Inder Kumar Gujral, 12th Prime Minister of India, was the first Punjabi to occupy the top post even though only for one year (April 1997 to March 1998). His first political love was the CPI but it was the Congress – he switched to it in early 1960s – that provided the platform for his initial political roles.
He rose spectacularly because of his proximity to Indira Gandhi during her tenures as PM and the party president. Ironically, he had to leave the party because of her annoyance.
It was in the Congress governments that Gujral first occupied ministerial positions but subsequently found berths in those formed by non-Congress combines, Janata Dal and the United Front.
Gujral was politically lightweight but made up for this deficiency, partly by personal charm and the capacity to forge cordial relations with persons across the political landscape as also others, and partly by the lucky coincidence of events.
Belonging to a political family of Punjab, his father, Avtar Narain, was a prominent figure in the Congress – Inder, as he was known, was active in the students’ movement in his younger days, in the Left-backed students’ federation in Lahore.
The family belonged to Jhelum, now in Pakistan and migrated to India in 1947. Not much is known about his activities in the initial post-Partition period.
He was vice-president of New Delhi Municipal Committee but otherwise was known only for his participation in animated discussions on political events of the day at India Coffee House on Queensway, now Janpath, in New Delhi, the favourite haunt of budding politicians, artists, journalists and intellectuals.
He joined the Congress after a big gap but did not take long to get access to the household of Indira Gandhi.
According to one account, it was his younger brother Satish, a noted artist, painter, sculptor and architect who was invited by her in the first instance as part of a group for interaction from time to time. This helped Gujral to establish a crucial contact. Asked later, Satish, known for his ready wit and humour, merely said: “Inder is p.m. I am only a.m.”
At the time of the Congress split in 1969, Gujral and Dinesh Singh, a prominent member also close to Gandhi, were the top lobbyists in her camp. Known as members of her kitchen Cabinet, they were highly sought after in political circles.
Rewards came in various forms. He was accommodated in the Rajya Sabha and in the Cabinet. All this changed in 1975 when Gandhi imposed the Emergency. Gujral who held the charge of information and broadcasting, was found wanting – most important, by her younger son, Sanjay – in enforcing Press censorship and other restrictive measures for journalists.
He was first shifted to the Planning Commission and later sent to Moscow as ambassador. On his return, he resigned from the Congress.
Gujral held the charge of several ministries during his stints in office, but developed a special interest in foreign relations, especially dealings with neighbours.
The set of his guidelines, known as the Gujral Doctrine, put emphasis on conciliation and amity, unilateral moves without insistence on reciprocity, except on security-related matters and other core interests.
During his short spell as PM, he took some concrete steps: first, he negotiated a 30-year treaty with Bangladesh on the distribution of Ganga waters, with the concurrence of the West Bengal chief minister, Jyoti Basu; second, he achieved a sort of breakthrough with Pakistan as a result of discussions with its PM, Nawaz Sharif, on the sidelines of the 1997 Saarc summit in Male.
It helped to give shape to the specifics of the structured dialogue on outstanding issues, in particular the two-plus-six formula that helped start a positive process.
That it collapsed after some years is another story; and third, he accepted the insistent demand of Nepal for a crucial road link with Bangladesh through Indian territory.
Earlier, as external affairs minister, Gujral accommodated Sri Lanka by the decision to withdraw Indian Peace-Keeping Force from the island country. This step, however, was not liked by the Tamils in Sri Lanka and India.
Another issue that led to bitter criticism related to his visit to Iraq following the Gulf War I and, his bear hug with its ruler, Saddam Hussein, as also his trip to occupied Kuwait.
The only country with which Gujral held talks in Punjabi was Pakistan. He had a good equation with Sharif – the two were unbelievably candid in behind-the-scene, off-the record talks.
It helped avert crisis situations. Here is a notable example: one day in 1997, Gujral, on the eve of his departure for a trip abroad, telephoned me in the early morning, to break the news of Sharif’s call the previous night.
Gujral had retired and was woken up to receive the message. To convey the flavour of the conversation between the two PMs, the original version in Punjabi is given:
Sharif: “Key gal he. Ajkal jaldi so jande ho (what is the matter, you retire early these days)”.
Gujral: “Kal saware South Africa jana hey. Socheya pura aram kar lawaan. (I have to leave for South Africa tomorrow morning. I thought I should have proper rest)”.
Sharif: “Kalay kalay jande ho, kadi sano wee nal lai jao. (You go alone these days. Why do not you take me along sometime)”.
Gujral: “Rab oh din jaldi liaye jadon asi dono kathey javiye). (May God bring that day soon when we undertake joint trips)”.
Then they talked about the subject for which Sharif had called. Trouble was brewing in the Kargil region. It was a small problem as compared to the one that developed later. They decided to entrust the job of sorting out the matter to the directors general of military operations.
KK Katyal is a Delhi-based senior journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal