His son Naresh Gujral, an Akali Dal member of Rajya Sabha, and other family members were by his side when the end came. Gujral had lost his poet-wife Sheila last year. His brother Satish Gujral is a renowned painter. The government declared a seven-day national mourning and both houses of Parliament were adjourned for the day as a mark of respect soon after the news of his death.
Born in Jhelum town which is now in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Gujral was an unexpected prime minister. He happened to head a Congress-backed rag-tag United Front coalition government from April 1997 to March 1998, after then Congress president Sitaram Kesri pulled the rug from under the feet of his predecessor H D Deve Gowda.
As external affairs minister under Gowda and then as PM, Gujral is best remembered for what is called the ‘Gujral doctrine’, a set of principles that promote a liberal policy towards India’s neighbours. The principles won him international acclaim but also came under criticism over the years as it was seen as being soft on Pakistan in the face of cross-border terrorism. Gujral also shut down covert operations by Indian intelligence agencies in Pakistan.
He attracted flak for the famous hug he gave Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein when he went to meet him after the first Gulf War in 1991. He also courted controversy following the transfer of CBI director Joginder Singh. This was seen as a concession to Lalu Yadav, who was being probed in connection with the fodder scam in Bihar. Gujral’s decision to recommend President’s Rule in Uttar Pradesh after unruly scenes in the state assembly in October 1997 became controversial when the then president K R Narayanan returned the recommendation. The Allahabad High Court also ruled against the decision.
Gujral resigned after the Congress withdrew support in the wake of the Jain Commission report.
Notwithstanding the tumult of national politics, Gujral led a life of dignity and was prepared to pay a price for its sake when needed. When Congress president Sonia Gandhi offered him a Rajya Sabha ticket, he declined it politely as he believed his political affiliation was not in conformity with the high position he had held as the prime minister of the country. He chose just his intellectual pursuits over a membership of the upper house.
Gujral belonged to a family of freedom fighters and was jailed in 1942 during the Quit India movement. He authored half-a-dozen books, including an autobiography, Matters of Discretion. A member of the capital’s high-heeled Punjabi aristocracy, he steered a distinguished political career with care and caution.
Gujral came to Delhi after partition and was nominated vice president of the New Delhi Municipal Council in 1958. He was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1964 due to the patronage of Indira Gandhi. Three years later, in 1967, when she became prime minister, she made him a minister of state for parliamentary affairs and communications. He gradually became a part of Indira Gandhi’s kitchen cabinet. But his fortunes slipped following the Emergency in 1975.
As the information and broadcasting minister at that time, he could not match the expectations of Sanjay Gandhi and was moved to the planning ministry. When his Rajya Sabha term ended a year later, Indira Gandhi packed him off to Moscow as India’s ambassador. He left the Congress in the mid-1980s and returned to politics by joining the Janata Dal. He served as the foreign minister twice — first in the V P Singh government and then under Gowda.
Sophisticated and soft-spoken, Gujral was unlike the typical politician. “I am now in the tenth decade of my life. I have witnessed many vicissitudes over the years. I have interacted with a wide variety of human beings — from the noble to the despicable and from the straightforward to the devious. I can now say, with conviction that I have exercised discretion to the extent possible throughout my life,” he wrote in his autobiography.