Inder Kumar Gujral was India’s prime minister for a brief 11 months in 1997-98. But the mild-mannered, soft-spoken politician, whose personality flew against the political archetype, will be remembered primarily for his keen interest in protecting and promoting India’s external interests and the eponymous Gujral Doctrine – his mantra for India’s neighbourhood policy when he was external affairs minister twice in a decade.
The quintessential Congress member who later left the party to join the Janata Dal after differences with former prime minister Indira Gandhi over her autocratic ways, Gujral died, at the age of 93, as quietly and gracefully as he had exited the political stage two decades ago.
In a way reflective of the man, who came to Delhi from Pakistan in the traumatic post-partition period, the Gujral Doctrine advocated magnamity towards small neighbours in the interest of regional peace and progress.
“The logic behind the Gujral Doctrine 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,” said Gujral in his autobiography “Matters of Discretion”.
Derided as a weak and conciliatory policy at the time when reciprocity was still the ruling mantra at South Block, the principle was nevertheless carried forward by successive governments. It helped change mindsets and improved India’s ties with its neighbours through the years.
Gujral said: “When I finally demitted office (as prime minister) in March 1998, I had the satisfaction that India’s relations with all its neighbours were not only very healthy but also, to a large extent, the elements of mistrust and suspicion had evaporated.”
Gujral headed the external affairs ministry through two crucial periods (1989-90 and 1996-97) under first prime minister V.P Singh and then H.D. Deve Gowda. He helped steer India through the crises of the early 1990s, when India was making the difficult adjustment to the end of the Soviet Union, and the oil shock administered by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait (both important oil suppliers to India).
The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) was being negotiated during his second term and his period as prime minister. Despite strong international pressure, India refused to sign the unequal treaty as banning future tests would have closed India’s nuclear option.
The invasion of Kuwait not only disrupted India’s oil supplies but, more importantly, left almost 200,000 Indians stranded in the region. Gujral flew to Moscow, Washington and Baghdad and obtained assurances on oil supplies from Moscow. In Baghdad he was greeted by Iraqi president Saddam Hussain with a hug. Gujral was pilloried by the Western and sections of the Indian media for that but the visit ensured that the Indians stranded in Baghdad and Kuwait were allowed to be evacuated when “others were being held as guests”.
Gujral, whose prime ministerial stint in 1997-98 included three months as interim prime minister, was described by many as a “gentleman politician”. His elevation to the prime minister’s post came when he emerged as the consensus candidate of the fractious United Front after Sitaram Kesri, then party president, withdrew Congress support to the H.D. Deve Gowda government.
Just eight months later, the Congress demanded that the DMK ministers be dropped over allegations against the DMK in the Jain Commission Report on the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. Gujral stood his ground and instead tendered his resignation leading to elections.
Gujral revealed in his autobiography that in the general elections after the first NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee fell by just one vote in parliament, Congress president Sonia Gandhi offered him a Congress nomination for the polls.
“In case, I did not wish to contest, she told me that she would back my entry to the Rajya Sabha. However, I decided that having held the position of the prime minister of India, I must refrain from switching parties and call it a day gracefully.”
Inder Gujral was born Dec 4, 1919 in the town of Jhelum on the banks of the river of the same name, now in Pakistan. His parents were freedom fighters and members of the Congress but Gujral was drawn to the students wing of the Communist Party of India.
He was sent to Lahore Borastal Jail for organising a demonstration.
He met his wife Sheila when they were both students at Forman Christian College and he was pursuing a master’s degree in economics. They were married in May 1945 and had two sons and a daughter. A well known poet and social worker, Sheila Gujral died on July 11, 2011.
Gujral came to Delhi after the 1947 partition and got involved in local politics, becoming closer to the Congress. He was nominated vice president of the New Delhi Municipal Council in 1958.
In 1964 he was elected to the Rajya Sabha with Indira Gandhi’s backing. Three years later, in 1967, she made him minister of state for parliamentary affairs and communications. He became a part of Indira Gandhi’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ together with Congressmen like Dinesh Singh and Uma Shankar Dixit.
When Emergency was imposed in 1975, he was the information and broadcasting minister. But he soon fell foul of Sanjay Gandhi and was relegated to the planning ministry. When his Rajya Sabha term ended a year later, Indira Gandhi sent him to Moscow as India’s ambassador (1976-80) “since he refused to bow down to the de facto powers (read Sanjay Gandhi)”.
He left the Congress after his stint in Moscow, later joining the anti-Congress Janata Dal. He was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1989 from Jalandhar in Punjab, re-elected in 1998 when he was interim prime minister but he decided not to contest the 1999 elections, choosing to retire from electoral politics.
Talking about his brief prime ministerial stint, Gujrat said: “…my main task had been to ward off attacks from various factional leaders so that I could keep my chin up. But I really did not feel a sense of achievement that I did during my tenure as minister of external affairs.”
He spent his last decade writing and speaking largely on foreign policy issues and was much sought after in intellectual and academic circles.