The Prime Ministers

Mr. India International

janardhan-thakurJanardan Thakur started his career in journalism with the nationalist Patna daily, The Searchlight, in December 1959. In his long and distinguished career spanning the reign of each Prime Minister since Independence, Thakur reported from the thick of some of the most momentous contemporary events at home and afar-JP’s ‘total revolution’, the Emergency, the bristling emergence of Sanjay Gandhi, the fall and rise of Indira Gandhi and then the rise and fall of Rajiv, the Kremlin of Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and Khomeini’s revolution in Iran, Ronald Reagan’s re-election in an America swinging Right, VP Singh’s ascent as a messiah with tainted magic and the rasping run to power of the BJP. Thakur’s journalism, from the very start, broke traditional moulds of reportage and writing, going beyond the story that meets the eye and into processes and personalities that made them happen. His stories on the Bihar famine of the mid-1960s and the manmade floods that ravaged the State were a sensation. He was perhaps alone in predicting defeat for Indira Gandhi in 1977 and again singular in exposing the corroded innards of the Janata Government that followed. A Jefferson Fellow at the East-West Center, Hawaii, in 1971, Thakur moved to New Delhi as a Special Correspondent for the Ananda Bazar Patrika group of publications in 1976. He went freelance in 1980 and turned syndicated columnist. In 1989-91, he was Editor of the fortnightly Onlooker, and The Free Press Journal. Thakur authored All The Prime Minister’s Men, probably the most successful of the crop of books that followed the Emergency. His All the Janata Men, the story of the men who destroyed the first non-Congress government in New Delhi, was equally successful.
He passed away on July 12, 1999.

THE curtain rose on yet another succession drama, with Mulayam Singh Yadav again struggling to become the Prime Minister. This time he had the vocal support from Harkishen Singh Surjeet and Jyoti Basu, with whom he had several meetings in Banga Bhawan. But ranged against Yadav was the other Yadav, Laloo, who fancied himself as the real king-maker. Last time it was Mulayam who had stopped him from becoming Prime Minister, this time he would stop Mulayam. Laloo had by now lost favour among the Communists because of the fodder scam in Bihar, but there were others he could lobby with. At one stage Laloo told Chandrababu Naidu to take the job. But Naidu, aware that years were on his side, and that any arrangement would be short-lived and tainted, was quick to refuse.

Laloo had forged ahead in his bid to keep out Mulayam and make his own man the Prime Minister. He proposed the name of Inder Kumar Gujral, who had been nowhere in the reckoning, quite like Gowda before him. Laloo had sent him to the Rajya Sabha from Bihar, through the fraudulent manoeuvre of renting a couple of rooms in Patna and putting up Gujral’s nameplate on the door to prove his domicile in the state, a rule that was being touted by principled politicians all the time. Gujral had the image of being a suave, sophisticated and principled politician, but there is nothing to show that he had suffered from any twinge of conscience entering into a dishonest compact with Laloo to get into Parliament. Having compromised himself at the very start, he could hardly have the moral fibre to stand up to Laloo. And indeed Laloo had always treated him as one of the creatures of his political stable. Gujral, in fact, had contested the countermanded Lok Sabha election from Patna. Laloo had campaigned hard calling Gujral a gujar-Parha likha Gujar ko Gujral kaha jata hai (An educated gujar is called Gujral).

Gujral suited Laloo: the man was indebted to him, he was a political nobody, a namby-pamby intellectual who would dance to his tune. Laloo drove to his friend Sharad Yadav’s house and consulted him. Mulayam Singh had to be stopped from getting the prime ministership. Sharad Yadav quickly agreed. Laloo then called up Gujral at his Maharani Bagh residence. The would-be Prime Minister was sleeping. Laloo had him woken up and told him: Jaldi se taiyar ho-kar Sharad ke ghar par aa jaiye. Main gari bhej raha hun. Aapko PM ban-na hain (Get ready fast and rush to Sharad Yadav’s house. I am sending a car. You have to become the Prime Minister).” Meanwhile, Laloo also called up Chandrababu Naidu and told him Gujral would be an ideal consensus man. Time was running out for the United Front; Kesri was keeping up the pressure. Everybody agreed. That afternoon, Gujral was driven into Andhra Bhawan, fresh from his siesta in a blue safari, to be anointed Prime Minister.

The circumstances of Gujral’s accession to the leadership of the ragtag United Front and eventually to prime ministership were not very different from the murky palace intrigues and conspiracies that littered the dying years of the Mughal era with a succession of nondescript, ineffectual and often profligate rulers who strutted their hour upon the stage.

ip-gujral-formar-pmNone of the latter day nobles of Dilli Durbar-Sitaram Kesri, Laloo Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the satraps from the South, Chandrababu Naidu, Moopanar and Karunanidhi, Marxist Chanakya, Harkishen Singh Surjeet-actually wanted Gujral for the top job. But the problem was they wanted each other even less. Each was out to undercut the other and so fierce was the opposition to each other that they had to pick someone who was out of the fray. Gujral had been a fairly good diplomat and had long experience as minister with various portfolios over the years. His problem, which actually turned out to be his asset, was that he had no political roots. Gujral was acceptable across the political spectrum because he was so easy to pull down. As one observer put it, ‘in a kingdom without kings, kingship is often thrust upon the man without a kingdom.’

As Inder Kumar Gujral was thrust closer and closer to the top job in the swirl of political confusion, he could not have been burdened by the conviction that he belonged to the latter category. It was not, after all, any great groundswell of support that was pushing him to the troubled summit. It was in fact his lack of political clout, his relatively low political profile and above all his innocuous persona that brought him the job. He was installed largely because no political party, perhaps not even the BJP, had the courage to go to the people at this point.

April 21, 1997 : Sitaram Kesri, the king maker, wore a big smile at Rashtrapati Bhawan as Gujral was sworn in as Prime Minister. After 20 days of parleys and confabulations, and a big show of resistance, the United Front had capitulated to the 138-member Congress by changing its leader. Though they were laughing, they all knew that they were puppets in the hands of the wily Kesri, who himself was a marionette dancing to the tune from 10 Janpath.

Gujral’s installation had solved none of the problems that had led to the sudden departure of Deve Gowda. The Front now seemed even more ‘untied’ than before. The bigwigs of the Congress were hugging Gujral and assuring him they would not pull him down, but nobody could wager that their lust for power would not get the better of them. Without power, Congressmen were like fish without water, which made most people conclude that they would either take the first chance to sneak into the Gujral government or if that did not work, pull down the carpet again, never mind the assurances they gave to President Shankar Dayal Sharma. He was not even going to be in the Rashtrapati Bhawan after a few months. The Bharatiya Janata Party was obviously gaining because of the mess created jointly by the Congress and the United Front. What had forced them was actually the fear that in the event of a snap poll, the BJP might capture power at the Centre. They had little choice but to cobble a government.

ip-gujral-pmGUJRAL had lived through half a century of politics, without making much impression, except for being the toast of Punjabi high society, where he was considered a successful negotiator and diplomat. He had started as a communist student worker in Lahore, become a member of the CPI, but after Partition, he moved first to Jalandhar and then to New Delhi where he became a building contractor. His intellectual disenchantment with the Soviet Union came in the early 1950s, after which he turned to the Congress. He had started dabbling in the politics of the New Delhi Municipal Corporation, and got elected as its vice-president. Most of his time in those days were spent in the Connaught Circus India Coffee House, with a circle of pseudo-intellectuals. His painter brother, Satish Gujral, was part of Indira Gandhi’s arty circle, and it was through him that Inder had got close to her.. “While I drew her (Indira), Inder chatted with her. It was the beginning of a long relationship,” said Satish.

Later, Gujral became part of the ‘back-benchers’ club’ in Rajya Sabha. He was one of the ‘three wise men’ who had gone to persuade Indira Gandhi to become the Prime Minister after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, the other two being journalist Romesh Thapar and Dinesh Singh. The first day she was unwilling, but the next morning, over breakfast, she had allowed herself to be persuaded. Gujral had drafted a declaration saying she was a contender for the Prime Minister’s post. The reward for all this was first, the post of minister of state and then a cabinet job, with the portfolio of Information and Broadcasting, which Indira had herself held during Shastri’s time. During the Congress split of 1969, Gujral played a vital role in building up the media campaign in her favour.

But then came Sanjay Gandhi, and Gujral failed to understand the change of equations that had taken place in the Gandhi court. Gujral was one of the first victims of the Emergency. Sanjay Gandhi was convinced that Gujral was too soft and ineffective to hammer sense into the irreverent media. Gujral had not considered it necessary to pay court to Sanjay as most of the other ministers did. Sanjay often described him as a “mere drawing room conversationalist” and was constantly pushing his mother to get an I&B minister with teeth. Mohammed Yunus, one of the leading courtiers of Indira, and several other hangers-on had also started creating an atmosphere against Gujral. “He is not using the media for you,” they often told Indira Gandhi. They told her he himself was appearing too often on the television and was building his image.

The anti-Gujral lobby got a big handle against him the day the Supreme Court stayed the operation of the Allahabad High Court judgment against Mrs Gandhi. While the English news bulletin of the AIR had led by saying that the Supreme Court had upheld the continuance of Indira Gandhi as the Prime Minister, the Hindi bulletin had highlighted the riders to the stay order. Mohammed Yunus telephoned Gujral and complained that the BBC had carried ‘blasphemous’ news on India. Then came the call from Indira’s Man Friday RK Dhawan. “The Prime Minister wants to see you at once.” Before going to the PM’s house, he checked up with his office and found that it was not the BBC but the Pakistani news broadcast which had made offensive remarks. He rang up the Prime Minister and explained to her that it was impossible to do anything about the Pakistani TV programmes. She understood, and calmed down.

When Gujral reached 1 Safdarjang Road, the first encounter was with Sanjay. “You don’t seem to know how to control your ministry,” he said mockingly. “You can’t even tell them how to put out the news?”

“Look, I am equally concerned,” said Gujral, “but I don’t have to give an explanation to you.” Saying this he went in to meet the Prime Minister.

SHE looked irritated. She again raised the complaint on the BBC broadcast. Gujral said he had double checked and found nothing objectionable in it. Irritatedly she said, “No, no, you leave it Now we have gone into Emergency. This is not a normal situation. We want someone who can deal with the media with a stern hand. Vidya (VC Shukla) would be the right man in the new situation.”

Gujral began saying “You are the Prime…” but was cut short. “You hand over your charge tomorrow. She had picked up one of the telephones, which was one of her indications that the audience was over.

Gujral told his wife that night that they would go for a month’s holiday, but the next morning, he got a call from the Prime Minister: “I have decided you should go to the Planning Ministry.”

prime-ministerSometime later, Gujral was sent off to Moscow as ambassador. There he grew his Bulganin beard, and became almost a side-kick of Foreign Minister Gromyko’s secretariat. When the Janata Party government came, the new Foreign Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, decided to retain Gujral in Moscow. The new government was eager to show that it was not as anti-Soviet as some had tried to make out. Gujral was a mild and innocuous man who had no difficulty shifting his loyalties from Indira to Vajpayee. By the time VP Singh came to power, the fellow traveller Gujral had shifted compartments again and was quite happy to become the Raja’s Minister for External Affairs. He was more like a foreign office diplomat for whom it did not matter who was the boss happened to be. And by temperament he remained that way even after becoming the Prime Minister. He was always more himself participating in rambling academic discussions on the nuances of foreign policy.

Gujral was not cut out for the rough and tumble of the present-day politics. Managing contradictions was beyond him. The ‘Saturday Club’ at the elitist India International Centre where a select group of Delhi’s ‘top brains’ and dilettantes gathered for pow-wows on international relations, ‘politics with a human face’ and other high-falutin’ topics, was more his cup of tea than the mess he had been hurled into. His tastes were more akin to the politics of Indira Gandhi’s ‘kitchen cabinet’ in the late 1960s. Not that he would have liked his new friends and companions to have remembered his old background. There were many things in his past which he would have liked to be forgotten: the fact that ‘committed bureaucracy’ and ‘committed judiciary’ were ideas which were cooked in the ‘kitchen cabinet’ of which he was a member; or the fact, from a more recent time, that the Lok Sabha elections (1991) in Patna, where he was the candidate, had been countermanded by TN Seshan because of shameless rigging by Laloo’s goons.

When Gujral was suddenly chosen to be the UF Prime Minister, it was a pleasant surprise to the liberal educated types in the country which had considered Gowda too dowdy and unimpressive to be the country’s Prime Minister. Even if he had been much better at the job than he was, it would have made little difference to this segment of Indian society. He was not cut out for the TV age into which the country had passed.

Gujral himself was surprised to find himself the country’s Prime Minister. One of the first statements he 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. He was making compromises all the time, because that was just the reason why he had been picked for the job: as a man who would have no problem giving in to anything for the sake of the post. All the problems that Gowda had faced remained as they were.

Gujral’s moment of truth came when the fodder man got into hot water and landed up in jail. When the Janata Dal broke up in Bihar and Laloo Prasad Yadav anointed his wife, Rabri Devi as his successor, the Prime Minister just looked on as a mute spectator. At that point when Laloo was making a mockery of the Indian polity there was virtually no government at the Centre. Never before had those famous lines of Yeats sounded more meaningful: ‘Things fall apart, the Centre cannot hold…” The Prime Minister said it was not his intention to use Article 356. He hated corruption, but how could he hate his own mentor? He just dithered. A wonderful opportunity for his detractors to launch an offensive against a hollow and spineless man who had become the Prime Minister. Nobody even knew where Gujral stood in relation to the split Janata Dal: Was he with the JD or with the new Laloo outfit, the Rashtriya Janata Dal? Gujral had been booed and jeered at a meeting of the Janata Dal national executive, and one had watched the pathetic plight of the country’s Prime Minister walking out of his own party’s meeting in utter ignominy.

There was almost a parallel government being run by the UF Steering Committee. Gowda, who had gone out of office full of pique against Gujral and his mentor, Sitaram Kesri, had joined hands with the Marxist leader, Harkishen Singh Surjeet who was himself angry: the high pedestal he had occupied during the previous government had been taken over by the Congress President. Gowda had become Gujral’s biggest gadfly. He had even made friends with the new Janata Dal president, Sharad Yadav, who too had turned against his political mentor, Laloo Yadav. All of them were now projecting the Prime Minister as a crony of Laloo Yadav and Sitaram Kesri, and they were succeeding.

NEVER before had the prestige of any Prime Minister touched such a low. Gowda had at least managed to maintain a semblance of unity in the 14-party United Front; Gujral had turned the combine into a joke. Worse still was the total collapse of structured government in the country.

Even after the JD had split and the United Front had refused to have anything to do with the RJD, Gujral did not have the courage to drop Laloo’s men from his ministry. He was just drifting with the current, making a farce of his assertions that he would rather quit than make any compromises. Barring Devendra Prasad Yadav, Gujral retained the same council of ministers as Gowda. So weak was he as Prime Minister, he could not have one man of his own, could not alter one portfolio. And even though he was now Prime Minister, he remained largely external affairs minister of the country, working all the time on his so-called Gujral Doctrine. But his weakness was apparent even there. Within days of appointing Bhabani Sengupta foreign policy adviser in the PMO, he had to sack him under pressure from South Block mandarins.

The pressures were the heaviest from his ‘creator’, Laloo Prasad Yadav, and they only got worse with the Bihar leader sinking deeper into the fodder scam. Everybody thought Gujral would be their man, but in more ways than one he turned out to be his own too. Gujral agreed to Laloo’s first demand to throw out Devendra Prasad Yadav (a Laloo crony who Laloo thought had grown too big for his boots) from the Cabinet but when it came to defending Laloo on the fodder scam, Gujral did not do much. He saved his prime ministership at the cost of sacrificing Laloo.

WITH the Supreme Court breathing down the neck of the Central Bureau of Investigation, even Joginder Singh who would ordinarily have been happy enough taking a safe course on the Bofors case, was acting tough. He flew to Switzerland to get telltale documents on the pay-off, and sent off a team of officials to Malaysia to arrest and bring back Ottavio Quattrochchi. The fact that Singh did very little to follow up on his Swiss trip to its logical conclusion or that the team to Malaysia returned empty handed showed either a lack of real determination on the part of the CBI or simply their inefficiency. Or, as the government’s critics had it, Gujral had succumbed to pressures from the Congress and had in turn ordered the CBI to keep mum. Joginder Singh did lose his job, and the Bofors sword just kept hanging in the air, not even too menacingly. Later, after his goose was virtually cooked, Gujral began talking brave: his government had the names of the recipients of the kickbacks and he would get the names of the ultimate beneficiaries in a few days. By then, it was a bit too late in the day to make any difference.

Gujral granted many concessions to Punjab, made repeated trips to the state in a bid to build a constituency of his own and finally got anointed by the Akalis as Punjab da Puttar. In the end he even fought the 1998 Lok Sabha polls as an Akali supported independent from Jalandhar and won. This despite the fact that both the Janata Dal and the Communists consider the Akali Dal a communal party. Gujral’s tenure in office was taken up doing mostly one thing: trying to remain in office. He survived the Laloo Yadav-fodder scam crisis and the split in the Janata Dal, but the report of the Jain Commission became his undoing. Gujral would go down in history as a man who was less a king, more a puppet controlled by nobles like in the last days of the Mughal empire. Such was his stature that the United Front did not even bother to use his reign as a campaign issue. Nor did Gujral figure in the election as a leader, as Prime Minister. He was a mere stop gap during a time when nobody wanted elections.

If Gujral had made a good impression on the diplomatic scene with his rather one-sided ‘doctrine’, there was very little about his governance or management of the national problems to commend him to the people at large. With all the media focus and the long television interviews that he gave so generously, Inder Kumar Gujral could not rise above his old image of being a ‘gentleman politician’, an ineffectual angel fluttering his wings in the void.

If the Bofors case finished the Gowda government, it was the Jain Commission report that proved Gujral’s undoing. He had done his best to keep the report under wraps, and had succeeded in hiding it for a couple of months, but then a national magazine got hold of some excerpts and the lid was blown. Sonia loyalists were up in arms, demanding immediate removal of the Karunanidhi government. The party threatened that if the report was not tabled in Parliament, it would review its support to the Gujral government. It also demanded the immediate removal of the DMK government. Left to himself, Sitaram Kesri would not have liked to destabilize Gujral yet. He was being treated like a super Prime Minister, and Gujral was doing his best to get him off the hook. But Rajiv Gandhi’s widow was hell-bent on having her way.

No compromise on the DMK issue, she made it clear. Either Gujral dismisses Karunanidhi or he himself goes. A jittery Prime Minister invited Sitaram Kesri for dinner to discuss some way out, but the situation had already gone out of their control. The United Front had rallied in support of Karunanidhi, with Jyoti Basu saying that if the Congress was hell-bent on elections, “we shouldn’t run scared.” Sitaram did go to Sonia Gandhi in a bid to save Gujral, but returned a hawk, and immediately accused Karunanidhi and VP Singh of being responsible for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Finally, on November 20, Gujral was given the final notice of the withdrawal of support.

The sole rationale for the United Front menagerie to have stayed in government for so long was the need of its principal members to somehow keep the Bharatiya Janata Party out of power. One reason why this bizarre conglomeration tottered and fell was of course its total dependence on a party that kept asking for more and more: first it wanted to set the pace of the government and do the backseat-driving, then it wanted all official moves that went against its leaders to be scuttled (no talk of Bofors, no talk of Kesri’s cases), then it wanted to become the senior partner in the government, and finally it wanted the leadership for itself. The United Front, at no time united, was constantly under pressure, constantly being forced to appease and placate the party supporting it, constantly under pressure from disparate group of leaders who all thought they were the king-makers and high-priests of the government.

The United Front’s position changed radically after the entry of Sonia Gandhi into the poll fray. Before it, most leaders of the combine were pretty sanguine about forming a government after the polls along with the Congress party, their only reservation being on the question of leadership. It still had half a dozen serious aspirants for the prime minister’s post. Jyoti Basu had been angry with his party for the “biggest blunder” it had committed in not letting him be the Prime Minister. No matter how detached and philosophical Gujral may have shown himself in public, deep down he remained hopeful about once again emerging as the consensus man. Waiting in the wings to snatch his old chair away was Deve Gowda, going all out to make friends and influence people in all directions.

BUT they can could go on dreaming till the cows came home. The political arithmetic was against them. They could have made the Congress accept a junior partnership if its number was less, and after the entry of Sonia, it was no longer innocuous enough for the UF to accept take in its stride. The moment she came into the open, the high priests of United Front went into a huddle. They emerged chastened. Both Jyoti Basu and Harkishen Singh Suijeet found it hard to accept Sonia Gandhi. There was nothing to stop her from becoming the Congress president, except that she was going to choose her own timing for it. To become the chief of the party officially was going to be her only shield against possible harassment in the future. Poor Sitaram was already cringing at her feet to take over and ‘bless us’. There was the official spokesman of the party writing missives to the president to please persuade Priyankaji to become the Youth Congress president. A more pathetic political scenario was hard to imagine.

But much as the United Front may have hated the resurgence of the resurgence of the Sonia-led Congress, its Enemy No. l was still the BJP. Harkishen Singh Surjeet was busy adjusting himself to the new realities. He was already preparing his ground for extending issue-to-issue critical support to the Congress. ‘We detest the return of the dynasty, but we detest the saffron wallahs even more!’ And to keep them out they would have no choice but to back a Congress government from outside. The UF strategists said as much, not out of choice but lack of choice!

The United Front was in a sad state. It is one thing winning state elections, quite another to get a majority in Parliament. The ‘third force’, if it was to become a credible fighting force, had to become more than just a sum of the vote banks of Laloo Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Kanshi Ram and what the Left parties won in West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. Unity on programmes and policies without unity of purpose or personalities had very little meaning.

VOL. 10 | ISSUE 10 | JAN 2017

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