Travails of a leader

Some of his predecessors had endured more and had a harrowing time in keeping the allies in good humour. India’s 12th prime minister I K Gujral has chosen to set the record straight on the sordid drama involving his coalition government.

Matters of discretion is a seminal autobiography penned by the author of much acclaimed Gujral Doctrine. He candidly records the events that shaped the destiny of the nation for over six decades. It is a tale of leaders who revel in political intrigues, back-biting and double-speak, unconcerned about democratic norms or propriety, sycophants and hangers-on marginalising leaders of integrity, and power brokers ruling the roost, replete with fascinating anecdotes involving the high and mighty, it is a no-holds-barred narrative on events and persons.

Hailing from a family of freedom fighters, Gujral spent his early days in Jhelum and Lahore. Partition forced his family to migrate to India and start life from scratch. Young Gujral was an ardent communist who got disillusioned with the party subsequently. Later he was drawn to the Congress and got elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1964. He was a member of Indira Gandhi’s early ‘kitchen cabinet’. But he stood apart from sycophants. He found Indira a complex personality. “Behind her soft exterior was a lady with an iron will,” he says. She could be mean, petty and vicious. But she could also be large-hearted. She was always suspicious of those close to her.

Yeshpal Kapoor spells out the secret of success of persons of his ilk — “We last out because we are like her dogs.’’ The late Railway Minister L N Mishra knew how to keep Sanjay and Mrs Gandhi’s household happy. But the PM couldn’t do anything against him as he knew too much. Another courtier Zail Singh “had gradually climbed the Himalayan heights with bizarre flattery, remaining unmindful of the derision or scorn of his contemporaries in the party.’’

Soon after the declaration of Emergency, Gujral was hounded out as the Minister for Information and Broadcasting for not following Sanjay Gandhi’s diktat on censorship. He lost out in the housing ministry as he came in the way of Dhirendra Brahmachari. A power caucus had antagonised all her old friends and admirers. He minces no words on the excesses of the emergency: “Small men with small minds had captured power...working overtime to destroy democratic institutions.” She permitted “a group of thugs to rule the roost.” Gujral is also highly critical of Mrs Gandhi’s role in aggravating Punjab crisis. He calls Operation Blue Star her second greatest blunder after Emergency.

Mrs Gandhi sent Gujral to Moscow as India’s ambassador. He had an eventful stint as envoy to the Soviet Union. Among the Soviet leaders, Prime Minister Kosygin impressed him the most. Party chief Brezhnev was in failing health. Mrs Gandhi often asked the Soviet leadership to tell the CPI leaders to end their hostility towards her party. She also wanted Moscow to soften its stand on Sanjay. However, she was averse to endorsing Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Gujral recalls Brezhnev’s fascination for exotic pens and watches. He found President Sanjiva Reddy, during his visit to Moscow, keener to take his family out for shopping and sightseeing.

The rise and fall of Janata Parivar gets a lion’s share of Gujral’s attention. He recounts how the ever feuding leaders of Janata Party destroyed the public goodwill within two years of coming to power. The fate of V P Singh government was no better. From day one, Devi Lal and Chandra Shekhar were out to make life miserable for the prime minister. As foreign minister, Gujral had the onerous task of handling the fall-out of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. He had invited a lot of unwanted publicity for embracing Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

During his electoral campaign in Patna, Gujral had the shock of his life when a thug approached him with an offer: “We take contracts for booth management on the polling day. Our charges are moderate: a lakh of rupees per booth, plus 50 bullets.’’

Narrating the events leading to the disintegration of Janata Dal, Gujral says regional satraps like Lalu Yadav began to treat their states and the party as their fiefdoms. The lack of any organisational structure made things worse. S R Bommai, who indulged in double-speak, was ineffective. He calls Deve Gowda the darkest of dark horses and says his role in the disintegration of the Janata Dal is second to none. Gujral found Gowda “struggling to come to terms with himself after the fall from the lofty office”. On Ramakrishna Hegde, he says: “Proclivity for sybaritic comfort and his affinity for glitter and glamour had ruptured his image.” Gujral admits that as prime minister he couldn’t change the public perception of his heading a weak government. His main job was to ward off attacks by various factional leaders.

Gujral is a gentleman politician who doesn’t easily fit into present day politics. His succinctly presented perspective on contemporary events and leaders makes compelling reading.

Matters of Discretion: An autobiography
I K Gujral
Hay House,
2011, pp 519
Rs. 795

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