Former Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, who passed away on Friday, aged 93, remained a Left-leaning politician all his life. Yet, he was never a rebel in the Congress in the sense other left-leaning and socialists like Chandrasekhar, who later became prime minister, Krishna Kant and Mohan Dharia were.
Gujral finally left the Congress after he returned home from Moscow where he had gone as ambassador, He was sent by Indria Gandhi in 1976 to a friendly country during Emergency, possibly because Gujral took a dim view of the extreme measure. It speaks volumes about Gujral’s acceptability across the political spectrum when he was allowed to continue as ambassador by the Janata government in 1977. His stellar contribution in diplomacy was the famed “Gujral Doctrine” --- some basic parameters guiding the conduct of foreign relations with India’s immediate neighbours, especially Pakistan.
Gujral’s soft and gentle demeanour perhaps militated against his ever becoming a rebel. Ever gentle in his ways, Gujral was not known to have raised his voice even in the face of extreme provocation. As Prime Minister for less than a year in 1997, Gujral often faced a hostile opposition in Parliament. But his responses were always persuasive.
He spoke impeccable English, albeit with a pleasing Punjabi accent that came to the fore at times. He was also at home with Urdu. In fact, he had headed a committee for the promotion of Urdu. After all, Urdu was as good as his mother tongue Punjabi. Gujral was born into a family of freedom fighters in Jhelum town, now in Pakistan. He was jailed in 1942 during the Quit India Movement. He had all his education in Lahore.
INDIRA GANDHI’S CONFIDANT
No wonder Gujral had a soft corner for Lahore and always fondly remembered his student days there. Only the Partition riots forced him to leave his loved city in August 1947.
Gujral may have been a Nehru-Gandhi family loyalist but he never staked his self-respect or free will to gain political ascendancy. By all accounts, Pandit Nehru liked the young Gujral who had easy access to his official residence, Teenmurti Bhavan. In fact, when Nehru died in May 1964, Gujral remained a pillar of strength to Indira Gandhi. According to biographers of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Gujral willingly washed Nehru’s body before it was taken for cremation. His closeness to Indira Gandhi helped him to get into her inner circle after she became the Prime Minister in January 1966. She gave him the important portfolio of Information and Broadcasting, which she had handled herself previously.
I had an opportunity to interact with Gujral first as a student of journalism at Bombay’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in July 1972 when he presided over the convocation of Mass Media students. He spent quite some time with the budding journalists and recalled the famous saying about the profession: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
Years later, as a special correspondent with PTI, I had several occasions to cover him in and outside Parliament, first as a cabinet minister in the V.P. Singh government and later as PM. Finally in 2004, years after he left active politics, I met Gujral at his residence for an one-to-one interview. It was basically to collect information on Pandit K. Santanam of Lahore on whom I was writing a small biography.
Santanam, a Tamilian from Kumbakonam, was an associate of Lala Lajpat Rai and was a member of the Indian National Congress, the party that was born in 1885, the year of his own birth. Gujral confessed that he would not be of any great help as he knew Santanam only as a teenager. “Pandit Santanam was in the reception committee of the Lahore Congress,” he recalled. Suddenly beaming, he said, “Yes, years later when I met his daughter Madhuri in Delhi she struck me with her close resemblance to her father.”
After I took a photo of the former PM, I waited nervously, wanting to be snapped with him. Somehow, Gujral read my mind and said, “Ok, why don’t we have a photo together” and asked his aide to click the camera. He came up to the door to bid goodbye to me. “I look forward to Santanam's biography,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
(The author is an independent journalist.)