Tribute A Man for all Seasons
I. K. Gujral leaves behind a power vacuum
There are many traits of character that bring out the greatness in a great man (or woman). One is, how long they keep their guests or audience waiting.
Back in 1997, I.K. Gujral, then India’s Minister of External Affairs, was supposed to preside at a media conference in New Delhi. He was returning from a visit to the Gulf States and was driven straight from the Indira Gandhi International Airport to the conference venue at the Parliament House. The session was scheduled to commence at 4.00 pm but Mr. Gujral arrived 10 minutes late due to the traffic snarl on the way from the airport. Once he took his seat on the dais, the first thing he did was profusely and repeatedly apologize to the delegates for having kept them waiting and for wasting their valuable time.
As a delegate from Pakistan, this was rather strange behavior for me. I am accustomed to a different variety of ‘great’ men. I am from a country where, when the governor of the province is scheduled to address a seminar at 4.00 pm, his military secretary calls the organizers about an hour later to enquire that could the Governor Sahib come to the venue if the guests had arrived? Or, where the Chief Justice arrives two hours late and keeps the guests waiting at a book launching and there is not a single word of apology from him.
During the conference in New Delhi, which was on the theme of the role of the Judiciary and the Media, the issue of ‘police reporting’ for Pakistanis visiting India came up. My host, Mr. Upendra Vajpaee, requested Mr. Gujral that the requirement of ‘police reporting’ for visiting Pakistani journalists should be waived. Gujral showed his keenness on the issue and promised to do something about it. However wellmeaning he may have been, if he later wrote a note to the concerned authorities, it must have been bulldozed by another heavy file in some office in South Block.
The visa relaxation for Pakistani journalists did not come about during Mr. Gujral’s tenure as Foreign Minister or as Prime Minister, not even in his lifetime, but at least
some headway has been made on the issue recently that benefits children, senior citizens and businessmen from both sides.
I may add that during my visit to India for the conference, Mr. Vajpaee made sure that I didn’t have to ‘pay my respects’ at the specified police station in New Delhi either on arrival or prior to departure.
I.K. Gujral was a man of many dimensions. He was born in 1919 in Jhelum where he spent his early childhood and later studied at D.A.V. College, Hailey College of Commerce and F.C. College in Lahore.
He moved over to India after partition and subsequently joined the Congress Party. He had a long stint spread over 50 years, serving in various key slots and rising to the position of Prime Minister of India. Before this, he had held several ministerial portfolios under Indira Gandhi’s premiership. He also served as India’s Ambassador to the USSR in the days when the country’s relations with the Soviet Union were at their peak. He subsequently switched from the Congress Party to the Janata Dal and served as Minister for External Affairs both under V.P. Singh and Devi Gowda.
It was during his Prime Ministership that he launched the Gujral Doctrine, a set of 5 principles aimed at conducting foreign relations with India’s immediate neighbors.
Gujral visited his place of birth in Jhelum along with his wife in 1982 and narrated recollections of the visit with a great deal of nostalgia in his autobiography ‘Matters of Discretion’ which was published in 2011.
Besides politics, Gujral was also a man of art, culture and poetry. Writing about his days at the Hailey College in Lahore, he says: “It was in this college that I met the famous Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed ‘Faiz’ who was my English professor. Despite our age difference, we became good friends and remained close all our lives. Under his influence, I developed a keen interest in Urdu poetry. Years later, when I was the ambassador to the USSR, Faiz spent many months recuperating in a sanatorium outside Moscow. I took this opportunity to host many music and poetry recital evenings at my home.”
Gujral’s departure at the ripe age of 92 leaves a wide gap in India - and in the subcontinent.