Inder Kumar Gujral, India’s 12th prime minister
Cultural refinement was the signature attribute of Inder Kumar Gujral, India’s 12th prime minister, who died on Friday at age 92. He would have turned 93 on December 4.
Dapper and scholarly Gujral could be depended upon to break into poetry any moment. He had the voice modulation of a hesitant poet even when he spoke as prime minister. I had many occasions to meet him along with Tarun Basu, the chief editor of the IANS wire, in the 1990s both as foreign minister and prime minister.
Always impeccably turned out either in finely tailored business suits or elegantly stitched Nehru jackets with silk handkerchiefs in his breast pocket, Gujral was an old world figure of grace and charm. One could instantly see why he was a misfit in India’s rough hewn politics but despite that shortcoming he had the tenacity to enjoy long years of great political influence from the 1960s.
It was a combination of that tenacity and the good fortune of being at the right place at the right time that eventually catapulted him to the country’s highest office in April, 1997. Paradoxically, he was an outsider who was also an insider to Indian politics. That explains why he was picked as a compromise candidate for prime minister who lasted barely 11 months in that office.
He followed H D Deve Gowda, another compelling example of how often unlikely and undeserving politicians, rise to the highest level of their calling. Deve Gowda’s term lasted ten months before Gujral was picked. I would not bore you with all the details of the machinations that went behind the scenes, courtesy then then Congress Party president Sitaram Kesri.
It is hard to identify one defining accomplishment of Gujral’s long career but by some consensus it would be what became known as the “Gujral Doctrine” in India’s foreign policy towards its immediate neighbors. He once told Tarun and I that as the biggest geographic presence in South Asia it was India’s “natural obligation” to be twice as accommodating of its neighbors’ idiosyncrasies.
Having been born in what is now Pakistan and having spent his formative years from 1919 to 1947 there, Gujral felt a particular obligation to mend relations with India’s most difficult neighbor. There were many in India who saw his doctrine as excessively conciliatory and even spineless. But Gujral stood his ground insisting that strength came from conciliation and not conflict. Many features of his doctrine remain part of India’s foreign policy towards Pakistan.
A diplomat by inclination and even some actual posting in Moscow (1976-1980) Gujral always saw himself as a composite figure who drew strength from pre-independence India. His forte was foreign policy and he made it a point to pivot his brief prime ministerial tenure around it.
Gujral’s wore his political success and influence rather lightly and never came across as someone who would throw his weight around. His passing closes one more chapter of India’s polity that appears gentle in the tobacco hued tones of nostalgia but was, in fact, as full or rough and tumble as things are now.