Since the advent of coalition politics, autobiographical accounts by Prime Ministers have been hard to come by. The one by P.V. Narasimha Rao does not fall into the classical mould of autobiography.
Inder Kumar Gujral, who is into his 90s, has relied largely on his personal diaries in writing this book. He confesses that, due to overwhelming work schedules, he was unable to make diary entries every day. He is equally candid in saying that, because of fading memory and passage of time, he could not recall all the names or precise dates of events referred to in his account. Inviting readers to point out mistakes and lapses, he promises to rectify them in subsequent editions.
Gujral's family was among the thousands that crossed over to India from Pakistan post-Partition, and the early portions of the book speak nostalgically of his childhood days in Jhelum in West Punjab and the pangs of separation. The book traces the long journey of a politician who confesses his proximity to Communism and who, entering the thick of politics in 1958, got elected first to the Electoral College of Delhi and later to the Rajya Sabha, and eventually occupied the country's top political position of authority, the Prime Minister.
On Indira Gandhi
Gujral gives a lucid account of Indira Gandhi's early days, her struggle against the ‘old guard' in the post-Jawaharlal Nehru Congress, and the sequence of events that pushed him into the early version of her “kitchen cabinet''. About Mrs. Gandhi, Gujral says she was a “split and very complex personality,'' who could be mean, petty, and vicious yet large-hearted, gracious and charming. But then, throughout the book, one could perceive a grudging respect for the canny politician in Mrs. Gandhi.
He speaks of an occasion when, as Prime Minister, he took a leaf from Ms. Gandhi's style of functioning to tackle a difficult situation, and that was when he asked the Civil Aviation Secretary to interact with Jayanthi Natarajan rather than with C.M. Ibrahim, who owed allegiance to H.D. Deve Gowda (Gujral's immediate predecessor).
One is, however, disappointed that Gujral has little to offer by way of an explanation for his falling out of favour with Mrs. Gandhi. One is left to surmise that the advent of Sanjay Gandhi may have to do with the souring of relationship. For Gujral, his posting as Ambassador to the Soviet Union served as a springboard for his role as the Minister for External Affairs. The excellent personal equations Mrs. Gandhi had with the top Soviet leaders and Mrs. Gandhi's own perception of the influence the Soviets had on the leaders of the Communist Party of India come out sharply from Gujral's account. Coming as it does from a person who remained close to the powers that be, Gujral's narrative about the Emergency years, the rise and fall of the first non-Congress government, and Mrs. Gandhi's triumphant return to power brings out some interesting facets of the developments.
The post-1980s phase, which saw him drawn into the vortex of Opposition politics and his becoming External Affairs Minister first in the V.P. Singh Cabinet and subsequently under H.D. Deve Gowda, is well chronicled. The national upheavals; his unsuccessful attempt at course correction; the Opposition conclaves; the troubles in Jammu and Kashmir (for which he holds Governor Jagmohan's mishandling of the emerging situation partly responsible); and the ‘Mandal' and the ‘Mandir-Masjid' issues that dominated the political discourse — all these are also discussed in detail.
Expatiating on the doctrine that has come to be known after him, Gujral says it brought about a significant change in India's relations with its neighbours. He claims credit for the safe evacuation of Indians trapped in the Gulf during the war. By far the most exhaustive and interesting section comes towards the end wherein he chronicles his days as the Prime Minister, the ego clashes, and the bickering among leaders of the fractious Janata Dal that brought down his government. Yet, for a politician who is critical of Charan Singh and S. Chandra Shekhar for having agreed to head the government with a less than stable base, it is indeed odd that Gujral has not chosen to elaborate on what exactly prompted him to take up that position under equally difficult circumstances.
Overall, this largely anecdotal work offers an insight into the goings-on in the corridors of power in Lutyens' Delhi and a ringside view of happenings in New Delhi insofar as they related to international politics. The book, which is a welcome addition to the literature on contemporary history, could however have done with better sequencing of chapters.