Why should we bother remembering an 11-month prime minister on his 100th birth anniversary? Does Inder Kumar Gujral, the archetypal bleeding heart liberal, matter to a world owned by alpha males of the nationalist Right? Why should a universe increasingly populated by short-attention-span millennials need to know about someone born in 1919, the year, by the way, of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre?
One answer lies in an important point Prime Minister Narendra Modi made in an interview with News18 Group editor-in-chief Rahul Joshi in the run-up to the last general elections. He said everyone knew about the Gandhi-Nehru family but it was also as if they were the only post-Independence national leaders in India.
Many other distinguished people, from Lal Bahadur Shastri to Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, to Deve Gowda and so on, he said, have also been prime ministers. They’ve been overlooked, he said, his hint being that this erasing of contemporary political history was deliberate, to build and sustain the mystique of the Dynasty.
There is weight to that argument. However, it is also a fact that most of them (barring P.V. Narasimha Rao) had very short and unstable tenures. In my own writings, I have sometimes scoffed at them as prime ministers on daily wages. But each one left a mark defined by eventful decades in public life, not just their short-lived prime ministerships.
Gujral’s was among the shortest and rockiest of all tenures. He succeeded Deve Gowda simply because the squabbling and riotous faction leaders of the United Front, the very definition of a ‘Shiv ji ki baraat’, were insecure about every other. Gujral was their consensus choice as prime minister because he had three qualifications: Political rootlessness, lack of cut-throat ambition and a soft-spoken demeanour. I would add all of these in that one attribute so lacking in our public life today: Decency.
He was the ‘safest’ bet for a gang (including the Sitaram Kesri-led Congress that supported it from outside) that felt insecure even with Gowda.
Gujral was turfed-out soon enough, although not by his coalition but its outside supporter Congress. The so-called Jain Commission inquiry report into Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination was selectively leaked by the Congress (Arjun Singh, most likely), as dynasty loyalists dragged Sonia Gandhi into politics to remove Kesri.
In one-odd para, the Jain Commission report had insinuated that probably the DMK, a United Front member, may have had something to do with Rajiv’s assassination. So how could the Congress support a coalition which included DMK? Gujral’s government fell, paving the way for a fresh election, and Vajpayee’s NDA. Just as an aside: The DMK has been and still is among the Congress’ closest allies for much of the time since.
Gujral knew he was a victim, but you never heard him complain in public. He continued to live by his strength: Friendships across parties, and his decency. Even the Shiromani Akali Dal, a BJP ally, offered to get him elected to the Lok Sabha from Punjab. His son Naresh only took the next logical step by joining the Akali Dal later.
He faced much ridicule from the rising group of policy hawks in Lutyens’ Delhi who saw the BJP’s rise as inevitable. His Gujral Doctrine was scoffed at. But, seen closely, its five elements are anything but bleeding heart nonsense: Be kind and giving to all neighbours other than Pakistan and with no expectation of reciprocity, non-interference in internal affairs, bilateral resolution of issues and so on. His rationale: The relationship with China and Pakistan might remain hostile for long. India couldn’t handle them without goodwill with other, smaller neighbours. Modi might agree with that.
Was Gujral soft on Pakistan? Ok, he invented the ‘jhappi’ (as the hug was mockingly called because he was a Punjabi) diplomacy. It drew some opprobrium when he hugged Saddam Hussain in the midst of the 1991 Gulf War. He said he did so to bring back Indian expats safely, but critics said he just obsessed with ‘jhappis’. It is now Modi’s signature.
But where needed, Gujral could be tough. In the summer of 1990, when a war-like crisis with Pakistan developed over Kashmir and its foreign minister Sahabzada Yaqub Khan infamously came to India with a nuclear threat, Gujral was his counterpart. Walking in the corridor of South Block, Khan told Gujral that this war won’t be like any other, that India’s mountains and rivers will be caught in an all-consuming fire, of the kind never seen before, and on the very first day of the war.
Gujral responded by saying, you should avoid talking recklessly because we have all been brought up on the waters of the same rivers as you. This, mind you, when Gujral and his prime minister V.P. Singh weren’t even sure India had a ready deterrent. Actually, India didn’t. These are well-documented facts and you can check out the references here.
Anyone who had the privilege of knowing Gujral will have dozens of stories about his method. If I have to pick out one, it will be from the 1998 evening he summoned a bunch of us senior editors for tea to 7, RCR. He said India had decided to sign the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), destroy its chemical weapons stockpiles, and open up its facilities for UN inspection. He said he wanted us all to know and ask him questions now so we won’t be surprised, speculating or insinuating conspiracies later.
But didn’t we sign a solemn bilateral treaty with Pakistan in 1992, committing to not possessing any chemical weapons? So, we lied to them, I asked.
Nations do such things, he said. The remarkable thing, he said, was how India managed to keep its most important secrets. Many great people have been prime ministers, so we can understand, he said. But sometimes ‘Lallu-Panjus’ (a cruel Punjabi-ism for a non-entity) like us also end up here. Isn’t it so creditable nothing that must not leak ever leaks?
You can call it self-deprecation, diplomacy, or just old gift of the gab. In my book, and that of so many others who knew him, it would be called decency. That is all the more reason we do not forget that truly accidental prime minister.