The lasting legacy of a PM by fluke

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.

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