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    Posted on 05 Dec 2012
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    HK Dua

    Peace was his obsession

    Very few politicians can be objective in their analysis. Inder Kumar Gujral was one of them, says HK Dua

    Photo: AFP

    I first met IK Gujral in the Parliament corridors while covering Rajya Sabha in the 1960s. I was a young correspondent and he was a young MP then. I had read about him and his Delhi politics in the papers, as he was very active as the vice-chairman of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC). He was rather friendly by nature, which made it easy for him to interact closely with journalists. For someone who exuded friendship and goodwill at all times, he was never flippant in conversation.

    In 1967, the first election after Jawaharlal Nehru’s passing, the Congress was in a minority. Indira Gandhi survived with support from the CPI. Gujral was quite active at the time and came close to Mrs Gandhi. In the Congress, he was among those who were left-leaning, but he was not on the extreme left. I found him to be a liberal person.

    He, along with Dinesh Singh and Romesh Thapar, all close friends, were called as Mrs Gandhi’s kitchen-cabinet. Then came 1971 and the ‘Garibi Hatao’ elections. They were part of Mrs Gandhi’s core team, planning her political strategy and moves. That was the general impression, and to a certain extent, it was true.

    Later, Gujral was made the Information and Broadcasting minister. As minister, he never expected or asked newsmen to fall in line with the government. Then came the Emergency; the night of 25-26 June 1975. Sanjay Gandhi became quite powerful during this period. Gujral was uncomfortable with Sanjay Gandhi and his job was at stake. I always say that those who are close to powers that be are often the first victims. They found that Gujral was not the right person for the ministry. But Mrs Gandhi, who had a soft spot for him, had him transferred to ministry of planning. Later, Gujral was appointed as India’s ambassador to Moscow.

    Gujral proved to be one of India’s most successful ambassadors to Moscow. He continued in his post even when Indira Gandhi was thrown out of power. PM Morarji Desai could have appointed someone else, but chose not to do so. I traveled with Morarji Desai to Russia as part of the press party. I talked to him in Moscow, and found out he was enjoying his posting. His wife wrote a book on her days in Moscow. He was the ambassador for more than five years.

    His diplomatic skills actually got honed in Moscow. Not that he was not well-versed with it prior to that, but he started taking greater interest in foreign policy issues than before. When Mrs Gandhi came back to power, he was called back.

    Gujral’s family came from Jhelum, a district of Pakistan. His father was a Congress leader. They moved to India in 1948, not in ‘47 with the other refugees. But the trauma of the Partition was too much for him. Gujral essentially represented the composite culture of India. He was secular and believed in a plural society. Some of his best friends were Muslim intellectuals of his generation in Lahore. He continued his friendship with them even after Partition.

    He was fond of Urdu and he used to quote Urdu poetry extensively. Urdu lovers, whether Hindu or Muslim, used to flock to him. Some of the arguments were settled by reciting Urdu couplets. Iqbal, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Faiz Ahmed Faiz were his favourites. He was always a good conversationalist and this helped him in diplomacy also.

    He was very keen on the India-Pakistan peace process. The Gujral Doctrine was about taking Indian initiatives for peace with all our neighbours. The Indo-Pak peace was a special mission for him.

    When he was prime minister, he met his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif in Maldives. He broached the subject of peace and told him, “We do not know for how long we are going to remain in power, but for as long as we are in power, let us make an effort to bring both the countries together and make peace with each other.” Nawaz Sharif promised him his cooperation. I think both of them knew that they were in power for a limited time.

    Though he had accepted the idea of Partition, he had some pertinent questions: Why should the Radcliffe line divide humans living in this sub-continent. Why should Partition come in the way of the Indian sub-continental plural culture?

    I had questioned Gujral on the nuclear threat by Pakistan. He was diplomatic about India’s nuclear deterrence capability. Some of us had covered the visit of Pakistan’s foreign minister Sahibzada Yakub Khan to India in the mid-90s. This trip was a disaster, or at least that was the general impression. Khan, even during outside talks with the then PM VP Singh and foreign minister Gujral, was assertive and had taken a harsh stance on the Kashmir situation. He also hinted about a “nuclear threat” and this was conveyed to the PM by him. Later, when I asked Gujral about this, he said his gut feeling was that the nuclear threat was a bluff, which could be called off. Yakub Khan’s tone definitely was a matter of concern especially with the situation in Kashmir deteriorating.

    As for chemical weapons, I thought it was a diplomatic move he was making to ward off pressures about the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT). The government had no policy on using chemical weapons. The question was that we weren’t using it; we were ready to sign the international convention as it would be a goodwill gesture on part of the Indian government.

    People used to describe Gujral as a peacenik. His contribution as foreign minister under Deve Gowda was to end the dispute over the Ganga waters. The signing of the 30-year Ganga Water accord with Sheikh Hasina’s government in Bangladesh was his major achievement.

    On the Gujral doctrine, he often would say that to improve relations with our large neighbours, we ought also to be large-hearted. That itself is a contribution to peace in general and to security. A friendly neighbour makes that part of the sub-continent more secure for us. He combined security with friendship.

    Many people criticised the doctrine, asking why we should always give when it is only a one-way street. But he was always opposed to this binary argument. He wasn’t sacrificing any security interests; no PM or foreign minister of India can. Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh have taken the defence expenditures higher.

    As foreign minister under the VP Singh government, he was the one who advised that we should call back the Indian Peace Keeping Force contingent from Sri Lanka. The army was drawing flak back at home, as it was not trained to fight house-to-house battles. It was only helping the Sri Lankan PM Jayawardhane, who pitted India against the LTTE, thus sparing himself of the consequences. And that’s how we got sucked into Sri Lankan politics. But Gujral’s efforts resulted in the Indian Army being called back.

    As hard as it might seem to believe, Gujral always meant well, even in politics. I never heard him talk ill of other political leaders. He had disagreements with many, but his political argument was always persuasive, never confrontationist.

    His single biggest achievement was his style of leadership- dignified, elegant, graceful, rising above controversies, and stressing that India should have peace in its neighbourhood. He reached out to people of other parties privately.

    During his tenure as PM, he could not leave a mark, the way he may have liked to. His agenda was that of Nehru’s. He was a good political analyst. Very few politicians can be objective in their analysis. He was one of them.

    The long-lasting bond between him and his wife Sheila is also legendary. She was very well-educated, an MA in Economics in those days. His fondness for his brother Satish Gujral is also well known. After he retired in 1999, Gujral had penned an autobiography, which gives us a clear idea of the times he lived by.

    As told to Prakhar Jain

    letters@tehelka.com


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    Posted on 05 Dec 2012
 

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