A pragmatic votary of peace

Vinod Sharma

India, Dec. 3 -- Inder Gujral was a man of dialogue and reconciliation. But by no stretch of imagination was he a blinkered votary of peace with Pakistan. The foreign policy doctrine named after him wasn't motivated as much by kaju- barfi diplomacy as by the belief that India cannot be as a world leader without finding acceptance with neighbours in the region.

I clearly remember an anecdote that the former prime minister related on taking charge as Deve Gowda's foreign minister in 1996. The meeting happened at his bidding, the ostensible reason being that I had served as this newspaper's resident representative in Pakistan in the first half of the 90s.

The protagonist of the story was Moin Qureshi, a former World Bank official catapulted as Pakistan's caretaker PM in July 1993 in the wake of the constitutional crisis arising from then Premier Nawaz Sharif's public face-off with President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.

In his South Block office Gujral began with the lament that he wasn't the romanticist he was made out to be by his detractors. He then recounted the story narrated to him by Qureshi himself.

At a meeting they had in 1979, then Prime Minister Morarji Desai shared with Qureshi his formula for lasting peace with Pakistan: set up such industries on either side of the border that are dependent on raw material from across the line.

The proposal appealed so much to the World Bank official that he sought time with President Zia-ul-Haq on returning home. The military ruler met Qureshi, showing as much enthusiasm. But their discussions were interrupted by paper slips couriered into the room all through the meeting.

Gen Zia read the scribbled messages as he spoke with his guest, arranging the slips in a pile on one side of the table. Qureshi couldn't make out what it was all about. He got to know from the next morning's newspapers that while talking about peace with India, the wily military ruler was actually monitoring Zulfikar Ali Bhutto's hanging in Rawalpindi.

The general sent his one-time benefactor to the gallows in defiance of international calls for clemency. India was among the countries that had pleaded for leniency for Bhutto.

Gujral recounted the chilling story to convey that he harboured no illusions about the mindsets he was dealing with in Pakistan. But it did not mean that out-of-the-box proposals such as the one mooted by Desai weren't workable between the estranged neighbours that had so much in common.

His tenure as the prime minister might have been a litany of hiccups. But he ran into trouble for want of numbers in Parliament; not for lack of political savvy. He picked up in plenty of that as a minister under Indira Gandhi.

That Gujral was no namby-pamby politico became evident from his refusal to dump an ally - the DMK - for the sake of retaining power. The Congress had wanted the Dravidian outfit ousted from the coalition in the wake of its indictment by the Jain Commission that probed the conspiracy aspect of Rajiv Gandhi's assassination.

A lesser leader would have capitulated. Gujral didn't, showing courage of conviction, a rare trait in today's politicians. He knew when to stand up and be counted.

Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.