Sunday, December 9, 2012

Inder Kumar Gujral: a visionary leader departs

The Independent,
December, 8, 2012
M. Serajul Islam 

I remember vividly when Inder Kumar Gujral had visited Dhaka to attend the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh Business Summit in Dhaka in January 81997. The Sumit was the initiative of Sheikh Hasina who as Prime Minister believed, and correctly so, that the best way to improve relationship among the nations of South Asia was to encourage business and economic relationship among the countries of the region. That was a bold initiative and in a way a departure from SAARC that had failed to make a major impact as a regional organization.

IK Gujral responded to the idea of the Bangladesh Prime Minister spontaneously. Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan was also equally enthusiastic to the initiative. Nevertheless, as we sat in negotiations in the Sonargoan Hotel, the venue of the Summit, we got nowhere for at the level of the bureaucrats, there was practically no interest to the enthusiasm of their leaders to the Summit. The Indian and the Pakistani delegations sat for 2 days and still could not agree on a draft declaration. The issue upon which they spent most of the time was whether in the Dhaka Declaration, peace should precede development or the other way round.   

By 7pm on the concluding day of the Summit, India and Pakistan delegations would not concede from their entrenched positions. In frustration, the Bangladesh delegation that was chairing the drafting committee as the host ended the meeting  and reported to  Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that as Pakistan and India would not relent from their entrenched positions, the committee was unable to present an agreed draft Dhaka Declaration to the Summiteers. By then the delegations were all packed to depart and in fact, the aircrafts of the Indian and Pakistani Prime Ministers were ready to take off. 

Sheikh Hasina went to IK Gujral at first and explained to him the position taken by his delegation. Instantly, the Indian Prime Minister called the Indian delegation and instructed the leader that he wanted the Dhaka Declaration ready within the hour! The Pakistan Prime Minister also acted likewise.  We hurriedly went back to the drafting room and had the Dhaka Declaration ready within minutes. The Dhaka Declaration was signed. It was an initiative of Sheikh Hasina that had great potentials but it did not go anywhere because shortly after his visit to Dhaka, IK Gujral lost his position as the Indian Prime Minister. 

IK Gujral unfortunately was not the leader of either the Congress or the BJP when he was the Prime Minister. He had left the Congress in 1980 to join the Janata Dal. He came to power after the Congress withdrew its support to the Janata led United Front coalition government headed by Deve Gowde. As a consequence he was often referred to as the “accidental” Prime Minister.  Nevertheless, in the 11 months he remained in office, from May 1996 to April, 1997, he showed the vision of leading an India with close and friendly relations with all its neighbours. His emphasis was on developing friendly relations with India’s arch rival, Pakistan but he looked upon India’s relations with its smaller nations with equal, if not more importance. 

IK Gujral  developed what was named after him as the “Gujral Doctrine” as a guideline for India in dealing with its smaller neighbours that did not pose any security threat to it. He developed the Doctrine while serving as the Minister for External Affairs in the Janata Government of Deve Gowde.  (IK Gujral was earlier the Minister of External Affairs in the Janata Government headed by VP Singh). The Doctrine applied to India’s neighbours Bangladesh, Nepal; Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Maldives and quite logically excluded Pakistan. The five principles of the Gujral Doctrine were, first, India would deal with the South Asian neighbour minus Pakistan on good faith and trust and provide them their legitimate rights without demanding reciprocity. Second, these neighbours would not allow their territories to be used against the interest of another country. Third, none of these South Asian countries would interfere in one another’s internal affairs. Fourth, the neighbours would respect one another’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. Finally, the South Asian neighbours would resolve their conflicts trough consultations and negotiations. 

Unfortunately, the Gujral Doctrine remained a doctrine on paper and did not see the light of day. There were serious critics of the Doctrine, particularly among the bureaucrats and the intelligence who thought that by the Doctrine, India would be surrendering intelligence assets to neighbours without assurance that they would not use such intelligence against India. Following the terrorist attacks on India since 2000, culminating in the 24/11 or the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008, the IK Gujral came under fire in the media. India Today in a report mentioned that these attacks could be launched because of “capability that IK Gujral dismantled as Prime Minister” as a consequence of his vision of developing friendly relations with India’s neighbours.  In fact, the Gujral Doctrine was a non-starter and reflected the intellectual intent of its author against the reality of Indian politics and mindset of Indian politicians and bureaucrats entrusted with responsibility of dealing with its neighbours. This notwithstanding,  IK Gujral that did India a major favour as Prime Minister by his resistance to sign the CTBT that allowed his successor to conduct the Pokhran nuclear tests without a hitch. 

IK Gujral was born in Jhelum, Pakistan in 1919. He had his education in Lahore, in Hailey College of Commerce. He participated in the independence movement and was jailed. As a student, he was a member of the Communist Party of India and although later in his political life, he switched parties a few times, he always favoured the politics of the left. In the 1960s, he was a member of the Congress and played a significant role with others in the inner coterie that helped Indira Gandhi become the Prime Minister of India. He became her Minister of Information at a critical period when her government had imposed press censorship. He was removed from the Ministry in the wake of rumours that he was unwilling to bend to the demands of Sanjay Gandhi that helped establish his impeccable credentials as a politician of integrity. He was appointed as India’s Ambassador to USSR by the Government of Indira Gandhi but was kept in his post by the successive Janata Governments of Moraji Desai and Charan Singh. He proved to be a very successful Ambassador. 

In 1998, IK Gujral left Janata Dal but was elected to the Lok Sabha one last time as an independent. His political career, if it had not been backed by his intellectual abilities, his integrity and statesman like qualities that were well acknowledged, would have hinted at a wavering politician not certain about the party he needed to join to carry forward his ideas and beliefs. In reality though, IK Gujral was a misfit in Indian politics. The attacks on IK Gujral in the media and in the intelligence circles  has been unfortunate because one serious criticisms about India as it becomes a major player in world politics is its failure to deal with its smaller neighbours fairly and with a big heart. The Gujral Doctrine had given India the opportunity to establish on the world stage that it is not a petty minded power; an opportunity that it missed. IK Gujral’s death would be worthwhile only if the present political leadership of India cares to take a dispassionate look again at the Gujral Doctrine that has been and still is potentially an excellent doctrine for peace, security and development of South Asia, excluding Pakistan for the time being. 

The writer is a former career Ambassador


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