From ambassador to prime minister
It is not often that foreign policy specialists become prime ministers. Inder Kumar Gujral went on to occupy the coveted post, thanks to the stroke of luck.
Known as an intellectual, the suave and sober Gujaral was a minister during Indira Gandhi’s tenure as the prime minister, that too during the tumultuous period of Emergency in 1975. A Gandhi loyalist, he held several portfolios including information and broadcasting, planning, communications, parliamentary affairs and housing.
In 1976, Gandhi appointed him the Indian ambassador to erstwhile USSR. He held the distinction of serving in that post under three prime ministers, Gandhi, Morarji Desai and Charan Singh. He served as foreign minister in the cabinets of V P Singh and H D Deve Gowda.
Gujral became the prime minister when the Gowda government collapsed after erstwhile Congress president Sitaram Kesri pulled the rug from under Gowda’s feet. The Congress, which was supporting the JD government, was not prepared to face another election soon and decided to back Gujral, who was a neutral candidate. Thus he became the prime minister on April 21, 1997. But Gujral’s term did not last long as the Congress withdrew support and he resigned on March 19, 1998.† Born into a family of freedom fighters on December 4, 1919, in Jhelum town now in Pakistan, Gujral actively participated in the freedom struggle and was jailed in 1942 during the “Quit India Movement.” After completing his education in Lahore (now in Pakistan), Gujral crossed over to India during Partition.
Beginning his long innings in politics, Gujral first became the vice-president of the New Delhi Municipal Committee in 1958. He joined the Congress and was a Rajya Sabha member from 1964 to 1976. After his term expired, Indira Gandhi appointed him the ambassador in Moscow. He held the position till 1981. As an ambassador, Gujral had a rare meeting with USSR’s Communist party secretary general Leonid Brezhnev and later met Iraq’s Saddam Hussain in 1991.
Gujral joined the Opposition in the early 1980s and was elected to Parliament as a Janata Dal representative from Jalandhar in 1989. Gujral, who was actively involved in drafting manifestos in JD, represented the party from Patna in 1991 but the elections were countermanded. Next year, he entered the Rajya Sabha. In 1998, he won from Jalandhar with support from the Akali Dal.
His tenure as the prime minister was an eventful one. There was a demand that Gujral should ask Lalu Prasad Yadav to resign from the Bihar chief minister’s post and transfer Joginder Singh who was probing corruption charges against Yadav. Eventually, Yadav left the party to form RJD. In another incident, Gujral’s government recommended President’s rule in Uttar Pradesh but erstwhile president K R Narayanan refused to sign it. Later, as the Jain Commission report indicted DMK for supporting LTTE, responsible for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, the Congress demanded that DMK ministers be dropped.
Gujral refused to budge and the Congress withdrew support to the government. A renowned expert on foreign policy, Gujral authored a document called the “Gujral Doctrine,” a set of principles to guide foreign relations with India’s immediate neighbours.
A prolific writer in English, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi, Gujral was active in Delhi’s intellectual circles and was a regular at the India International Centre.