The passing of giants

IK Gujral
4 December 1919 – 30 November 2012
Photo: Reuters

THE EVIL that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.” Today, as our lives get steadily more enmeshed in a never-ending present, Shakespeare’s aphorism has become even more important to remember. Two people to whom India owes a great deal passed away in the second fortnight of November. They were Krishna Chandra Pant, fondly known by his friends and admirers as ‘Raja’, and Inder Kumar Gujral, who felt most comfortable when people simply addressed him by his first name, Inder. Inder was 92, and had been fading slowly. Raja was 81 and at the peak of his mental powers when, on the morning of 15 November, he sat down in his favourite chair, drank his morning tea, and simply went to sleep.

Death is an occasion for mourning. But it is also a time for remembering the life that has been lived. Both these fine men have left us a lot to remember. And a lot to celebrate. Gujral was India’s prime minister for only eight months, but in that short period, he left an indelible stamp on our foreign policy. Today, the world remembers him mainly as the creator of the Gujral Doctrine. Mark Tully summed it up in The Guardian as follows: “At its heart was the highly significant recognition that India must treat its neighbours more generously, and in particular, no longer insist on reciprocal measures.” That, of course, was the core of the doctrine, and Gujral applied it within weeks of becoming prime minister to settle the thorny issue of how to share the Ganga waters impounded by the Farakka barrage with Bangladesh. He did this in a manner that recognised not only Bangladesh’s legal rights as the lower riparian State, but also its far greater need for these waters.

In doing so, he not so much set a precedent — for that had already been done with Nepal when he was VP Singh’s foreign minister — as started a process of healing that continues till today. For what the doctrine really asserts is that while culturally and politically diverse, the whole of South Asia was a single economic space whose oneness has been shattered by the partition of India and the adoption of the hard boundaries of the European nation-state by all the successor States of the subcontinent. Since India, being the largest of them, has suffered the least, it can afford to go the longest way towards repairing the damage. The Gujral Doctrine now pervades Indian foreign policy. It is reflected in SAPTA and SAFTA, the South Asian Preferential and Free Trade Areas. It explains why Manmohan Singh was able to extend generous economic help to Pakistan earlier this year without raising a murmur of protest.

While Inder will be remembered most for the Gujral Doctrine, some of us who knew him well will remember how at the beginning of the Emergency in 1975, he told Sanjay Gandhi that he only took his instructions from the prime minister and how, from the moment when he returned from serving for seven years as India’s Ambassador to the Soviet Union, in 1982, the first task he took upon himself was to bring about a reconciliation between the Congress and the Akalis, to restore peace to Punjab. The Rajiv-Longowal Accord was his crowning achievement. Its success was tragically underlined by the Khalistanis’ assassination of Sant Longowal. But that hastened the end of the insurgency in that state.

Pant is remembered by the media today for being the longest serving and most versatile minister the country has known. Elected to Parliament in 1962, he was almost never out of the government from then till 2004. As a member of the Congress, he served as a minister in the home, irrigation, finance, steel and heavy engineering, power and energy, defence and education ministries. After joining the NDA government in 1998, he served as the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, and more importantly, as a member of the Cabinet Committee on Security. The list is long, but does not help us to understand why he was so much sought after. The answer is his extraordinary capacity to identify problems and marshall the skills needed to resolve them. For the best part of three decades, Pant was every Congress prime minister’s manager of crisis; then he became Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s. Raja learned his skills from his father, Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant. The elder Pant’s managerial skills were the stuff of legend. As Pandit Nehru’s home minister, he handled the scores of conflicts that arose from the linguistic reorganisation of state boundaries with such aplomb that the nation awarded him the Bharat Ratna for his achievement.

Both these fine men have left us a lot to remember. And a lot to celebrate

It was not surprising that Raja Pant’s first appointment was as a junior minister in the home ministry. Over the next two decades, he dealt almost continuously with the three insurgencies that racked the Northeast in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s — the Naga, the Garo-Khasi and the Mizo. “What is making the Kashmir insurgency so much more difficult to settle,” he would say in the ’90s, “is the lack of a single, united leadership. The Nagas had it, the Mizos had it, so did the Garos and Khasis, who dominated the All Party Hill Leaders’ Conference. We could negotiate with them because we knew that they had the capacity to meet their commitments. In Kashmir, this is not the case, so whom do we negotiate with? We need another approach.”

That other approach was to rely upon the powerful mechanism of democracy itself to throw up the leaders who could speak for the people. Rajiv Gandhi intuitively understood this and was able, therefore, in rapid succession, to end the Mizo, Assam and Punjab insurgencies by holding free and fair elections. In 2002, with Pant as the interlocutor for Kashmir, Vajpayee ensured free and fair elections that gave most Kashmiris the first government that they could truly call their own. This election started the decline of separatism in the Valley.

KC Pant
10 August 1931 – 15 November 2012
Photo: Indian Express Archive

IN THE ’80s, as the minister for steel and heavy engineering, Pant oversaw the modernisation of the steel plants of SAIL, and the establishment of Maruti Udyog, India’s largest and most successful automaker. In 1988, when the witch-hunt that followed the Bofors scandal brought work in the defence ministry to a halt, Rajiv turned to Pant to break the paralysis. Rajiv knew that only a minister with an impeccable record would have the courage to back his officers when they started taking decisions again. Pant made sure of this by bringing in officers who he knew to be above temptation to man key posts in the ministry.

It’s a symptom of the disease that is destroying Indian democracy from within that the very qualities that made Pant an exceptional minister finally forced him out of the Congress party. To Pant, power was a means to an end, not an end in itself. He was, therefore, at his best when shaping and implementing policy. But as the Congress gradually lost its support base, staying in power became its all-consuming goal. Faced with a difficult election in 1989, Rajiv succumbed to the demand from some of his own advisers to nominate a wheeling-dealing politician in Nainital who was willing to strike sweetheart deals in order to marshal the vote banks in the constituency. He offered Pant another constituency and selected ND Tiwari in place of Pant as the Congress candidate. Deeply offended and betrayed, Pant refused the alternative seat and resigned from the party. The feeling of betrayal made his wife Ila decide to join the BJP two years later and contest the Nainital seat. It was a measure of the Congress’ miscalculation that she defeated Tiwari.

Gujral and Pant were different in age and temperament. But they shared one common virtue: they were gentlemen in politics. They placed the nation first and their careers next. And they did not shirk from jeopardising the latter to serve the former.


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