The lasting legacy of a PM by fluke

Gujral's brief tenure at the helm highlighted the diffusion of power at the Centre and the increasingly local calculus of survival of later governments

The tenure of I.K. Gujral as India's 13th prime minister since Independence, from April 1997 to March 1998, evokes faint memories now. The United Front (UF, 1996-1998), like most dispensations of the Janata parivar, was fleeting and unruly. Indeed, Gujral's elevation to the highest political office was a fluke. Its catalyst was the growing personal animosity between the Congress's Sitaram Kesri and then-PM H.D. Deve Gowda. Hazy political intrigues on both sides ultimately cost the latter his post. The contending regional satraps of the UF agreed upon Gujral in the middle of the night at Andhra Pradesh Bhavan to neutralise their own rivalries.

Indeed, upon hearing that he had been chosen, Gujral was reportedly overwhelmed with anxiety. He had good reason. The Congress precipitated the downfall of his ministry several months later after the UF refused to capitulate to its ham-fisted demand to remove the DMK from its ranks on the basis of the deeply flawed interim report of the Jain Commission. Put harshly, Gujral was a temporary PM of a caretaker administration, now largely consigned to the footnotes of history.

To accept such an appraisal, however, would be a mistake. As PM, Gujral was dealt an extremely difficult hand. This was partly due to his political standing: he lacked an independent power base. Situational factors also played a role. Given the Congress's track record in toppling similar administrations after briefly propping them up — Charan Singh in 1979 and Chandra Shekhar in 1991 — nobody thought the Gujral ministry would last for long. The prospects of accommodation grew increasingly narrow. Yet the conflicts that ensued within the coalition also demanded a more resilient temperament. Gujral controversially dismissed the CBI director Joginder Singh during the encroaching fodder scam in Bihar, which nevertheless snared Lalu Prasad, to whom he owed his Rajya Sabha seat. Similarly, Gujral proved unable to enjoin collective discipline upon his ministry during the negotiations over the Fifth Pay Commission, which saw many of his colleagues openly support the unions' demands by joining their rallies in the streets. Finally, despite his strong personal opposition, the Gujral ministry recommended the imposition of Article 356 in Uttar Pradesh at the behest of the SP and CPM. It was only President K.R. Narayanan, asking the cabinet to reconsider its decision, who allowed restraint to prevail.

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