru.
Gujral became a member and then vice-president of the New Delhi Municipal Committee. Indira Gandhi elevated him to minister status. As housing minister, he set aside funds for beautification of buildings. It is to him that Delhi owes the murals adorning government edifices, as well as its master plan. Information & Broadcasting minister when Emergency was declared, he couldn't get along with the brash Sanjay and was shunted to Moscow, where he stayed until 1980, growing a Leninesque beard. That he did not quit is not the least of the criticism against him; the 11-year-old who stoically bore British lathis grew up to put up with Mrs Gandhi's excesses.
The former Marxist lives in considerable affluence in upmarket Maharani Bagh. The profitability of Span, the garment export firm run by his son, Naresh, can be gauged from his recent purchase of a house on Delhi's ultra-expensive Amrita Sher Gill Marg.
Gujral is charged with nepotism and playing favourites with the bureaucracy, a section of which sees him as self-serving. The suave exterior masks an authoritarian tendency, they say. His penchant for sermonising gets him into trouble...
Soon after being anointed PM, in May 1997, in a special 50 years of Partition issue of Outlook, he wrote:
IN September 1947, as the riots worsened, my father decided to shift to India. We agreed to send the womenfolk by ship to Kandla. A fortnight later, they moved to Delhi. All we could rent was a one-room place in Karol Bagh. I went back to Karachi to, wind up. That's where I heard Nehru's 'tryst with destiny' speech, and of Gandhi's assassination. I was in a coffee house. My God! I can never forget that scene. Everyone had one anxiety, "Hope it wasn't a Muslim". Muslims sobbed. People to people, those are the things you remember.
Karachi was aflame by early '48. A friend, Raja Ghaznafar Ali, traced me to a hotel I'd shifted for safety, put me on a Delhi-bound plane. Thus I arrived, a refugee in India. Everything lost: my business in Karachi, our properties in Jhelum. We never anticipated such a rigid border. We thought it'll be easy. That's why the Partition hurt.
Delhi was hard. A Karol Bagh tongawala once mistook bearded Satish for a Muslim and refused to ferry him and my wife. Caused a near-riot. I had no vehicle, and would walk from Rohtak Road to Connaught Place. Later, at Babar Lane, we got two rooms. A demented widow was allotted the other two--bathroom and kitchen shared. She'd rave, rant all day. It was unnerving.
The '57 NDMC poll was my political debut. Unsure of my standing, I walked up to the panwala near our Hanuman Lane house saying, "Let's see if he knows me". He didn't. Crushed, I turned away, when recognition flickered in his eyes. "Of course, you are Naresh's father." Despite such dubious credentials, I won. Did I ever think I'd become prime minister? Never. That's the thing about India. Where else can a first generation immigrant become head of state?
And when his short-stint was over as Prime Minister, Vinod Mehta put it in perspective, in December 1997: Gentleman Gujral:
INDER Kumar Gujral's brief but eventful prime ministership has only lovers and haters. There are many who believe he was an unmitigated disaster,a man out of touch with the times, suited more to the rarefied, genteel environs of the India International Centre than to the rough and tumble of coalition politics. However, those hastily writing I.K. Gujral's political obituary might like to remember the following:
- Gujral, after Jawaharlal Nehru, was India's most innovative and courageous foreign minister. He single -handedly, and in the teeth of tremendous opposition, dramatically improved the country's relations with its neighbours.
- The Gujral Doctrine may be a bit of a joke in some circles here, but outside the country, in Washington, London, Dhaka, etc, it was seen as a brave attempt to set new norms in the conduct of bilateral relations. For this writer, his discarding of the pernicious doctrine of "reciprocity", long the mantra at the MEA, was a landmark. This whole ridiculous business of you-give-two-visas-a-month-so-I-will-give-two-visas-a-month was given a long overdue burial.
- Gujral was the most accessible (perhaps too accessible) of all prime ministers for the media. He genuinely enjoyed the company of journalists—even the gossip they retailed interested him—and was remarkably well-informed about what was going on in newspaper houses, including the shenanigans of some proprietors. He had no press advisor because he knew many senior journalists on a first-name basis. His one weakness? He read his own press. And took what newspapers wrote a little too seriously. I once told Mrs Gujral that it would not be a bad idea if she occasionally hid the morning papers from her husband. She liked the idea.
- Gujral was the most urbane and literate prime minister we have had since Jawaharlal Nehru. His reading habits ranged from Henry Kissinger to Salman Rushdie to Khushwant Singh. His favourite morning paper was the Hindu.
- Gujral was easily India's best-dressed prime minister, with Rajiv a close second. His clothes were never flashy, but always immaculately cut and elegant. People frequently asked him the name of his tailor.
- Gujral was the politest, least arrogant of India's PMs.
But the biggest criticism against him related to covert operations against Pakistan, as B. Raman wrote: The Coveted Closed Covert Option:
The problem which we face in our relations with Pakistan is that the option of deniable covert action by the intelligence agencies in Pakistani territory which we created for ourselves under Jawaharlal Nehru immediately after India became independent in 1947, was wound up in 1997 when Shri Inder Kumar Gujral was the Prime Minister. Neither Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee nor Dr Manmohan Singh has been inclined to revive it. To revive it or not has to be a political decision.
The last piece Inder Kumar Gujral wrote for Outlook was in 2008, when, while reviewing Kuldeep Nayar's book on Bhagat Singh, he described his tryst with Bhagat Singh that was never to be, as he was one of the chosen few who had gone for the 'last interview' with Bhagat Singh which never happened: A Sutlej Funeral I Can't Forget
The Lahore Congress Session of 1929 transformed the outlook of all Punjabis. My parents went to attend the session and they took me along... The theme song at the proceedings was Bhagat Singh's favourite, Mera Rang De Basanti Chola. Bhagat Singh was still in Lahore Central Jail, and nearly everyone talked about him and his heroic deeds. Some of the elders even criticised Gandhi for failing to get him out as a part of the Gandhi-Irwin Pact.
... I can't remember now if it was that night, or a few days later .. the sad news. The three heroes—Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru—had been executed.... Somehow it got around where the bodies of the martyrs had been 'disposed' off. The crowds had reached the spot shouting, "Bhagat Singh, Zindabad".
It was an awful sight at the spot where the three revolutionaries were probably cremated. We saw some ashes and half-burnt logs lying about. Someone discovered a small piece of flesh lying among the ashes and wood. Some witnesses told the elders in our group that the police had thrown the ashes hurriedly in the Sutlej river. In all these years, I haven't ever forgotten that horrific scene.
And then, in 2011, B.G. Verghese, while reviewing Gujral's autobiography, wrote: Principles In Ordinary Times
As PM, Gujral enunciated what came to be termed the ‘Gujral Doctrine’, under which India would not insist on reciprocity from its smaller neighbours. This paid dividends. Relations with Bangladesh had improved with the signing of the Ganges Water Treaty in 1996. Another accomplishment was the bringing into being of Prasar Bharati. India’s public service broadcasters were ailing as no government cared to give it autonomy. Gujral tried to seek a rapprochement with Pakistan under Nawaz Sharif with whom he struck a chord. But Pakistan was now on another path...
Also Read: The full Outlook Archives with articles on, by and interviews with I.K. Gujral