In his short tenure as Prime Minister, Gujral went out of the way to accommodate neighbouring countries
It was the small town of Baden-Baden in Germany that External Affairs Minister Inder Kumar Gujral chose as the venue for a meeting of Indian envoys in Europe. As High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, I attended it. During the discussion, Gujral wanted our comments on the future of relations between India and Pakistan. I said the resolution of Kashmir was important. Gujral snubbed me. Yet when he was the Prime Minister in 1997, he announced at Srinagar that India was willing to accept a solution outside the Constitution. There was so much pressure on him that he retracted the statement. But he remained steadfast in his proposal of a status for Kashmir outside the Constitution, though as part of the Indian Union.
A fighter for lost causes
Gujral constituted a Kashmir group and we visited Srinagar many times. There came a time when the Hurriyat leaders were willing to sit across the table with Indian leaders to settle the issue. But despite Gujral’s efforts, New Delhi did not change the policy of a military solution.
Sympathetic to all minorities, Gujral had also floated a Punjab group. The purpose was to bring round the Akalis, representing the Sikhs, to renounce their demand for the Anandpur Sahib resolution which sought Punjab’s autonomy. Once again we were able to persuade the Akalis to give up the demand which had in it the seeds of separation. The government let us down at that time also. We were told to find a solution to all problems with the Sikhs at one go, while the government was preparing for Operation Bluestar. Gujral felt betrayed.
In fact, I know from my long association with Gujral that he fought for many lost causes and derived satisfaction just from the fight. People in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Kashmir recognise him as a friend. His tenure as Prime Minister, although only for one short year, shows how he went out of the way to accommodate neighbouring countries. Towards the end of his life, he was disillusioned with Pakistan. He said that he wasted his life pursuing the mirage of building bridges with Islamabad and had realised rather late in the day that Pakistani leaders were anti-India to the core, never wanting to bury the hatchet.
Bringing Moscow closer
Gujral always took pride in having brought Russia and India closer. As the Indian envoy, he was in Moscow for a long time, first serving Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and then Prime Minister Morarji Desai. That the non-Congress regime retained him in Moscow spoke volumes about his outstanding contribution in making Soviet leaders appreciate India’s problems, although with no substantial result. He was on first-name terms with all the top shots in the government and the Communist party.
Gujral understood communism and its drawbacks well. As a young man in Lahore, he was a member of the Indian communist party. After Partition, he had strayed away from it to join the Congress. But he remained a leftist. Some said this was why he gave civil servants an abnormal pay hike when he was Prime Minister. The States vehemently criticised him but had to follow suit. When I conveyed to him the angry comments made by members of the government, he said: “The bureaucracy is the backbone of the government and it should be kept happy.”
His finest hour
Gujral’s finest hour was probably when he refused to continue as minister of Information and Broadcasting during the Emergency. A spar with Sanjay Gandhi ended his agony. When Sanjay gave him instructions on the telephone on how to tackle the press, Gujral said he was his mother’s minister, and not his errand boy. Indira Gandhi sent him to the Planning Commission where he had P.N. Haksar, already shifted from the Prime Minister’s Office for his “leftist views,” to share his grief with.
I recall travelling with Gujral to South Africa to pay homage to Mahatma Gandhi’s early days of struggle. Gujral had another purpose: meeting Nelson Mandela whose photo he had on his table. Mandela took Gujral to the dance floor and made him dance during a banquet in his honour. He travelled by car some 17 hours every day to touch all the places where Gandhiji had lived. He was particularly moved when he visited the railway station at Pietermaritzburg where Gandhiji was thrown out of the first-class compartment for being a non-white.
Three years ago when he brought out his memoirs, I told him the book revealed no secrets from the time he occupied top positions in the government. His reply was: “I am not a journalist.” Still, I think he should have told at least two stories — of the Congress split in 1969 because he was an insider then; and, the attitude of the Soviet leaders when they smelt defeat during the Cold War. But then Gujral was known for not treading on anybody’s toes. Posterity will remember him as a Prime Minister who was humble and who won the hearts of even his rivals through his humility. He was a gentleman in politics and this is imprinted on his work of more than six decades in the service of his nation and the people. The country has lost a great leader. And I have lost a close friend who shared his innermost thoughts with me. Together we visited Pakistan, Punjab and Kashmir many times. In the Kashmir and Punjab groups, his amiable temperament brought members closer together. There is nobody to pick up the thread from where he left off. The work is important, and his absence will be felt. Personally, his death has left me feeling lonely. I shall miss the voice at the other end of the telephone, offering advice when I needed it.
(Kuldip Nayar is a veteran journalist and former Member of Parliament.)