Former PM I K Gujral passes away

Gujral, India's 12th prime minister whose tenure ran from April 1997 to March 1998, had been admitted to the hospital in a critical condition.

NEW DELHI: Former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral passed away in Delhi on Friday at Gurgaon's Medicity Medanta Hospital, just a few days before his 93rd birthday.

Gujral, India's 12th prime minister whose tenure ran from April 1997 to March 1998, had been admitted to the hospital in a critical condition a few days ago following a lung infection and was on ventilator support.

A team of nine medical experts, led by Dr Naresh Trehan, were attending to Gujral.

Gujral, in his illustrious political career, held many an important portfolio in the government. In 1975, he was Minister of Information and Broadcasting. He was also India's Ambassador Soviet Union.

He quit the Congress in the mid-1980s to join the Janata Dal. He also was the Minister of External Affairs in Prime Minister VP Singh's Cabinet.

In 1992, he was nominated to the Rajya Sabha. He again held the position of Minister of External Affairs in H D Deve Gowda-led government. It was during this tenure that he propounded the controversial 'Gujral Doctrine' that sought to improve relations with India's neighbours.

He also held the portfolios of Parliamentary Affairs, Information & Broadcasting, and Planning.

The gentleman politician who sought peace

The mild-mannered, soft-spoken politician, whose personality flew against the political archetype, will be remembered primarily for his keen interest in protecting and promoting India's external interests and the eponymous Gujral Doctrine - his mantra for India's neighbourhood policy when he was external affairs minister twice in a decade.

In a way reflective of the man, who came to Delhi from Pakistan in the traumatic post-partition period, the Gujral Doctrine advocated magnamity towards small neighbours in the interest of regional peace and progress.

"The logic behind the Gujral Doctrine was that since we had to face two hostile neighbours in the north and the west, we had to be at 'total peace' with all other immediate neighbours in order to contain Pakistan's and China's influence in the region," said Gujral in his autobiography "Matters of Discretion".

Derided as a weak and conciliatory policy at the time when reciprocity was still the ruling mantra at South Block, the principle was nevertheless carried forward by successive governments. It helped change mindsets and improved India's ties with its neighbours through the years.

Gujral said: "When I finally demitted office (as prime minister) in March 1998, I had the satisfaction that India's relations with all its neighbours were not only very healthy but also, to a large extent, the elements of mistrust and suspicion had evaporated."

Gujral headed the external affairs ministry through two crucial periods (1989-90 and 1996-97) under first prime minister V.P Singh and then H.D. Deve Gowda. He helped steer India through the crises of the early 1990s, when India was making the difficult adjustment to the end of the Soviet Union, and the oil shock administered by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait (both important oil suppliers to India).

The invasion of Kuwait not only disrupted India's oil supplies but, more importantly, left almost 200,000 Indians stranded in the region. Gujral flew to Moscow, Washington and Baghdad and obtained assurances on oil supplies from Moscow. In Baghdad he was greeted by Iraqi president Saddam Hussain with a hug. Gujral was pilloried by the Western and sections of the Indian media for that but the visit ensured that the Indians stranded in Baghdad and Kuwait were allowed to be evacuated when "others were being held as guests".

Gujral, whose prime ministerial stint in 1997-98 included three months as interim prime minister, was described by many as a "gentleman politician". His elevation to the prime minister's post came when he emerged as the consensus candidate of the fractious United Front after Sitaram Kesri, then party president, withdrew Congress support to the H.D. Deve Gowda government.

Inder Gujral was born Dec 4, 1919 in the town of Jhelum on the banks of the river of the same name, now in Pakistan. His parents were freedom fighters and members of the Congress but Gujral was drawn to the students wing of the Communist Party of India.

He was sent to Lahore Borastal Jail for organising a demonstration.

He met his wife Sheila when they were both students at Forman Christian College and he was pursuing a master's degree in economics. They were married in May 1945 and had two sons and a daughter. A well known poet and social worker, Sheila Gujral died on July 11, 2011.

Gujral came to Delhi after the 1947 partition and got involved in local politics, becoming closer to the Congress. He was nominated vice president of the New Delhi Municipal Council in 1958.

In 1964 he was elected to the Rajya Sabha with Indira Gandhi's backing. Three years later, in 1967, she made him minister of state for parliamentary affairs and communications. He became a part of Indira Gandhi's 'kitchen cabinet' together with Congressmen like Dinesh Singh and Uma Shankar Dixit.

When Emergency was imposed in 1975, he was the information and broadcasting minister. But he soon fell foul of Sanjay Gandhi and was relegated to the planning ministry. When his Rajya Sabha term ended a year later, Indira Gandhi sent him to Moscow as India's ambassador (1976-80) "since he refused to bow down to the de facto powers (read Sanjay Gandhi)".

Talking about his brief prime ministerial stint, Gujrat said: " main task had been to ward off attacks from various factional leaders so that I could keep my chin up. But I really did not feel a sense of achievement that I did during my tenure as minister of external affairs."

He spent his last decade writing and speaking largely on foreign policy issues and was much sought after in intellectual and academic circles. (IANS)