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Survival by avoidance

Print edition : Dec 13, 1997



Notwithstanding areas of success, in providing the moral authority and leadership required to establish an overarching framework of political stability, Prime Minister I.K. Gujral proved less than distinguished.


AVOIDANCE versus preparedness: two conflicting doctrines were involved in the choice of I.K. Gujral as Prime Minister after Sitaram Kesri, to most people's enduring perplexity, pulled the rug from under the H.D. Deve Gowda Ministry in March 1997. The more combative strategy insisted that the Congress' whimsical gyrations, between insisting on forming a government and committing itself to unconditional support of a United Front Ministry under a new leadership, should be met by heightening the level of election preparedness within the coalition. The Congress had proved that its credentials as a political ally were not to be relied upon, and the U.F. needed to prepare itself for a fresh electoral contest where it could make a bid for the elusive parliamentary majority. In contrast, the avoidance strategy took the plea that fresh elections would be too much of a trial for the people and too great an opportunity for the common enemy - the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Rather than a battle-worthy individual, the U.F. in this doctrine needed a leader who could steer the coalition and its uneasy external bulwark away from the threat of early elections.

I.K. Gujral won the assent of the U.F. on the latter criterion. He seemed to be the only person with the skills of conciliation that could help contain the messy collision of personal egos, conflicting political agendas and individual insecurities that brought Deve Gowda down. And when the curtain was rung down on the Gujral Ministry, the enduring impression that he left was of survival by avoidance.

Conciliatory till the last, even at the risk of squandering the political advantage that could have been gained from the Congress' reprise of its destabilising manoeuvres, Gujral sought in vain to postpone and finally avoid the final reckoning. Insider intelligence believes that till the end Gujral remained wedded to the idea of saving his job even at the risk of alienating a valuable coalition partner on the basis of a patently flawed report. Partisans of the genteel Punjabi politician, however, think that his basic motivation was to retain the room for a future accommodation with the Congress, by not entering into a violent collision with it.

A Prime Minister who has to work with a 14-party alliance and also accommodate an external patron with a strength in Parliament of almost the same order has necessarily to respond to several, most often unstated, compulsions. In Gujral's case, the requirements he had to meet were specified well in advance. As he sought a vote of confidence in the Lok Sabha shortly after being sworn in, he had little to fear. Commitments of support had been tied up well in advance, and there was little risk of any constituent reneging at the decisive moment. But the Congress, partly in order to avenge the honour of its president, who had been the butt of much unflattering comment from outgoing Prime Minister Deve Gowda during his parting speech in the Lok Sabha, thought it appropriate to remind him of what was expected of him, in the least subtle terms. Unlike Deve Gowda who had chosen a strategy of non-interference, Gujral would be expected, said one of the Congress' main speakers, to be more attentive to that party's interests, particularly in the matter of the dragnet of corruption investigations that was rapidly closing in on several of its senior members.

THE first challenge to Gujral's authority, however, came from within his own party. Within a week of assuming office, he was confronted with the prospect of his party president and Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav facing criminal indictment for defalcation of funds on a massive scale from the State treasury. Beholden to the folksy populist from Bihar for his seat in the Rajya Sabha and yet unable to ignore the overwhelming force of evidence against him, Gujral was stunned into a phase of complete inaction. And in summoning up the will to act, he operated on the time-honoured philosophy of blaming the messenger.

A period of low-intensity sniping ensued in which Joginder Singh, Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), was singled out for special attention. The axe finally fell just two months into Gujral's tenure. Joginder Singh was shifted out of the CBI to a ceremonial position in the Home Ministry and replaced by an official whose earlier track record in sensitive investigations carried far greater reassurance for jittery politicians.

Gujral earned the ire of the Left parties for his hatchet job on the CBI. Not for the first time since the U.F. took office, the crusty veteran of the Communist Party of India and Union Home Minister, Indrajit Gupta, found himself excluded from the process of decision-making. The palliative had been offered for Congress insecurities with little regard for due procedures of Cabinet responsibility.

Aware that public anxieties had been heightened by his action, Gujral sought to take the high moral ground on the issue of corruption. His Independence Day address lingered long on the subject, though to most observers it had a touch of naivete. In the following weeks, he announced that he would set up a special cell within his office to receive directly public representations regarding corruption.

Divergences on policy questions were meanwhile growing within the U.F. A Finance Ministry proposal to hike petroleum prices was taken up in May, and it ran swiftly into the resolute opposition of the Left partners. Although it involved momentous issues of economic policy, the matter soon became a debate between Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and the Left parties. The regional parties joined the Left in their opposition to a price hike for expedient reasons, though they did not choose to engage seriously with the underlying policy questions. Where political vision and leadership could have resolved the conundrum, the Gujral Ministry allowed it to linger on for two whole months, before a patently unsatisfactory solution was decreed - which only postponed the final reckoning to the not too distant future.

Economic policy continued to cause intense discord, with the Finance Minister invariably being at the centre of that discord. A Bill providing for a regulatory authority for the insurance industry was introduced in Parliament in the face of opposition from the Left parties, on the tacit assurance of BJP support. But the BJP insisted on a specific proscription of foreign enterprises in the insurance industry and withdrew its assurances of support when it found that this would not be granted. Chidambaram's effort to override the opinion of his coalition partners and seek a cross-partisan alliance with the BJP came a cropper, though the effort itself spoke amply of a failure of political leadership.

A similar tendency for endless debate underpinned the halting effort to revamp the public distribution system for foodgrains. Although it was a central element of the common minimum programme (CMP) - which was virtually a charter of political association for the U.F. - there was little sense of urgency about honouring the pledge to augment the food security system for people who had been exposed most severely to the excesses of the market orientation of the last six years. A half-hearted provision of a limited quantum of specially subsidised foodgrains was made during Deve Gowda's tenure. But efforts to bring the food security network in line with the CMP pledge have been met with much debate and little action.

Crucial economic Ministries - such as Food and Civil Supplies, Railways and Agriculture - felt acutely constrained by the governing "supply side" philosophy at the Finance Ministry. Pleas of resource scarcity and exhortations towards greater financial discipline led to increasing tensions, which finally boiled over with Agriculture Minister Chaturanan Mishra's resignation. Although he withdrew the resignation after a personal intervention from the Prime Minister, the prospect of a further sharpening of hostilities with the Finance Ministry was strong. As matters developed, the twin political crises of Uttar Pradesh and the Jain Commission quickly overshadowed this possibility, putting an end to the Gujral administration.

NOTABLE successes were recorded in the foreign policy domain. A visit to the United States in September elicited initial domestic political reservations on account of the Indian Government's reported willingness to adjust the prime ministerial schedule to suit the U.S. President's convenience. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's concurrent presence in the U.S. added substance to these sentiments. Yet, all expectations that the U.S. would bring undue pressure to bear on India's independent nuclear policy and perhaps offer its unwanted mediation on the Kashmir dispute were belied. The visit passed off in an environment of cordiality and the more acute observers were willing to accord Gujral the advantage in the parallel engagements the South Asian neighbours conducted with the U.S.

Gujral's success in the U.S. partially confirmed an accepted strength of his, though it also reflected the disillusionment of the U.S. geostrategic establishment with Pakistan. Subsequent overseas visits of the Prime Minister seemed to suggest a man who was keen to get his mind off knotty domestic tangles, and they in fact excited some adverse comment from some of his Cabinet colleagues. As an External Affairs Minister working within a stable political dispensation, Gujral would perhaps have been an outstanding success. Some glimpses of his potentialities were evident during the Deve Gowda tenure, particularly with his many initiatives in the South Asian neighbourhood. But in providing the moral authority and leadership required to establish the overarching framework of political stability, Gujral proved less than distinguished. His retention of the leadership role in the U.F. for the coming electoral contests must now seem a remote possibility.



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