Veteran of turbulent times quietly passes away

Last Updated: Fri, Nov 30, 2012 20:51 hrs

A man who presided over India during a tumultuous political period, former prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral, died in Delhi on Friday. He was 93.

With his death, India has lost not just a suave and cultured politician but a man sworn to the ideals of democracy. Gujral was born and grew up in Jhelum, between Pindi and Lahore in undivided India, when the freedom movement was at its peak. The family was immersed in politics. Lajpat Rai, Madan Mohan Malaviya, Subhas Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh and even Jawaharlal Nehru would be visitors to his home.

“In our family, going to prison was like going for a summer vacation,” Gujral’s artist brother, Satish, was to write about those days. A large number of young people were fired by ideas of equality and communism. As a student, Gujral was secretary general of the All India Students Federation, the Communist Party-affiliated student group. Much later, he was to become a critic of the Soviet Union under Stalin, especially after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

After partition, Gujral came to Delhi and started an export-import business. He met Indira Gandhi by chance, their friendship grew and she offered him a Rajya Sabha seat. After Jawaharlal Nehru died, three men stood like a rock behind Indira Gandhi and then encouraged her to make a bid for prime ministership when Lal Bahadur Shastri died – Dinesh Singh, Uma Shankar Dikshit and Gujral actually drafted the announcement for her. During the Congress split of 1969, Gujral played a vital role in building the media campaign in Gandhi’s favour. She subsequently made him minister for information and broadcasting (I&B).

But, there were new factors at work. Sanjay Gandhi was a rising star in the Congress and got into constant skirmishes with Gujral. The Emergency in 1975 was the last straw.

The late Janardan Thakur, a chronicler of the Emergency days, related this story about the relations between Gujral and Sanjay Gandhi: On the second day of the Emergency, Sanjay Gandhi’s secretary telephoned Gujral, asking him to come to the PM’s house at 10 am. Gujral got delayed at a meeting and reached the PM’s home about half-an-hour late. Sanjay Gandhi strode into the drawing room, looking at his watch angrily. “This won’t do,” he said.

“What do you mean?” Gujral asked.

“I had asked you to come at 10. Ye sab nahi chalega.”

“Zaroor chalega,” Gujral said firmly. “If you want to talk to me, you will have to learn to be courteous. You are younger than my son and I owe you no explanation.”

Sanjay Gandhi got up and stormed out of the room.

Some time later, Gujral got a call. He was to send all the All India Radio bulletins and political scripts to Sanjay Gandhi before they went on air. The friction went on. Indira Gandhi couldn’t mediate any more, so, V C Shukla was made the minister for information & broadcasting and Gujral was asked to move out.

In 1976, he was posted as India’s ambassador to the Soviet Union, where he stayed till 1980.

In his biography, ‘Matters of Discretion’, Gujral recorded that during his tenure there, President Sanjiva Reddy came to visit the Soviet Union. He was not particularly keen to discuss politics or economics with the Soviet leadership. He was more keen to go out shopping with his family. He also recorded a top Soviet leader as telling him that “Indira Gandhi must understand she is a leader first and a mother second”.

Gujral became a moving spirit in the Janata Dal experiment in 1988. His comment about Ramakrishna Hegde was, “his proclivity for sybaritic comfort and affinity for glitter and glamour” caused his downfall.

About V P Singh, he said, he was “stubborn in not heeding the advice of his colleagues and indecisive till a situation went out of control; he easily played into the hands of sectarian leaders who alienated him from his support base and the media”.

In Gujral’s opinion, Singh’s Mandal commission decision led to the collapse of the government.

In November 1990, Chandra Shekhar formed his government. Gujral says he was asked but declined to join his cabinet.

Gujral became the prime minister in 1997 when Sitaram Kesri ( the “old man in a hurry”) withdrew Congress support to H D Deve Gowda. Gujral eventually was chosen successor. After some persuasion, P Chidambaram became his finance minister, managing to coexist with Indrajit Gupta of the Communist Party of India, who was home minister. It was not a smooth sailing, and, after facing Congress pressure to drop coalition partner DMK from the government (because of allegations against it in the Jain Commission investigation of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination), Gujral refused to oblige and preferred to resign.

Lately, his memory had been failing and he was not himself. He died at 3.31 pm at Medanta Hospital in Gurgaon.

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