Even the warmest admirers of Inder Kumar Gujral would concede that when it emerged he had been chosen to be India’s 12th prime minister he was as surprised as anyone. Indeed, one recent report suggested that when he was told he had been selected to replace HD Deve Gowda, he was almost overcome by an anxiety attack.
His brief tenure as prime minister of the world’s largest democracy – he held the position for a handful of months, from April 1997 to March 1998 – is these days seen more as an historical aside amid a series of better-known names and figures that came before and after him. And yet Gujral left a lasting impression on Indian politics, in particular in regard to India’s relations with its smaller, more vulnerable and often less democratic neighbours.
During two tenures as a courtly foreign minister, the first during the brief premiership of VP Singh, and then during Gowda’s term as prime minister, he devised and formalised what became known as the Gujral Doctrine. His five-point theory, in essence, argued that India, with its size and resources, did not need to exact reciprocity in all of its dealings with the likes of Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives and even Pakistan. Rather, “it can act in good faith and trust”. He also argued that no country in South Asia should allow its territory to be used to harm another.
“These principles, scrupulously observed, will, I am sure, recast South Asia’s regional relationship, including the tormented relationship between India and Pakistan, in a friendly, co-operative mould,” he declared.
The theory might have been scoffed at by the more hard-bitten politicians, used to the rough and tumble of South Asian strategic affairs. But against the odds, the ever-diplomatic Gujral secured results. Perhaps the most significant was the signing of the Ganga Waters Accord with Bangladesh, but he also improved relations with Pakistan and made a personal appeal to its prime minister, Nawaz Sharif. Gujral’s doctrine had its limitations. One of his decisions was to end covert intelligence gathering in Pakistan, a step that was criticised after the 2008 attacks on Mumbai showed up Indian limitations and failings.
Gujral was born in Jhelum, in what is now Pakistan, to parents involved in the struggle for independence from British colonial rule. He thrived as a pupil, and developed an early love for Urdu poetry and language that lasted his lifetime. As a student he became involved in politics and dabbled with the Communist party. He served as president of the Lahore Students Union, and joined his parents in jail when they threw their support behind the Quit India Movement.
After Partition, Gujral’s family moved to Delhi where he served in several positions before catching the eye of prime minister Indira Gandhi. Between 1967-76 he served in several government posts before falling out with the Gandhi family, in particular with Indira’s unchecked and unstable son, Sanjay, after she declared a state of emergency. By means of punishment he was forced from his position as minister of information and sent to Moscow as Ambassador to Russia.
In the 1980s he finally quit the Congress Party and joined the Janata Dal, when he was to serve as foreign minister in a short-lived coalition government. Among his tasks was dealing with the Kashmiri kidnappers of Rubaiya Sayeed, the daughter of the Union Home Affairs Mufti Mohammed Sayeed, and representing India when Iraq invaded Kuwait, triggering the first Gulf War. Indeed, it was while visiting Saddam Hussein in an effort to ensure that no Indians were harmed that the gentlemanly Gujral committed his most lasting controversy when he was photographed being hugged by the Iraqi dictator. He was also known as one of India’s best-dressed politicians and people often asked for the details of his tailor.
When he was forced from office after a series of controversies and lost the support of Congress party, which had been backing his government, Gujral remained in politics, but only on the sidelines. He later turned down an offer from the Congress for a party ticket, preferring to remain within the Janata Dal. He gradually removed himself from public life and retired from politics in 1999.
And yet one cause he remained committed to until the end of his life was trying to improve India’s relationships with its neighbours. One report published after his death, which followed a lung infection, said that during his retirement Gujral wrote Urdu poems, and whenever he bumped into a Pakistani diplomat he would recite one to the visiting envoy.
Inder Kumar Gujral. politician: born Jhelum, India (now Pakistan) 4 December 1919; married Sheila (died 2011; two sons); died Gurgaon, India 30 November 2012.