A suave gentleman, Gujral who was easy in every role, was passionately committed to friendship between India and Pakistan
Inder Kumar Gujral was a rare breed of political persona who switched roles seamlessly from a practitioner of diplomacy to the rough and tumble of politics that took him to the pinnacle of political power as the Prime Minister of India.
For someone born in a family of Congress workers at Jhelum, now in Pakistan on December 4, 1919, Gujral’s early political thoughts were influenced by the communist, worked closely with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in the middle and drifted towards socialists in the end.
Gujral’s family was among the thousands that crossed over to India from Pakistan post-Partition, and in his autobiography “Matters of Discretion”’, the former Prime Minister dwelt at length speaking nostalgically of his childhood days in Jhelum in West Punjab and the pangs of separation.
It is perhaps the umbilical ties with undivided Punjab that drove the process to take India-Pakistan relations on a
different plane. In fact, a few months before he was chosen by the Janata Dal to lead the United Front Government at the Centre, the then Pakistan Premier Nawaz Sharief had commented that India never had a Prime Minister from Punjab.
Gujral began his career in politics as a student leader. He was arrested in 1942 and jailed for his involvement in the Quit India movement. Gujral got elected first to the Electoral College of Delhi and served as the Vice President of New Delhi Municipal Council. At the end of the tenure in 1964, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha where he served two consecutive terms till 1976.
It was during this period that a storm was brewing in the Congress. The post-Nehru and Shastri-era saw the emergence of Indira Gandhi and her struggle against the ‘old guard’. The phase saw the young Gujral being drawn into the vortex marking his presence in the corridors of power.
Such was his rise and proximity to the changing structure of power that Gujral was bracketed as someone in the early version of Indira Gandhi’s ‘kitchen cabinet’.
Interestingly, in his book Gujral describes Indira Gandhi as a “split and very complex personality,” who could be mean, petty, and vicious yet large-hearted, gracious and charming.
Gujral, however, held grudging respect for Indira Gandhi in whose Council of Ministers he served as a Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs and Communications, Information and Broadcasting, Works, Housing and Urban Development and later Planning.
While students of politics were fortunate that Gujral left behind his memoirs for posterity, unfortunately he preferred not to elaborate as to why he fell out of favour with Indira Gandhi. Reports later suggested that he was not particularly keen to implement censorship that came in the wake of internal emergency. It is perhaps the gentleman-politician him that made Gujral avoid reference to the period or that of the rise of Sanjay Gandhi.
For Gujral, a self-confessed Communist, his posting as India’s Ambassador to the then USSR between 1976-1990 served as springboard for his role later as the External Affairs Minister during the 1989-90 VP Singh’s Government.
His days in Moscow allowed Gujral to follow the India’s foreign policy from close quarters especially since Indira Gandhi had excellent personal equations with the top Soviet leaders and the back and forth communication between New Delhi and Moscow through him.
After his return from Moscow in 1980, amid growing distance from the Congress under Indira Gandhi, his intellectual and political thought was stimulated in the company of the leaders with socialist leanings.
The period saw national upheavals and Gujral attending Opposition conclaves in various parts of the country, studying trouble in Jammu and Kashmir, the ‘Mandal’ upsurge and the ‘Mandir-Masjid’ issues that dominated political discourse in the country.
During his tenure as the External Affairs Minister in the VP Singh Government, he expounded the Gujral doctrine which he expanded later first in his second stint in the Ministry of External Affairs under H D Deve Gowda and later as Prime Minister between April 1997 and March 1998. Among the books he published is one on ‘A Foreign Policy for India’.
At a time when the United Front was under pressure to change Prime Minister Deve Gowda, Gujral emerged the front-runner. In fact, Gowda cautioned Gujral against assuming the mantle under such circumstances. The Congress withdrew support to the Janata Dal Government during March 1998 over the continuation of the DMK in the coalition Government in the wake of Jain Commission of Inquiry into Rajiv Gandhi assassination.
During his tenure, a controversial decision to impose President’s Rule in Uttar Pradesh was returned by President KR Narayanan.
Born on December 4, 1919 in Jhelum town now in Pakistan
Actively participated in the Freedom Struggle and was jailed in 1942 during the Quit India Movement
Educated at DAV College, Haily College of Commerce and Forman Christian College, Lahore
Gujral became vice-president of the New Delhi Municipal Committee in 1958
He formally joined Congress and six years later, Indira Gandhi gave him a ticket with which he entered Rajya Sabha in April 1964
He was part of the ‘coterie’ that helped Indira Gandhi become Prime Minister in 1966
In Indira Gandhi’s government, he held several portfolios as Union Minister for Communications, Parliamentary Affairs and Housing
He was Information and Broadcasting Minister when Emergency was imposed (on June 25, 1975), which brought in arbitrary press censorship
As he refused to kowtow to the powers-that-be, he was taken out of the ministry and sent by Indira Gandhi as Ambassador to Moscow
He continued even during the tenures of her two successors – Morarji Desai and Charan Singh
He left the Congress to join the Janata Dal in the late-1980s
Gujral became External Affairs Minister in the VP Singh-led National Front government in 1989
He had a second stint as External Affairs Minister in the United Front government under HD Deve Gowda, whom he later replaced as PM after the Congress withdrew support in the Summer of 1997
Gujral served as the 12th Prime Minister of India from April 1997 to March 1998
He breathed his last in a private hospital in Gurgaon at 3.27 pm on November 30, 2012 after a multi-organ failure. He was admitted to the hospital on November 19 with a lung infection