30th November 2012: I.K. Gujral, 12th Prime Minister of India, passed away

Inder Kumar Gujral, who left a mark on India’s foreign policy and served as the country’s 12th prime minister, was born on December 4, 1919, in Jhelum (in present-day Pakistan). He died on November 30, 2012.

Gujral’s parents Avtar Narain and Pushpa Gujral took an active part in the Indian freedom struggle. The young Gujral took an early liking to Urdu, a love affair with the language and its poetry that would last a lifetime. He finished his college education in Lahore and for some time became a member of the Communist Party of India. He had to go to jail along with his parents in 1942 for taking part in the Quit India movement.

After Partition, the family moved to Delhi. When he became prime minister half a century later, Gujral recalled the traumatic days of 1947-48, in an article in Outlook magazine: “In September 1947, as the riots worsened, my father decided to shift to India…Karachi was aflame by early ’48. A friend…traced me to a hotel I’d shifted for safety, put me on a Delhi-bound plane. Thus I arrived, a refugee in India. Everything lost: my business in Karachi, our properties in Jhelum. We never anticipated such a rigid border. We thought it’ll be easy. That’s why the Partition hurt.”

He served in the local government in Delhi in several positions until he became a Rajya Sabha member of the Congress in 1964. When Indira Gandhi declared Emergency in 1975, he was shunted out from the ministry of information and broadcasting. In her biography of Indira Gandhi, Katherine Frank describes a confrontation between Gujral and Indira’s son, Sanjay: “[Gujral] was accosted by Sanjay Gandhi in the reception room outside Indira’s office. Sanjay ordered Gujral from now on to submit all news bulletins to him before they were broadcast. Gujral told Sanjay that this was ‘not possible’.”

Gujral was, however, subsequently appointed as India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union by Indira. He later left the Congress and joined the Janata Dal. In 1989, he was made foreign minister in the V.P. Singh cabinet. He was criticised for hugging Saddam Hussein when he went to meet the Iraqi the dictator after the first Gulf War.  

After the 1996 Lok Sabha elections when Deve Gowda became prime minister, Gujral was again made minister of external affairs. This was when he came up with the famous ‘Gujral Doctrine’, which he developed further as prime minister.  

As foreign minister Gujral articulated India’s concerns over nuclear disarmament and national security, saying that “national security and our moral posture coincided”. He told Outlook in an interview: “[I]f at any stage our security planners come to the conclusion…that a [nuclear] test is called for, then whatever the world might say, we have to do it. Security decisions are not taken on the basis of referendum or popularity.”

In 1997, the Congress withdrew support to the Deve Gowda government leading to its collapse. The Congress instead gave outside support to another United Front government, citing certain conditions, leading to Gujral’s being sworn in as prime minister on April 21, 1997.

In an interview to India Today magazine, Gujral said that he knew what it was like to be in this office as he had worked with three prime ministers — Indira Gandhi, V.P. Singh and Deve Gowda, and his “acceptability” among the political class had made him prime minister in a coalition era.  “[I]t might sound extremely subjective and sometimes egoistic. But when I try to analyse objectively I think it [the reason for my acceptability] was my long public life. Some people call it honesty, some call it cleanliness, some call it probity,” he said.

According to a profile in Outlook the “lightweight, Left-leaning former Congressman” had become prime minister thanks to his “squeaky-clean image” and the fact that “he has made no political enemies—or friends”.  

“A scholar and lover of Urdu poetry…Gujral…is more at home at the India [International] Centre than the rough and tumble of Indian politics,” the article said

The Gujral Doctrine now came to the fore. It essentially articulated a plan that sought to recast relationships among nations in South Asia in a friendlier mould. One of its main principles was that India would not seek reciprocity with neighbours like Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan but base its relationships on faith and trust.

Later, looking back at his 10-month stint as prime minister, Gujral explained the thinking behind the doctrine in an interview to rediff.com in 1998: “The Gujral Doctrine is a doctrine of good neighbourliness. In South Asia, India is the largest country and the largest economy. All the countries of the neighbourhood put together cannot match India. Therefore, it is my doctrine, that in the post-Cold War era, all the neighbours must look up to India as a friendly neighbour. For doing so, if concessions have to be given, they should. But these concessions do not include two things: no transfer of sovereignty of any part of India, including Kashmir; and second, we will not compromise on our basic secular, democratic polity.”  

The Congress removed support to the Gujral government in November 1997 citing the government’s  refusal to remove members of coalition partner DMK — which had been criticised in an inquiry commission on a matter relating to Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination — from the cabinet.

Gujral, who retired from active politics in 1999, died on November 30, 2012, after being admitted to hospital for a lung infection.

Often known as a “gentleman politician”, he wrote in his autobiography: “I am now in the tenth decade of my life. I have witnessed many vicissitudes over the years. I have interacted with a wide variety of human beings — from the noble to the despicable and from the straightforward to the devious. I can now say, with conviction that I have exercised discretion to the extent possible throughout my life.”


Also on this day:

1858 — Jagadish Chandra Bose, Bengali physicist and botanist, was born

1970 — Mehr Jesia Rampal, Indian model, was born  

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