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Parliamentary Affairs

From Indira Gandhi’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ to the chaotic United Front years,Gujral’s autobiography is marked with some frank assessments and a few revelations.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
March 5, 2011 12:19:48 am

Morarji Desai did write a three-volume story of his life but that was well before he became prime minister in 1977 at age 81. P.V. Narasimha Rao couldn’t bring his fictionalised account of his life up to the time of his unexpected ascent to the top of the greasy pole. I.K. Gujral is therefore the first Indian prime minister to pen his autobiography. His own rise to the top political job was also unexpected and his stay at 7 Race Course Road as short as that of H.D. Deve Gowda,his predecessor in the Congress-backed United Front government. Even so,107 pages out of a total of 519 are devoted to this rather turbulent,indeed chaotic,period.

Although his book is titled Matters of Discretion,the author is broadly candid in telling his life story that is inextricably intertwined with the country’s well -known history since Independence. But the myriad minutiae,some of them fascinating,and his personal assessments of friends and foes,together with a few revelations,make his work eminently readable.

If any conclusion emerges from his narration it is that opportunism,cynicism,hypocrisy,backstabbing,shabby deals,shady compromises,shameless self-seeking and unending factionalism have been the lifeblood of Indian politics through the long years he has been active in it. By his own account,his party,the Janata Dal,comes through as rather worse than its rivals. Devi Lal was the villain of the piece but even prime minister V.P. Singh,for whom Gujral has the highest respect,erred. Gujral quotes George Fernandes to the effect: “God alone knows what is in his (V.P.’s) mind.” A short chapter,“The Odd Trio: Gowda,Lalu and Kesri”,is delightful. To say that each of the threesome is shown in poor light would be the understatement of the century.

A scion of a family of freedom fighters,Gujral started his political career in the Congress. He was first elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1964. This,he acknowledges,was due entirely to “Indira Gandhi’s benevolence”. After she became prime minister he was a member of her “kitchen cabinet” though he fell from grace sooner than others did. Later,on the declaration of the Emergency,he was shunted out of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry,and then banished from politics to diplomacy as ambassador to Moscow. There,he complains,she bypassed him in her dealings with the Soviet Union.

Yet,he describes her era as “shining” but has a plethora of grievances against her. To cite a typical one,she sent for him one day and “without acknowledging my greetings”,said: “Do you know I am very angry with you?” The reason: “You are being very friendly with Dinesh Singh (whom she had dropped from her cabinet a little earlier). Why haven’t you thrown him out of the official house yet?” When Gujral said no one had told him to get the house vacated,she replied: “I am telling you now. And remember,there is no such thing as friendship in politics.” There is a lot more in the same vein.

Gujral was foreign minister first in V.P. Singh’s government (1989-90) and then in Deve Gowda’s until he succeeded the “humble farmer” as prime minister. His account of those two periods should be read by all those concerned with this country’s foreign and security policies. Of special interest is Chapter 39,“A ‘War Ultimatum’ from Pakistan.” Immediately after the formation of the V.P. Singh government and the almost simultaneous kidnapping of the then Union home minister’s daughter,Rubaiya Sayeed,Kashmir was virtually ablaze because of internal alienation and discontent and Pakistan-sponsored insurgency. In this inflamed atmosphere,Pakistan’s foreign minister,Sahabzada Yaqub Ali Khan,came for talks with Gujral who discloses for the first time that what the usually suave Sahabzada threatened “was a ‘nuclear war’ without using the term”.

In some respects,Gujral has been a tad too discreet. The credit for this country’s unequivocal rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) goes primarily to him. But,unfortunately,he has chosen to be uncommunicative about the evolution of India’s nuclear policy,especially in relation to testing. He knew that in December 1995 Narasimha Rao had planned a nuclear test at Pokhran but had chickened out following pressure from Washington. The first Vajpayee government,a “13-day wonder”,was in no position to do what it did in June 1998. All through his tenure,expert advice to Gujral,most notably from A.P.J. Abdul Kalam,then chief of defence research and later the republic’s president,was boldly to conduct a test. But he refused for fear that the US might grievously damage Indian economy. All this should have been stated.

One earnestly hopes that the present and future prime ministers would follow Gujral’s worthy example and write their memoirs for the historian and posterity,if only to make a belated dent in this country’s depressing disinterest in history.

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