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I.K. Gujral: An accidental PM, who also dealt with Pakistan’s first nuclear blackmail

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Gujral’s death anniversary passed unnoticed this week. There are two great mysteries of his times, one involving chemical weapons, the other, nukes. One he resolved, the other, a scary summer, remains.

There was a sense of intrigue and urgency about that invitation to tea at 7, Race Course Road. It was late spring in 1997 and Inder Kumar Gujral was still a new prime minister. His office called late in the afternoon and said the PM wanted to meet a select group of editors that same evening to discuss something very important.

What could it be? This was a period when our governments and prime ministers worked on daily wages. Was Gujral already fed up of the bickering within the United Front and considering resignation?

The aides present with Gujral, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam (then heading the Defence Research and Development Organisation), top MEA officials and his principal secretary (now J&K governor) N.N. Vohra, indicated that the meeting was about something other than politics. Gujral said, “I know you are curious why I inconvenienced you at such short notice. I have called you to share a confidence that all my colleagues (officers) advised me not to. But I thought I must do so.”

He said India was finally ratifying the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and would comply with it fully. What this implied, he said, was that India had made a disclosure of the chemical weapons stockpiles it was holding. India had now also declared a transparent programme to destroy these in full view of CWC inspectors who were coming in soon to carry out verifications. He said the strategic view was that India no longer needed chemical weapons. He concluded by saying he was willing to answer any questions.

This meeting, he said, was because he wanted us all to hear this first-hand from him. He said the top leadership of both, the Congress (his government’s outside supporter), and the BJP (then widely seen as most likely to form the next government), had been taken into confidence.

“But, Gujral sahib,” I asked, “didn’t we sign a treaty with Pakistan in the past (19 August 1992) where we both solemnly stated that we did not have any chemical weapons?”

Gujral just smiled.

“So you mean we lied in a serious treaty of this nature?” I persisted.

“That is the beauty of this country and its politics,” Gujral said. “So many secrets have remained hidden so safely, in spite of the fact that not just great leaders like Nehru, Indiraji and Rajiv have been prime ministers, but also some lallu-panjus (very brutal Punjabi for non-entities) like me have been in the job,” he said.

Gujral was truly an accidental prime minister. He only got the job because he was seen as apolitical and a lightweight and because the coalition could not choose another leader. So Gujral became an unlikely last choice. But he was no lallu-panju. He had more political and administrative experience already than anybody in that United Front government.

His political and ideological teacher was Indira Gandhi, under whom he served as ambassador to Moscow (the most important diplomatic posting then) and then as I&B minister. He had subsequently been external affairs minister in V.P. Singh’s and H.D. Deve Gowda’s short-term governments. As almost all his obituaries would underline today, it was in these three short tenures, two as EAM and one as PM, each lasting less than a year, that he produced and cemented one of the very few original foreign policy thoughts in India since Nehru: the Gujral doctrine.

He was laughed at for his “predictable” Saturday Club – as the group of mostly retired policy wonks that has traditionally met at New Delhi’s India International Centre is called – woolly-headedness. It led to an open revolt by many key desk heads in the MEA establishment. At least two of them even went whispering to L.K. Advani that Gujral and his foreign secretary Salman Haidar were selling away India’s interests. There were obvious, and cruelly unfair insinuations as to “why” Haidar was “particularly” soft on Pakistan and Gujral just a silly old romantic. But Gujral did not waver. His explanations did not convince the BJP then. But the fact remains that both his successors, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, embraced the Gujral doctrine, and expanded it. As has Modi now, with the usual hot-and-cold on Pakistan. That is Gujral’s most brilliant legacy.

He struck an instant equation with Nawaz Sharif. With their shared mother tongue, and Gujral’s facility with Urdu poetry, the two shared trust and warmth. They had a summit meeting at an island resort (Kurumba Village) close to the Maldivian capital of Male. To make sure nobody got frustrated with their inability to reach any substantive agreement, Gujral kept it going with Ali Sardar Jafri’s famous line, “guftagu bandh na ho, baat se baat chale…” (may our conversation never end, may one thing lead to another).

Later, if you asked Gujral what he would regard as the greatest tribute to him, he would say nothing made him happier than when Vajpayee told him he had repeated the same line to Sharif at their summit in Lahore and how his Pakistani counterpart marvelled at such “incredible continuity” in Indian policy. This, despite the fact that Gujral and Vajpayee represented contrary ideological streams.

There was one significant and scary juncture in India’s foreign policy under his charge that he has left unexplained. In fact, the eternal debate is about just how scary that moment was. It was during V.P. Singh’s government in the summer of 1990, when India and Pakistan came close to war over Kashmir. Benazir Bhutto, feeling pressured by her army, was making speeches of the kind that make Hafiz Saeed sound less bloodthirsty. She was threatening to cut Jagmohan, then governor of Kashmir, into little pieces: jag-jag, mo-mo, han-han, she said making chopping motions from one hand on the other arm at a Muzaffarabad rally.

She repeated her late father’s favourite rant of waging a 1,000-year war against India. V.P. Singh responded in Parliament by asking if Pakistan would last 1,000 hours. It’s an aside, but I made a semi-facetious calculation in India Today (in partnership with defence expert Ravi Rikhye) to show how expensive a 1,000-hour (nearly 45-day) war would be, and even if India won decisively, how little it would achieve. But this story of 1990 really opened up much later.

First, Seymour Hersh claimed (“On the Nuclear Edge”, The New Yorker, 29 March 1993) that Pakistan had indeed threatened to start that war with a nuclear attack against India and that threat had been conveyed to South Block by Bob Gates, then deputy national security advisor, who was the US president’s emissary to the subcontinent. This was immediately denied. But a more detailed description of those perilous days appeared in a subsequent book (Critical Mass: The Dangerous Race for Superweapons in a Fragmenting World, William E. Burrows and Robert Windrem, Simon & Schuster, 1994). Again, there were denials. But now they sounded thin.

The story, that Gates brought a Pakistani nuclear warning to New Delhi, was never conclusively established. But at one point, many years later, after a great deal of cajoling and pleading, Gujral admitted to having had a curious conversation with his Pakistani counterpart Sahibzada Yakub Khan. Sahibzada had come to India ostensibly to defuse tensions in those fraught weeks. But he said, as they walked down the South Block corridor, “Gujral sahib, this will not be like any of the decent, clean wars we have fought in the past. Your rivers, mountains, cities, will all be on fire, a fire of the kind you cannot imagine, and on the first day itself.”

Gujral admitted he was taken aback. But he said he gathered his wits and replied: “Aisi baatein na karein toh achcha hai, Yakub sahib… kyunki humne bhi unheen daryaon ka paani piya hai jinka aapne…” The closest translation would be, keep these threats to yourself, because you will be paid back in kind.

I did research this over the years. I can say now, that the Pakistanis threatened to begin the war with a nuclear attack is a fact. It is, truly, the first example of a nuclear blackmail. Did it work? That question is not fully answered yet. The one key witness who was most directly in the picture, Air Chief Marshal S.K. “Polly” Mehra, was the most forthcoming. He confirmed the threat and recounted how he was called by V.P. Singh and nervously asked, in front of Gujral, if he could prevent a Pakistani plane from delivering that “bomb”.

Mehra said no air force could guarantee that. He could reasonably make sure, though, that the intruder wouldn’t go back. But, if such a thing happened, we need to retaliate, he said, and then asked an important question: “If the IAF has to deliver something in retaliation, can we at least see what it looks like? We can then figure out on which platform to put it, and how to deliver it. What are its aerodynamics, and so on.” Mehra said while this conversation was on, he saw Gujral in some sort of a panic, almost sprinting in and out of the room carrying fresh sheets of paper, obviously cables of some kind, and showing them to V.P. Singh.

This much I was able to confirm with V.P. Singh himself, on the record. The implicit, and shocking story is, that if India did have a credible, deliverable deterrent then, its armed forces had not even seen it. More likely, India did not. We can say with certainty that this is when India finally dropped nuclear ambiguity and pushed for full-fledged weaponisation. Whether the Pakistani nuclear blackmail then worked, whether it intimidated V.P. Singh’s weak government, and if so, into what, is what we do not yet know. It is one of the most important questions Gujral has left unanswered.

Postscript: His favourite story of all was from his days as ambassador in Moscow. Indira Gandhi had come on a state visit. At the ceremonial banquet at the Kremlin, Brezhnev seemed fascinated by Gujral’s Indian-made HMT watch and was asking him many questions about it. Overhearing the interpreter, Mrs Gandhi nudged Gujral and whispered to him in Hindi, “Isko de do na, utaar ke“. Gujral, ever so proper, hesitated for a moment. Mrs Gandhi was now exasperated: “De do na bhai, itni achchi lag rahi hai jo inko“. Gujral did not lose his diplomatic reserve, promised Brezhnev he will send him one and later had a selection of HMT watches delivered to him.

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  1. What a stupid article in praise of a man who wound up its top spy agencies, set India behind by ages in intelligence gathering, did not have the guts to stand upto India’s enemies, sided with Pakistan a country where he was born but driven out. Also shame on people praising this article.

  2. The Congress party continued to blunder in not getting that ace diplomat Gujaral to return to it . It could have chosen him as PMin 1991 instead of a communalist , who cavorted with Hindutava forces to retain his power and destroy the party that gave various positions including that of the PM

  3. Dear Mr Gupta,
    since mid 90s I used to look forwards to your articles in Indian Express. The way you put forth your topic interspersed with anecdotes of personal experience in those events —– This is how I teach to my students / junior colleagues during ward rounds.
    It makes the articles quite interesting . Now at least through “THE PRINT” we are able to read your articles daily.
    Thanks for it.
    Dr Murty NVR

  4. every piece of writing by you is factual rather than fabricated, that bears the truth of the story which is much more needed at this hour, where we encounter by fake news and information soon after opening eyes n ears. i like your story because it gives us valuable dissemination about the time when we were not there and helps us to develop in matured manner. i request you please keep writing on issues from 1947 –2000 yr.

  5. Wit; wisdom possessed by two leaders of subcontinent could restrain for experience of Hiroshima. Lobbyists of war industries had made their products genuine buyers with pattern of psycho-warefare!

  6. Shekhar,
    I like it when you write articles in this style. Everything you have written here is written in a straightforward manner and the information you provide comes out as credible.

  7. The Gujral doctrine remains a fine, enduring template for India’s relations with its smaller neighbours. Not just Pakistan, our relationships with others are also struggling, even as the dragon’s shadow lengthens over the subcontinent.

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