The lasting legacy of a PM by fluke

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.

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