Gentleman politician

Print edition : December 28, 2012

VINO JOHN

I.K. Gujral, a man with quiet convictions, functioned within the system, using it creatively and non-controversially.

IN 1991, when Inder Kumar Gujral made one of his rare entries into the Lok Sabha election fray by filing from Bihars Patna constituency, the then Chief Minister and Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader, Lalu Prasad, devised a special description for him. In the quintessential Lalu Prasad style, it was part funny and fictional and part factual. A translation of sorts from Bhojpuri would be as follows: Gujral ji is a Gujjar, which is a variation of the Yadavas in Punjab. And so, he is our own man and not a foreigner as his opponents are trying to make him out to be. And like all Yadavas, he is focussed on the development of the agricultural sector and the rural poor. At the same time, he pursues, like Bhagwan Krishna, his manifold interests in art, poetry, diplomacy and languages like English, Punjabi and Urdu. This writer was witness to this jovial description being narrated many times over during the election campaign that year, and on each occasion, it was evident that the audience could differentiate between the fictional and the factual elements. The subject of the description, as also Lalu Prasads political opponents, accepted it as part of the special freedom of speech that Lalu Prasad enjoyed. This good humour around the personality of Gujral was in sharp contrast to the electoral battle itself. The contest was bitter; there were allegations of irregularities, and the elections were countermanded. But Gujrals personality survived all this unscathed.

This situation in the 1991 Patna election does symbolise the effect that Gujral, the person and the politician, had on the overall political firmament too. The late Prime Minister, who passed away on November 30 in Delhi, barely a week before his 93rd birthday, was one of the most non-controversial politicians the country has seen, though he had his firm convictions with regard to his political ideology. In a conversation with this writer in 2005, Gujral identified the key aspects of his core ideology as secularism, socialism, adherence to democratic values and promotion of friendly neighbourhood relations in the subcontinent. I believe in negotiation and settlement with different streams of opinion, and I do not think I have ever compromised on these core values, he said during the course of that conversation.

A study of his life as well as his political and administrative career does underscore that these were indeed the dominant streams that impacted him. Gujral belonged to a family of freedom fighters in the Jhelum district of Punjab, which is currently in Pakistan. He actively participated in the freedom struggle and was jailed in 1942 during the Quit India Movement. This streak of a fighter for democratic rights came into play in the 1970s too, by which time he had become a well-known politician. When the Emergency was imposed, bringing in arbitrary press censorship, he was the Information and Broadcasting Minister. He was not comfortable with this and expressed his reservations clearly, leading to his removal from the Ministry. He later joined the Janata Party, when it successfully contested the elections in 1977. In the following years, he consistently took a position against communalism of various forms, particularly the Hindutva variety advanced by the Sangh Parivar and its associates, even though his government had shared power with them on a couple of occasions as part of a power-sharing arrangement. But, he always expressed his opposition in a dispassionate, intellectual manner.

Perhaps, the only two notable controversies in his career came when he was Prime Minister. Both related to developments in north Indian States. One was the recommendation for Presidents Rule in Uttar Pradesh in 1997. The then President, K.R. Narayanan, refused to sign it and sent it back to the government for reconsideration. Later, the manner in which he tried to protect his long-term benefactor Lalu Prasad when the Bihar leader faced corruption charges in the fodder scam also raised eyebrows. But, true to his nature, Gujral did not persist with these controversial decisions and distanced himself from them with considerable speed.

I.K. Gujral, when he was Minister of State for Works, Housing and Urban Development in 1971.-THE HINDU ARCHIVES

This non-controversial nature also meant that he was not a fiery orator or a mass leader who could sway crowds. He was also not a politician who pushed for radical paradigm shifts in politics and society. His approach was to focus on the day-to-day dimensions of politics and administration and quietly practise the art of the possible in politics. His nearly four-decade-old political career was characterised by this approach. And, as noted by several observers, it was this capacity to function within the system and use it creatively and non-controversially that helped him get the Prime Ministers post in 1997.

That elevation came about when there was turbulence between the ruling United Front (U.F.) and the supporting Congress, led then by Sitaram Kesri. The support to the then Prime Minister, H.D. Deve Gowda, was withdrawn by Kesri with the rider that the U.F. should appoint a leader acceptable to the Congress leadership. Though Uttar Pradesh leader Mulayam Singh Yadav was the front runner within the U.F. constituents, Gujral was the one who ultimately got the post, essentially on account of his non-controversial nature. The fact that he had connections with the first (Nehru-Gandhi) family of the Congress also worked in his favour. As candidly observed in his autobiography, Matters of Discretion, he owed a lot to Indira Gandhis patronage in the early years of his political career. In a sense, the shrewd Congress leader had realised Gujrals potential to contribute intellectually and had given him a number of important assignments, including in her Council of Ministers. He held important portfolios such as Communications, Parliamentary Affairs, Housing, Planning, and Information and Broadcasting in her Ministry. He lost his position in the Council of Ministers after a public spat with Sanjay Gandhi but was accommodated as Ambassador to the then-powerful Soviet Union. Gujral himself has recorded that this stint helped him develop his skills as a foreign affairs specialist. Gujral started serving as Ambassador to Moscow during the Indira Gandhi regime and continued through the Janata Party and Charan Singh regimes and was retained by Indira Gandhi on her return to office. This too has been highlighted as an index of his political acceptability.

The honing of his skills during this relatively long stint as Ambassador reflected in his functioning when he became Minister of External Affairs, first in 1989 in the V.P. Singh Ministry and later in 1996 in the Deve Gowda Ministry. After taking over as Prime Minister in 1997, a more confident Gujral advanced his foreign affairs initiatives more resolutely. It was this that led to the enunciation of the Gujral Doctrine. The doctrine visualised India not insisting on reciprocity from its smaller neighbours. It also advocated a conscious policy of conciliation with neighbours and absolute abstention from use of force and settling all pending issues through negotiations. According to several observers, this approach did give positive and concrete results, especially in the relations with Bangladesh. The doctrine, however, did not have the kind of impact that he wanted with Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Gujrals methodical approach to politics is reflected in the fact that he maintained a diary, a habit that not many politicians have. This, he stated, helped him recall the essence of a given period long after it had passed. The essence of Gujrals own political career and personal life would certainly be that of a conscientious follower of the democratic system.

His wife, Sheila, who died in 2011, was a poet and author, and his brother Satish Gujral is a prominent painter and architect. Gujral has two sons. One of them, Naresh Gujral, is a Rajya Sabha member of the Shiromani Akali Dal.

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