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May 18, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Arvind Lavakare

Erudite angel or parasitic khalnayak?

The fall of the BJP-led government last month has been ascribed to various khalnayaks of both sexes -- from President Narayanan down to Subramanian Swamy and Girdhar Gamang, with Jayalalitha, Sonia and Mayawati in between. In this sandwich of villainy, one name that has been strangely excluded is of I K Gujral -- probably because, as usual, he's been perceived to be a harmless and a gentleman politician.

The truth may well be otherwise.

Were Gujral to respond to the unmistakable signal given publicly by Ram Vilas Paswan, his Janata Dal colleague, the two could have saved Vajpayee's coalition and the nation's 10 billion rupees that are to be sunk officially into yet another General Election. The two could have done so without violating the anti-defection law because the JD had just six members in the outgoing Lok Sabha. The two could have done so and showed the nation that non-partisan politics is not the anachronism we people have been led to believe it is.

During the tortuously long interregnum between the result of the confidence vote on April 17 and the dissolution of the Lok Sabha on April 26, Paswan had made it clear that he would not vote for the side that had Laloo Yadav's vote. It was clear he was inclined towards increasing Vajpayee's 270-strong. If Gujral had then actually mounted the high horse of morality he wants us to believe he rides, the country would be today coasting to some peak points. But Gujral probably believed that, in case there were an impasse, there was the outside chance of his becoming PM once again, never mind that he is 79 years old, and never mind too that his own tenure as PM between April 1997 and March 1998 is already the forgettable silly season for the Indian.

Gujral has invariably been like that -- nursing high personal ambitions but wearing the mask of a clean and angelic politician, who, moreover, is a scholar nonpareil.

Not known to many, Gujral was Laloo Yadav's rabbit from the hat after Deve Gowda had to be packed off by the United Front government because of Kesri's Congress. That Gujral had not lobbied for the PM's job is true; he himself had kept on saying that it would be shameful for anyone to do so. But the truth is that, as senior journalist Janardan Thakur has recorded, "If he (Gujral) had not lobbied for the job, it was because he was in no position to do any lobbying. He had no political clout to do any lobbying...he had no political roots."

One of the first statements Gujral made after becoming the prime minister was that the moment things became inconvenient for him, he would quit the job. It did not take long before things did become inconvenient, but he sat pretty like any other politician with a thick hide. Maybe his scholarly definition of "inconvenient" was different from ours. The fact is that he was making compromises all the time -- the reason, in the first place, why Laloo Yadav had picked him out from the pocket of his kurta.

Two excerpts from a confidential Government of India report make two revelations about Gujral: one, his shallow morality and two, his chemistry with Laloo Yadav, the scheming joker of India's political circus. That report was submitted by the home secretary on December 5, 1997 to Prime Minister Gujral (a Communist worker during his student days in Lahore) and Home Minister Indrajit Gupta (a long time Communist). It pertained to the ground situation in Bihar after the grisly massacre of Lakshmanpur-Bathe on September 1, 1997. The two extracts therein said as follows:

*" was quite evident that the law and order situation in Bihar has sharply deteriorated over the years and the unabated Sena-Naxalite violence has, in particular, been a slur on the government in the State..."

*"The morale of senior civil and police officials is extremely low... (there is) widespread fear and terror created by the Left wing extremist groups and the senas of the rich landlords ... In some districts, even SPs (superintendents of police) and DMs (district magistrates) do not stir out of their houses."

A better case than the above can hardly be expected for the imposition of President's Rule under Article 356 of our Constitution. But Gujral did not even admonish the Bihar government; it was the same Gujral who sacked Kalyan Singh's BJP government in Uttar Pradesh on charges that were fictitious and frivolous. If Gujral and fellow traveller Gupta had acted then, in December 1997, Laloo's Bihar and Bihar's Laloo would not have been what they are today because the presidential proclamation would have certainly been passed in both the houses of Parliament composed as they then were.

To understand the softness that Gujral showed to Laloo Yadav at that crucial time, one must understand the relationship that exists between a benefactor and his beneficiary. Gujral had contested the 1991 Lok Sabha seat from Patna where Yadav campaigned hard for him; that election was later countermanded by the chief election commissioner because of shameless rigging by Yadav's goons. Yet, our "principled politician" named Gujral had no compunction in entering the Rajya Sabha in 1992 from... Bihar! Yadav, you see, had rented a couple of rooms in Patna, put Gujral's nameplate on the door, and, hey presto, Gujral of the India International Centre fame in Delhi, had become a domicile of Bihar! With such an equation, how could Gujral even scratch his Bulganin beard to think of acting against his godfather?

How could he, even when the fodder man landed in jail, split Gujral's Janata Dal and anoint wife Rabri Devi as Bihar's Chief Minister? He simply had to look the other way. However, when the United Front allies wanted Laloo Yadav out, Gujral the PM did all he could to save... his own position. He did, however, make amends of sorts by retaining Laloo Yadav's men in his ministry.

All of the above was in keeping with Gujral's known "principles" in his early political career as highlighted in Thakur's book, Prime Ministers. Below is a mini version of Thakur's catalogue on Gujral:

*Moving after Partition to Jallandhar first and then to Delhi where he became a building contractor, he came close to Indira Gandhi through his painter brother, Satish Gujral; as the painter sketched her, our Gujral chatted with her. The beginning of this relationship with Nehru's daughter enabled him to enter the Rajya Sabha, and he was one of those three who persuaded her to contend for the PM's post after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri. The reward: a job as the Minister of State for Information and Broadcasting, followed by a cabinet status with the same portfolio.

* Though Sanjay Gandhi -- who described him even then as a "mere drawing room conversationalist" -- harassed and humiliated him during the diabolical period of the Emergency beginning June 1975, Gujral refused to quit and instead permitted himself to be pushed first to the Planning Ministry before being sent off to Moscow as Ambassador. Gujral did not rebel against the tyranny of the Emergency and, in fact, "became almost a side-kick of Foreign Minister Gromyko's secretariat."

*When Vajpayee became the new Foreign Minister (under Morarji Desai's Janata Party government of March 1977), Gujral agreed to stay on in Moscow although he had been part of Indira Gandhi's kitchen cabinet that had cooked for her the vile ideas of a "committed bureaucracy" and a "committed judiciary".

*When V.P.Singh became Prime Minister in late 1989, Gujral shifted compartments again and donned the mantle of External Affairs Minister.

He was to be content with that even when Deve Gowda, a virtual non-entity in national politics, became his boss as PM in June 1996.

Such has been Gujral's elasticity for the sake of a plum political job that he, the PM, thought nothing of being booed and jeered at a meeting of the Janata Dal executive; all he did on that occasion was to walk out of that meeting -- never mind if it was in utter ignominy as long as the PM's post didn't have to walk out with him.

Such, indeed, has Gujral's resolute one-point programme been that when he finally knew his days as PM were numbered, he granted many concessions to Punjab, including a massive loan waiver, made repeated trips to that state and succeeded in being enabled to contest the 1998 Lok Sabha election from Jallandhar as a candidate supported by the "communal" Akali Dal which had allied with the "communal" BJP. Yet, when the Akalis voted for the Vajpayee government last month, Gujral turned the other way, sensing that one-in-a-hundred chance which could drop the PM's post in his lap the way it had happened earlier.

It was then really far-fetched to expect him to be loyal to anything save his somersaults of so many years. One of the most recent of them all was witnessed last year during the Lok Sabha debate on Pokhran II. His position in the august house, before millions of TV viewers, was that, till his last day as PM, he had seen no threat to national security, no need therefore for a second nuclear test. However, just a month later, on June 30 1998, he delivered a public lecture in Dhaka where he said, "India undertook the nuclear tests because its well-founded security concerns were unaddressed by the international community." (Quoted in The Hindu, Madras). That was a specimen of the Gujral doctrine, the doublespeak doctrine.

That brings us finally to Gujral's "scholar" image built over years of rambling and structured discussions among "intellectuals" on various fora, especially in Delhi. One gem of this scholar was his observation in a newspaper interview last week that "Hung parliament is a media terminology."

Well, well, well, since Inder Kumar Gujral now has considerable time on hand before he plucks up courage as "Punjab da puttar" to go begging for his second innings with the Akali Dal or for his third innings with the scheming joker of Bihar, he ought to do one thing at least. He should talk about a "hung parliament" with Soli Sorabjee, the country's attorney general. The gentle old Parsi soul will only be glad to enlighten Gujral and also throw at him a quote or two by Rodney Brazier, an authority on the subject of "hung parliament."

Meanwhile, our media ought to do its homework as well and introspect as to whether some VIPs of our politics whom it sets out to project as erudite angels are not, in fact, parasitic khalnayaks.

Postscript: We Indians must be thankful for such small mercies as the fact that though the man is known to possess a PhD (in addition to an MA), he doesn't style himself as "Dr" Gujral. Perhaps he will after he learns that "hung parliament" is much more than a media terminology.

Arvind Lavakare

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