Policy of structured dialogue of discussing all issues by subject specialist ministries

Inder Kumar Gujral was an unlikely practioner of conciliatory politics. For a person whose family was dispatched penniless and truncated in the communal riots that marred the partition of India, the impact of any bitterness of those events on his politics remained on the margins.

He was also an unlikely practioner of diplomacy. An outsider, whose voice on foreign policy was heard with respect, whether he was in government or out of it. His stint as a Left leaning Congressman around the time Jawaharlal Nehru was laying out the country’s foreign policy also influenced his Gujral doctrine, basically a four-pillared edifice, for which he had a brief four years in two near-equal phases to implement.

On the theoretical plane, the Gujral doctrine, — so named by his friend Bhabani Sen Gupta, an academic and columnist —advocated a conscious policy of conciliation with neighbours, absolutely no use of force and settling all pending issue by negotiations, unilateral gestures of goodwill without waiting for reciprocity from smaller states and attempting to move away from fixed positions to examine alternatives when as issue seemed intractable.

The doctrine, especially on abstaining from the use of force, began shaping up when he was in the Soviet Union for six years from 1975. As Ambassador of India in Moscow at a time when the out-of-touch Communist Party Polit Bureau was misled by the Soviet Union’s security apparatus to send its forces into Afghanistan, Gujral told the then Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko that the crossing of the Amu Darya by the Red Army had put a question mark on the Saur Revolution and complicated the international equations for Moscow.

But it was in his second stint with the Indian foreign policy apparatus, this time as its head in the 1989-91 V.P. Singh government, that he rolled out the key elements of the Gujral doctrine — that India, the biggest entity in South Asia, should be sensitive towards the concerns of its smaller neighbours and that there should be continuous negotiations to normalise relations. Against a foot-dragging foreign policy apparatus, Gujral’s reliance on the Track II route led to assessments and implementation that helped him in his task.

Withdrawal of IPKF

The withdrawal of the Indian Army (Indian Peace Keeping Force) from Sri Lanka was the biggest landmark event during his stint as Foreign Minister. Led by J.N. Dixit, the V P Singh-Gujral duo had many critics. But even Mr. Dixit was to turn his admirer when Gujral showed his grasp of realpolitik during a visit to Delhi by then Pakistan Foreign Minister Shaibzada Yakub Khan. Upset at some of Mr. Khan’s comments earlier in the day, Gujral sought clearance from Prime Minister V.P. Singh and accompanied by Mr. Dixit landed at the Pakistan Foreign Minister’s room for an unscheduled near-midnight chat. And he let it be known that the Gujral doctrine, advocating unreciprocal concessions from India had not blindsided him to Pakistan's role in stoking militancy in J & K. This was also the time when the V.P. Singh-Gujral duo, derided as pacifists by the security community, was to approve operations that checked Pakistani Army to alter some crucial points on the line of control in their favour.

Yet there was one occasion — Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait and Gulf War I — when Gujral’s timing went awry and he came in for considerable criticism. His bear hug with Saddam Hussein and visit to occupied Kuwait did not endear him to many but managed to ensure that unlike citizens of some other countries whose singed bodies lay along bombed highways in Kuwait for days, Indians were given a safe passage to their homeland via other Gulf countries.

Those were testing times from India's neighbours and the revival of across-the-border militancy in Jammu & Kashmir -critics called his doctrine into question, ignoring the earlier upturning of a popular verdict in the state that soured public mood towards New Delhi. In fact it was the doctrine's baptism by fire. Gujral as Foreign Minister had the mortification of seeing his Cabinet colleague's daughter kidnapped in an exchange-for-hostages deal. In the immediate term it gave the impression of the Government being weak and supine.

The Gujral doctrine took flight when he became Foreign Minister followed by Prime Minister in the 1996-98 period. He reopened the dialogue with Pakistan which had collapsed in 1994 by meeting the then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief at Male who agreed that while they might not find a solution quickly, there was no harm in starting negotiations. The next meeting of Foreign Secretaries produced a breakthrough and thus was born the structured dialogue of discussing all issues by subject specialist ministries. This practice has suffered breakdowns as well as changes in name when it resumed, but it has continued to this day and is poised to produce results.

Treaty with Bangladesh

Apart from reopening dialogue with Pakistan, Gujral signed the first and only water sharing treaty with Bangladesh. This was again a test of his doctrine. Complex calculations and measurements were dispensed with in favour of a formulation that was simple and easy to implement and monitor. Gujral also set the stage for removal of tariff and non-tariff barriers which has led to inveterate India critics in Bangladesh today acknowledging that this measure of allowing duty free garments exports, implemented by his successors, has helped provide gainful employment.

An unsung portion of his Gujral doctrine was consolidation of Narasimha Rao's Look East Policy. It was during his stint at South Block that India became a dialogue partner of the ASEAN and a member of the ASEAN Regional Forum. Gujral had especially deputed Minister of State for External Affairs Salim Sherwani to make regular forays to these countries. His overtures to Beijing too did not go unreciprocated, leading to Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit that led to addition of mechanisms to maintain a peaceful border by building on the legacy of Narasimha Rao's 1993 visit to Beijing.

Nepal too received his attention during his two stints in the government. He helped neutralise the sour taste left in bilateral ties by Rajiv Gandhi's economic blockade by expressing India's willingness to revise or scrap the 1950 India Nepal Treaty which is seen by many in Kathmandu as unfair and not conforming to the principle of equality.

Gujral's periods in office would be too short a time frame to judge the impact of his doctrine. He had opponents in equal measure too. Tamils in India and Sri Lanka felt by withdrawing the army, New Delhi had let them down. The India-Sri Lanka trade agreement also remained in limbo with opposition coming from business people of both countries. Pakistan's encouragement to militancy in J & K continued despite the opening of an all-subjects-on-the table dialogue. Even ties with Bangladesh got mired in other issue on which there had been no progress.

Perhaps one element missing from his quiver was economic strength. As Foreign Minister in 1989-91, the Exchequer was empty. During his 1996-98 stint, India's economic growth was unsteady. But now with healthy GDP rates backing foreign policy, India is slowly realising Gujral's desire of expanding his four-pronged doctrine for the neighbourhood into one that encompasses the Asia Pacific region.

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