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8 December, 2019 01:11:11 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 9 December, 2019 11:01:36 AM


The gentleman prime minister

Of course it was a star-studded affair at India International Centre where Gujral had spent many lazy afternoons as part of its Saturday Club
Kumkum Chadha
The gentleman prime minister

It is rare, at least in Indian politics, that other than the Nehru-Gandhis, Jawaharlal, Indira and Rajiv, past Prime Ministers are remembered with reverence, awe and gratitude. Atal Behari Vajpayee, being a people’s Prime Minister, is perhaps an exception but it stops there.
Therefore, it was a surprise and a pleasant one too when photographs of Inder Kumar Gujral donned national newspapers with even Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and Uddhav Thackeray, recently sworn in as Maharashtra Chief Minister, paying  tributes to the late Prime Minister.

Quite significant  because Gujral neither belonged to their respective parties or their generation of politicians. This only demonstrates that he cut across party lines to touch hearts.
Therefore, when the family, led by his son, Naresh, currently an MP and a vocal one at that, decided to celebrate his father’s centenary year, everyone attended. Ofcourse it was a star-studded affair at India International Centre where Gujral had spent many lazy afternoons as part of its Saturday Club.

Started at the now obscure Volga restaurant in New Delhi with a contributory buffet lunch at rupees 2 per head, the Saturday Club shifted to Delhi’s India International Centre.

Officially, called  the Saturday Discussion Group, it is kind of elitist opening its doors to a handful who are acknowledged as top experts be it in strategic studies, nuclear armaments, defence or policy.  

As Prime Minister Gujral broke a rule: holding the Club’s meeting at his residence. But no one grumbled because both he and his wife, were excellent hosts. And this had nothing to do with the office he held be it of a junior minister or Prime Minister. Even when he was not in power and that was for many long years , the Gujrals home was an open house. Walk in anytime and there was warmth, cordiality and a lot of goodwill bundled in, not to speak of the lavish spread of eats available at any point in time. But then the  Gujrals have always lived well: a trait,  Naresh has inherited from his parents. He, too, lives well: a sprawling bungalow in Lutyens Delhi but more importantly one that is tastefully done, his uncle, eminent painter Satish Gujral’s works prominently displayed in strategic places. Like his parents, Naresh too keeps an open house.

He, like his father, has a large number of friends cutting across party lines: something that was evident at the event to mark the centenary celebrations of his father at the India International Centre. There were politicians from all parties including  Manmohan Singh, Hamid Ansari, D.Raja, Sitaram Yechury, Murli Manohar Joshi, Sharad Pawar, Praful Patel, Karan Singh, Satish Mishra, Jyotiraditya Scindia and filmstar turned MPs Jaya Bachchan and Kirron Kher and Union ministers Piyush Goyal, Harsimrat Badal and  S.Jaishanker among others.

Inder Kumar Gujral was Prime Minister of India for just under a year: from April 1997 to March 1998. He left an indelible mark with what came to be known as the 'Gujral Doctrine':   five principals to conduct foreign relationship with India's immediate neighbours: Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka.

The doctrine spelt  India  not seeking reciprocity but remaining a giver; all South Asian countries to respect each other's territorial integrity and settle  their disputes through peaceful bi-lateral negotiations among others. The doctrine was formulated  during Gujral’s  tenure as an external affairs minister and later chiselled when he was  Prime Minister .

A thorough gentleman ,Gujral was well bred and courteous to a fault: something Naresh has inherited from his father. Inder Kumar Gujral was incapable of  hurting  even a fly.

Therefore when he stood up to Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi many were surprised. Gujral was then a minister in Indira Gandhi’s Cabinet but his tiff with Sanjay cost him his job. He was packed off to Moscow where he stayed during  the subsequent tenures of two other Prime Ministers: Morarji Desai and Charan Singh. He was distinguished by his Lenin style goatee. On his return from Moscow, Gujral quit the Congress.

It was interesting how even after nearly two decades, Gujral has not lost his relevance in terms of politics and policies. Therefore when Manmohan Singh said that had P.V. Narasimha Rao, then Union Home Minister, heeded Gujral’s advice to call in the Army, the  1984 Sikh massacre in Delhi could have been avoided, it touched a chord:

"Gujral Ji was so concerned that he went to the then Home Minister Narsimha Rao that very evening .. the situation is so grave that it is necessary for the government to call the army at the earliest. If that advice would have been heeded perhaps the 1984 massacre could have been avoided," Manmohan Singh said, speaking at the ceremony to mark the 100thanniversary of the former Prime Minister.

The 1984 Sikh massacre, which followed the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the hands of her four Sikh security personnel, had leftover 3,000 Sikhs dead across the nation.

Equally, former President Dr Pranab Mukherjee said that  the Congress decision to withdraw support from IK Gujral-led United Front government in 1998, allowed the BJP to come to power.

Earlier, Dr S. Jaishankar spelt out India’s foreign policy when he said India  must be generous with smaller neighbours of South Asia, adding that the  Gujral Doctrine was crafted in the 1990s when relationship with Pakistan had “some optimism”, which was eroded after the series of cross-border terror attacks:

“In today’s circumstance, I would express it as the Neighourhood First. It means that as the biggest country of the region, we must take the lead, must go the extra mile, must be non-reciprocal, must be generous, must invest in our neighbourhood. So that irrespective of issues that the neighbours might have vis-a-vis India, we should be able to create an environment so that the neighbourhood remains bound to us and sensitive to our core security concerns and we in turn go the extra mile in terms of their development aspirations,” Jaishankar said.

The event surely marked the memory of a man who is remembered more as a good human being rather than a crafty politician: one who spoke more about ethics in public life than he did about power. Like his Gujral doctrine, he was the first to flag the need for an Ethics Committee to oversee the moral and ethical conduct of MPs: a point missed by the speakers who concentrated more on the Gujral doctrine than they did about his concern for probity in public life. But then policy always takes precedence over morality.

In remembering Gujral, even while speakers delved into the past, they underlined the relevance of his thought, policies and principles in the context of the present and the future: a point Harsimrat Kaur Badal articulated rather well in her tribute to Gujral:

“Today, when Gujral is no longer with us, his state still looks back on those years with great warmth and a touch of sadness. The Doctrine which became known by his name still remains the best formula to address issues not only of international nature but also domestic and, to some extent, even of a personal nature…. the Gujral Doctrine is also a recipe for a new approach to life”. But what touched a chord was her summing up the man, his life and times: "Here was Gujral; when comes such another?"

The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (




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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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