IK Gujral, the good guy of politics

The Punjabis who came to Delhi after Partition tended to be entrepreneurial. Many went on to become millionaires, amassing large fortunes and forever changing the character of India’s capital. What made Inder Gujral different was that he chose to use his considerable talents not to make money but to make a name for himself.

At a time when middle-class intellectuals were reluctant to venture into politics, Gujral bravely took the plunge. He was never a mass politician nor did he have an electoral base. But so successful was he at leveraging his talents that he went on to serve in senior cabinet posts under three different Prime Ministers before, in one of the most incredible twists in Indian political history, briefly becoming Prime Minister himself.

Gujral’s initial rise had more to do with circumstances than with any political manoeuvring. In 1966, when Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister, she set up a Kitchen Cabinet consisting of friends and advisors who shared a vaguely Left-wing point of view. These advisors were well-spoken, well-read, and generally, drawn from the non-political middle class.

Some of the Kitchen Cabinet’s members remained out of politics: Romesh Thapar stayed out of the frame, restricting himself to journalism.

Some remained civil servants: PN Haksar was once India’s most powerful man but he never sought political office.

Only Inder Gujral decided that he wanted to be a minister. Mrs Gandhi duly obliged and Gujral rose to becoming information and broadcasting minister (a far more powerful position in that era than it is today) and one of the Cabinet’s most high profile faces.

But when your power derives from one source, it is all too easy for things to go wrong. In Gujral’s case, the catalyst for change was Mrs Gandhi’s thug-like younger son, Sanjay. Shortly after the Emergency was declared, Sanjay summoned Gujral and admonished him for failing to properly project the government.

Yeh sab nahin chalega,” Sanjay is supposed to have told him.

According to Gujral, he replied, “Yeh bilkul chalega.”

Like many of Indira Gandhi’s old friends, Gujral had seen Sanjay grow up and could not believe that the young man would dare talk to him so rudely. He was convinced that Mrs Gandhi would tell her son off for his uncivil behaviour. In fact, she told Gujral off. And then she sent him off. He was sacked as I&B minister and packed off to an Ambassadorial posting.

This happened in 1975 and by all rights, Gujral’s career should have ended there given that he was a man without a base, entirely dependent on Mrs Gandhi’s patronage. It is a tribute to his resilience that 14 years later, after Mrs Gandhi and Sanjay had both died, Gujral returned to the cabinet in a post that was even more senior: external affairs minister.

How he got the job in VP Singh’s government remains something of a mystery. The most commonly accepted explanation is that VP Singh had relatively few followers (his was a minority government), most of whom had no interest in urban affairs, let alone international affairs.

Gujral neatly filled the void. But almost from the first day, he was a misfit in the government. He was routinely derided by VP Singh’s more rustic colleagues and matters came to a head when Devi Lal, the second-most powerful man in the Cabinet, told an interviewer that the government had too many effete and ineffectual ministers such as Gujral.

That phase ended in 1990, with the collapse of the VP Singh government. But Gujral did not give up. In 1996, he was back as external affairs minister in HD Deve Gowda’s government and when Gowda was forced out, Gujral put himself forward as a compromise candidate for the top job. He got it and remains one of the unlikeliest Prime Ministers in Indian history.

What accounted for Gujral’s resilience? Some of it had to do with his intelligence and determination. But he also owed his success to his fundamental decency. He was never accused of any kind of dishonesty, let alone financial corruption. He was pleasant, always warm, and eager to hug anyone at the slightest opportunity. (“What is wrong?” he asked an interviewer. “I like hugging. It is my style.”)

In the complicated world of coalition politics, his warmth, decency and lack of a political base became both advantages and weaknesses.

They were an advantage because nobody saw him as a threat and, therefore, he was always the obvious compromise candidate. But they were also weaknesses because his colleagues routinely derided him, sometimes to his face. When he was Prime Minister, for instance, he was continually humiliated by Sharad Yadav’s public rudeness.

What will Gujral’s legacy be? It is hard to say. He had hoped to usher in a new era in foreign policy, propounding the Gujral Doctrine and hoping to improve relations with Pakistan. (This is a familiar preoccupation when it comes to Punjabi Prime Ministers of a certain age.) His most famous and perhaps most notorious initiative in this area was the decision to ask R&AW to suspend all covert operations in Pakistan. He had no objection to intelligence gathering, he said. But he did not want India to fund secessionists or arm militants. To this day, Gujral remains a much-reviled figure within the intelligence community which accuses him of causing the destruction of networks built up over years.

By the end, however, Gujral had become more pragmatic in his attitude towards Pakistan. For instance, when president Musharraf arrived in Delhi, on his way to Agra, for a summit with AB Vajpayee, Gujral took offence at Musharraf’s manner (“he is talking as though he can dictate terms to us”) and presciently forecast the collapse of the summit.

But his real legacy may be one that he had never intended to bestow upon future generations. His career demonstrated that even within the cesspool of Indian politics, it is possible for a decent human being with no political base to rise to the top. And as Gujral proved again and again, a good man is hard to keep down even when he has no electoral muscle behind him.

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