1997 was a tumultuous year in Indian politics. In April, the Congress Party had decided Deve Gowda was to be toppled. United Front had to thus choose a new Prime Minister who was acceptable to its picky allies as well as the Congress party. From all State Bhavans, emissaries rushed to and fro — with prospective names, and demands. The fulcrum of action was Andhra Bhavan, where in the eighties, N T Rama Rao had formed the national coalition of non-Congress parties. Now, Chandrababu Naidu, the inheritor of his father-in-law’s legacy started cobbling together a consensus for the next non-Congress Prime Minister. But no agreement could be reached as hours passed by. Late into the night, Inder Kumar Gujral’s name was decided upon simply because he was the least controversial. He did not have a vote-bank and was not a threat to anybody. No one thus objected to his name. He had links with the Congress: so he could be expected to call in favours when needed.
When he was told that he was to be Prime Minister, Gujral began visiting all his colleagues. It was close to midnight, most of the media other than agency reporters and two camera crews had given up and gone back. From Andhra Bhavan, we chased Gujral’s car to Laloo Yadav’s abode in Bihar Bhavan, to Moopanar in Eastern Court, to Harkishan Singh Surjeet’s house — all this while wondering why he wasn’t going to see Mulayam Singh Yadav who was the other prime ministerial candidate. The gossip was that Mulayam was miffed. But you couldn’t stay miffed with Gujral for long. Yadav relented and then met him. Gujral finally went to 7 Race Course Road to call on a sulking Deve Gowda. It was an awkward meeting but that was Gujral for you. He wanted Gowda’s concurrence before taking up the assignment.
Gujral came out of the PM residence and walked towards the reporters. We were four or five of us. He smiled and said to me “Kuch poochna nai hai? Saara din bahar khadii thi, ab poocho.” I threw two words at him “What next?” What a silly question it was. Even an “Aapko kaise lag raha hai” would have been better. But I was young and foolish, and he was wise and experienced. He answered that he was honoured and that he would discharge his responsibilities to the best of his abilities. I then accompanied him to his well-appointed house where his immediate family, extended family and neighbours had gathered. A spate of jhappi-pappis followed in the true robust Punjabi fashion. There were a lot of “mubarakaan” and “vaddiya hoya” echoing around.
Before fate catapulted him to the highest political office, Gujral was quite content at the periphery of Indian politics. Having played his role in shaping Indian foreign policy as a foreign minister and as India’s ambassador to Soviet Union, he spent his time attending seminars and conferences, reading poetry and sharing evenings with his Maharani Bagh buddies. Even he never believed that he would be the prime minister.
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, it is said. The next few months were harrowing for the man. He barely had any support from his colleagues, his predecessor made insinuations of a coup, the opposition snapped at his ‘incompetence’, and the media, which was always kind to him, portrayed him as a man out of his depth. Those were tough times for the country. Due to the East Asian crisis, our economy was in poor shape; Kashmir was burning; communal tensions were running high after the Babri demolition of 1992 and Bombay riots of 1993. Internationally, we were seen as a country that was losing it. There was no India shining or Jai ho. Pokhran-2 hadn’t happened and we weren’t the world’s outsourcing power.
In such a time, his only lasting legacy as prime minister was the Gujral Doctrine of reaching out to neighbours by making unilateral moves. He was pilloried for that vision, which his successors too followed, the difference being that India was still not a regional power.
Another criticism leveled against Gujral was that he stopped all covert operations against Pakistan. Nobody quite knows the truth. Gujral never spoke about it, although some retired bureaucrats say that he ordered it. No one quite knows whether those orders were followed in totality, or they were reversed or amended after 1998. Maybe Gujral was the fall guy who had to formally give that order under international pressure, well aware that it would not be fully carried out. We will never know for sure. Ever. And that is how it should be.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash