A gentleman among politicians

Former Prime Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, who died of a serious chest infection at the age of 92 served in many capacities. His prominent appointments included; Information and Broadcasting Minister under former Prime  inister Indira Gandhi, India’s High Commissioner to Moscow, twice as External Affairs Minister in Non-Congress regimes (1989-1990, 1996-1997) and finally as PM of a Congress backed coalition (1997-1998) Gujral’s real forte was foreign policy, and he amply demonstrated his diplomatic prowess, first as India’s External Affairs Minister and then as Prime Minister.

Gujral however, was mocked at for being utopian and excessively soft on India’s neighbours. The ‘Gujral doctrine’ whose main premise was that India being the larger country in South Asia, should not expect reciprocity from its neighbours, was lambasted by hawks within the establishment and myopic sections of the strategic community.

Successive Prime Minister’s, including the current incumbent, have followed a similar policy and understood the significance of India sharing a good relationship with neighboring countries, especially Pakistan and Bangladesh In the case of Pakistan, I K Gujral deserves credit for renewing serious engagement with Pakistan in the late 1990’s, first as External Affairs Minister during the Deve Gowda government and then as Prime Minister. Gujral, who was born in Jhelum (now Pakistan) on 4 December 1919, in undivided India, shared a very good rapport with erstwhile Pakistan Prime Minister and PML-N Supremo, Mian Nawaz Sharif. Gujral’s successor Atal Bihari Vajpayee, another visionary, received the former’s support in his quest for peace with Pakistan.

In the case of Bangladesh, it was Gujral’s efforts, as external affairs minister, which resulted in the signing of the Ganges treaty between New Delhi and Dhaka in 1996. Sheikh Hasina was the  Prime Minister of Bangladesh at the time. Apart from a being a visionary and erudite, Gujral was well regarded for a myriad of other personal qualities such as decency and friendship across parties and immense love for Urdu poetry –with Faiz being his favourite poet.

Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh’s tribute to Gujral reiterates not only the former Prime Minister’s stature but also the respect he enjoyed across party lines.

Said the Prime Minister, ‘No matter what portfolio he held, what shone through always was his sincerity and warmth, compassion for his fellow human beings and the legacy of strongly-held socialist beliefs from his youthfulexperiences’.

Leaders from other political parties, including the BJP, too paid rich tributes to the former Prime Minister.

It should be stated here, that while the former PM may have been a thorough gentleman, he never refrained from calling a spade a spade and this often got him into trouble.

During the emergency for example, Gujral then Information and Broadcasting Minister, took on then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi’s younger son, Sanjay Gandhi and this cost him his job. While Gandhi appointed Gujral as India’s High Commissioner to Moscow, his ties with the Congress soured and he never returned back.  Later on as Prime Minister of a Congress-led coalition, he stuck to his guns and while respecting coalition dharma he never exhibited any subservience in his dealings with the Congress Party – at the behest of whom his government ran. Similarly, Gujral a true Nehruvian exhibited his rationality, genuine commitment to secularism and the rights of religious minorities during the turmoil in Punjab.

The former Indian PM, along with some other Punjabi intellectuals tried to play a constructive role in bringing Sikhs, who were alienated, back into the national mainstream and set up a Punjab Group which acted as an intermediary between the Akalis and the Central Government.

His son Naresh Gujral, joined the Akali Dal a few years back and is a Rajya Sabha Member from the party. IK Gujral will be missed for many reasons, but most of all for the fact that there are few gentleman politicians today, and fewer who don so many hats.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based columnist
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