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.

In short, Gujral proved unable to impose his formal political authority as PM upon colleagues or events. Hence his acceptance of the Akali Dal's support for his election in Jalandhar in the subsequent 12th general election in March 1998 occasioned dismay in some quarters, but little surprise. If anything, his brief tenure at the helm of state highlighted the diffusion of power at the top and the increasingly local calculus of survival that marked subsequent national multi-party governments, regardless of their ideological persuasions.

A fairer assessment of Gujral's outlook, judgement and skill, thus, requires a focus on his stints in external affairs. His first came during V.P. Singh's short-lived National Front government (1989-1990). The desire for better relations in the subcontinent led to forays in Sri Lanka and Nepal, as well as softer political rhetoric vis-à-vis Pakistan. His second innings, during the UF, proved to be more distinctive. It saw the unveiling of the so-called "Gujral doctrine". On the one hand, Gujral reiterated the need to respect national sovereignty and favour the peaceful resolution of bilateral disputes. On the other, he claimed that India should offer concessions to its smaller neighbours without expecting reciprocity, evoking the Gandhian notion that unconditional acts would help demonstrate political solidarity and enhance mutual trust.

Cynics decried the Gujral doctrine as cant. Sceptics mused that improving political "atmospherics" would do little to alter the ground realities driving particular conflicts. Self-professed realists perceived its organising principle to be a sign of weakness.

Yet, these judgements failed to explain for the signing of the Ganga Waters Accord, in December 1996, which exemplified its latent promise. The accord devised a three-point formula that guaranteed Bangladesh a comparatively greater share during its annual lean season. The election of Sheikh Hasina had provided a crucial opening. Yet it could not have succeeded without Gujral, the first external affairs minister to visit Bangladesh since 1971, or the full acquiescence of then West Bengal Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, whom Gujral had sent to Dhaka to demonstrate India's credibility, despite its possible cost to the state in lean years. For both figures, the strategic calculus of subcontinental relations extended beyond the narrow vantage of zero-sum gain. A similar posture informed Gujral's other trips across the subcontinent during these years.

The significance of the Gujral doctrine was twofold. First, it represented a more conciliatory strategic approach towards India's neighbours based on enlightened self-interest. Second, it explicitly fostered the participation of the states in foreign policy, which required the latter in turn to demonstrate requisite statesmanship. Put differently, the Gujral doctrine represented the ideals of the third force more generally. Arguably, it represented a more progressive interpretation of the "federal nationalist" principle, as Balveer Arora has put it, that has shaped the post-colonial Indian state. The recent debacle over the Teesta, which saw Mamata Banerjee undermine the possibility of progress, underscores the difference.

In the end, of course, its real test lay vis-à-vis Pakistan. The UF simultaneously resisted pressure to sign the CTBT while refusing to test the country's nuclear capabilities. Gujral oversaw the resumption of foreign secretary-level negotiations and the implementation of small confidence-building measures after a long hiatus. The resumption of prime ministerial talks between Gujral and Nawaz Sharif in the spring of 1997 — with the media highlighting the "personal bonhomie" of the two sons of the Punjab — hinted at possibilities. There were limits. Despite supporting "maximum autonomy" in Kashmir, the UF had failed to engage secessionist forces prior to holding flawed state assembly elections in October 1996. It revealed the limits of its federal reflexes and the deeper systemic failure of every political administration in New Delhi to lessen its military presence in the region. Yet one of Gujral's first acts as PM was to suspend the RAW's covert activities in Pakistan. The prudence of the decision, which fully came to light following the Lashkar-e-Toiba's attack on Mumbai in November 2008, showed the risks of making such unilateral concessions. Nonetheless, the move accorded with the spirit of his doctrine.

The opportunities and challenges India faces, in the subcontinent and beyond, are significantly more complex today. The idea of the third force, regardless of what happens in the next general election, is also far less coherent. Yet the principles of the Gujral doctrine are still relevant. They deserve renewed public debate.

The writer is visiting fellow, Project on Democracy and Development, Princeton University, US. He teaches politics at the New School for Social Research, US

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