March 30, 2020
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Principles In Ordinary Times

I.K. Gujral swam in the current of Indian politics for four decades—as MP, ambassador to the USSR, foreign minister, and prime minister. This is his story.

Principles In Ordinary Times
T. Narayan
Principles In Ordinary Times
Matters Of Discretion: An Autobiography
By I.K. Gujral
Hay House | Pages: 520 | Rs. 795

Few Indian ministers, let alone prime ministers, have written of their years in office except through biographers. Inder Singh Gujral’s autobiography is therefore to be welcomed as an engaging anecdotal account of his years in public life.

Like others, Gujral had hoped to stay back in what became Pakistan but it was not an option. In Delhi he soon entered electoral politics, becoming vice-president of the New Delhi Municipal Committee in 1958. Six years later, Indira Gandhi, to whom he says he owes everything, gave him a ticket to the Rajya Sabha. With Lal Bahadur Shastri’s sudden death, he found himself in Indira Gandhi’s early “kitchen cabinet”.

A decade later, a brush with Sanjay Gandhi earned him Mrs Gandhi’s displeasure. He was removed from the sensitive I&B ministry during the Emergency and sent as ambassador to the Soviet Union. He felt this to be a political exile but it was invaluable preparation for his future role as foreign minister.

Gujral served as ambassador in Moscow through the succeeding Janata and Charan Singh regimes and was retained by Indira Gandhi on her return to office—an index of his political acceptability. The Soviets were quick to re-establish relations with her. Gromyko paid an early visit to Delhi. He was told by Mrs Gandhi that she did not approve of the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan. The Soviets subsequently floated a trial balloon, suggesting that Afghanistan, Pakistan and the ussr collectively guarantee the inviolability of the Durand Line. Mrs Gandhi did not bite but subsequently sent Swaran Singh to Islamabad to see whether Zia-ul-Haq would agree to India and Pakistan trying to evolve a common strategy for reducing arms in South Asia. The talks were cordial but unproductive and Swaran Singh discovered that Moscow was already in touch with Islamabad. The Afghan imbroglio continued.

Gujral was impatient to return to domestic politics but was only recalled in December 1980. He began mediating on the Punjab crisis but to no avail. Operation Blue Star followed and the discord continued. The Rajiv era then saw him join efforts in forging opposition unity. Opposition conclaves were held in Calcutta and Srinagar. V.P. Singh’s star seemed in the ascendant.

Gujral narrates the sordid intrigues that plagued the Janata Dal  and the damage caused by the petty ambitions of small men. The November 1989 election brought the Janata Dal to power as a minority government with Left and BJP support from the outside. Gujral became foreign minister. The Kashmir crisis was followed by the rath yatra and the Mandal and Ayodhya episodes that brought the government down. The kidnapping in Srinagar of Rubaiya Sayeed, Union home minister Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s daughter, caused the government to accept the abductors’ demands and release four top JKLF leaders. Gujral writes: “Years later, Farooq Abdullah too publicly alleged that the Union government had chickened out and ‘lost its nerve’. This was certainly true.”

Gujral criticises Jagmohan, who replaced Gen Krishna Rao as J&K governor, for dismissing the legislature “without consulting anybody in New Delhi”. The Centre was furious. But under the state constitution, the governor is not required to consult New Delhi. Jagmohan can only be faulted for his judgement.

The firm response to the upsurge of cross-border militancy in Kashmir caused Pakistan to deliver what Gujral interpreted as a scarcely veiled ultimatum hinting at nuclear war. The US ambassador in Pakistan had earlier told our envoy that “the Pakistanis are not thinking of a nuclear weapon as a weapon of last resort but as a first (strike) weapon”. Pakistan was at that time believed to be at a more advanced stage of nuclear weaponisation than India. The threat was ominous but Gujral notes that the top Indian leadership met and he was instructed to give Pakistan a very strong warning.

The Kuwaiti invasion and Gulf war had been other major challenges. Gujral takes credit for being able to bring home safely the large number of Indian expatriates stranded there.

The Gulf War had been a major challenge. Gujral takes credit for bringing home safely the many Indians stranded there.

The Janata Dal administration did not survive long. Nor did the opportunistic Chandra Shekhar government, dependent on Congress support. The elections that followed brought the Congress back to office, riding on a sympathy wave in the wake of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Narasimha Rao’s ministry lasted its full term but was hurt by a series of scandals. The ensuing 1996 elections brought about a fractured verdict where it seemed a non-BJP government could be cobbled together if the Janata Dal, the Left and the regional parties joined hands with Congress support. Jyoti Basu was favoured as prime minister but the CPI(M) politburo adamantly refused to countenance joining a government dependent on Congress support. Gujral was sorely disappointed, and Basu later described the rejection as a Himalayan mistake. Was it? After three decades under Jyoti Basu, West Bengal was on a steady downward slide.

The dark horse that emerged was Deve Gowda, president of the Janata Dal. Gujral retained the external affairs portfolio in the new United Front government and advised Gowda against a nuclear test for which some scientists were pressing. The Americans got wind of the plans and made inquiries even while pressing India to sign the CTBT. This was strongly opposed by Gujral, who informed the Americans that a CTBT, to be effective, must include not only Pakistan and China but all nuclear powers, including the US, “as non-proliferation and disarmament could not be selective but universal”. India stood its ground despite immense pressure and the ctbt failed.

Sitaram Kesri, who was by now Congress president, suddenly withdrew support to the government. But a faction under Sharad Pawar seemed willing to break with the party and continue to back the government. The gambit failed and Gowda failed to win a vote of confidence. Mulayam Singh Yadav was fancied as the successor but finally the mantle fell on Gujral who was sworn in on April 21, 1997, again with Congress support. The party had nowhere else to go and was not ready to face the electorate.

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.

The fodder scam in Bihar weakened the Janata Dal strongman in Bihar, Laloo Yadav, while Kesri lost ground in the Congress, leading to Sonia Gandhi taking over. Internal dissensions dogged the JD. The Congress threatened to withdraw support unless the DMK, indicted in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination, was dropped from the government. This marked the beginning of the end. Gujral tendered his resignation on November 27, 1997, but carried on as a caretaker for some months. Later, Sonia Gandhi offered him a Congress ticket but Gujral declined, saying that since he had been a prime minister he ought not to switch parties. He preferred to retire gracefully.

While Gujral’s narrative is a little disconnected, it is an eventful story of a life and era that makes for very interesting reading.

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