13 June 2011

"Matters of discretion" by Inder Kumar Gujral

Autobiographies of Prime Ministers (especially ex diplomats) tend to be discreet to the point of being bland. Autobiographies of intellectuals tend to be profound and insightful in their analyses.

Inder Gujral, Prime Minister of India, top diplomat prior to that and an intellectual surprises us twice: One, Gujral expresses his views in a refreshingly honest way; does not hold back. Two, Gujral stays away from discussing any substantive issue India faced/faces.

Gujral's candid biography provides an insider view of the main actors and the games they played in Indian politics for 33 years between 1966 and 1999:

1. Indira Gandhi, to Gujral, cannot be counted upon. Gujral (along with Dinesh Singh and Uma Shankar Dixit) was part of the coterie that helped Indira Gandhi become PM in 1966. Yet she dumped them quite quickly. Gujral had to “fight” to get a ministerial birth in her 1967 administration.

2. Indira Gandhi, to Gujral, was a split and complex personality. Gujral says "She could be mean, petty and vicious; and large hearted, gracious and charming”

3. Indira’s ethics, to Gujral, is suspect. Her Yoga Guru Dhirendra Brahmachari applied pressure on Gujral to get a prime property in Delhi from the Government. Gujral declined. Indira Gandhi demoted Gujral and got the land transferred to Brahmachari. Additionally, Gujral thinks the untimely death of L N Mishra ("the man who knew too much") in a bomb blast raised a few suspicions.

4. Indira Gandhi’s suspension of democracy in India in 1975 was, to Gujral, her worst blunder. “Small men with small minds captured power, and well equipped demolition squads were destroying democratic institutions and suppress or even get rid of Individuals with moral stature and ethical values”. The misadventure was traceable to her affection for son Sanjay Gandhi, unwise advisers such as P N Haksar and sycophants such as N D Tiwari and Shyama Charan Shukla. Soviet Union’s Nikolai M Pegoy regretted to Gujral that “Indira Gandhi must understand that she is a leader first and a mother second”. Her reinvigoration of democracy by calling for elections was because of a misjudgment that she had “smothered opposition and Sanjay has been accepted by a prostrate electorate”. As late as 1984, Pranab Mukherjee and Vasant Sathe in Indira’s cabinet were working on amending the Constitution to a Presidential system with strong limits on the role of opposition!

5. Indira Gandhi’s ordering troops into the Golden Temple was, to Gujral, her second biggest blunder. Congressmen, under Indira Gandhi, created Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to play one faction against another for electoral purposes; in the end Bhindranwale went out of control. Indira paid with her life. Her son Rajiv’s era began with an anti-Sikh riot that haunts the nation even today.

6. Gujral's deposition to Shah Commission investigating Emergency excesses was a tussle between loyalty and honesty. Arun Shourie best described it as “Gujral trying to please both his present and past masters”.

7. President Sanjiva Reddy, in a visit to Soviet Union (during the days Gujral was India’s diplomat in Moscow), was not keen on discussing any political or economic issue with Soviet leaders. He was keen to take his family out shopping!

8. Ramakrishna Hegde, Chandrasekar and V P Singh deserve credit, according to Gujral, for the formation of Janata Dal in 1988. Hegde lost his parity because of (as Gujral so nicely articulates) “his proclivity for sybaritic comfort and affinity for glitter and glamour” ruptured his image!

9. V P Singh, to Gujral, was “stubborn in not heeding the advice of his colleagues and indecisive till a situation went out of control; he easily played into the hands of sectarian leaders who alienated him from his support base and the media”. Singh’s support to expand quota of “other” backward castes in Government jobs from 22% to 49% (based on recommendations of Mandal Commission) was one such incident that led to the fall of the government within a year.

10. Chandrasekar formed his government in Nov 1990 (with unreliable support from Congress party) that made “the Hindujas, the Ambanis and the Birlas jubilant”. Gujral declined to join Chandrasekar’s cabinet. The Government did not last long.

11. Janata Dal which lost the 1991 elections to Narasimha Rao was dysfunctional; state bosses without any moral compunction gained power over national leaders. Gujral contested this election from Bihar and was shocked to get an offer for “polling booth services” to ensure victory for a price of Rs 150,000 and 50 bullets! Gujral declined. Nor was Gujral impressed by V P Singh asking Gujral to not contest elections and look after a “large sum donated by an unnamed source” to Janata Dal. He declined that offer too.

12. The United Front, a coalition led by dark horse candidate Deve Gowda was beset by unreliable support from Congress party. During this period, Lalu Prasad Yadav loses his seat in Bihar State Legislature thanks to a “fodder scam scandal”. Gujral seems to have helped Lalu to run the state by proxy by helping Lalu’s wife succeed him as CM!

Gujral became Prime Minister in 1997 when Sitaram Kesri (“the old man in a hurry”) withdrew Congress support to Deve Gowda). However, within a short period, Gujral faced significant pressure from Congress party to drop coalition partner DMK from Government (because of allegations against them in Jain Commission investigation of Rajiv Gandhi assassination). Gujral refused to oblige and preferred to resign; in a rare display of timber in Indian politics.

The most shocking (but not surprising) revelation: Karunanidhi sent Minister Aladi Aruna to pressurize Gujral to appoint a preferred candidate as the head of Chennai's port (a lucrative job if one is corrupt) but told the public in TN that the trip was to lobby for TN interests in Kaveri river water dispute between TN and Karnataka! The shock is not about corruption in DMK; the shock is about trivialisation of the fortune of TN farmers!

Gujral may not have intended it; but ends up highlighting the darker side of Indian politicians quite vividly.

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