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The friendly foe

December 05, 2012

“KINDLY stay on the line. The prime minister will speak to you.” I waited, and within half a minute, I heard a familiar voice. It was I.K. Gujral.

I had called him from Lahore early in the morning of April 22, 1997, the day after he had been sworn in as India’s 12th prime minister. I wanted to congratulate him.

We spoke. I wished him well, now that he sat, as Disraeli had once said, at the top of the greasy pole. He asked me to contact him the next time I came to New Delhi, and then after a few unhurried minutes of pleasantries he rang off.

We had met first in Lahore many years earlier when he had come to my modest town house with Nikhil Chakraborty, one of the leading elders of the Indian press. Urbane, fluent in Urdu (he had been educated in Lahore), and modest to a fault, he spoke genuinely and earnestly of the need for a greater rapprochement between his country and ours.

This became the bedrock of his policy — known as the Gujral doctrine — during the period he served as India’s minister of external affairs between 1996 and 1998. His personal conviction about India’s responsibility to improve relations with its neighbours he solidified into state policy.

I met him again in New Delhi on March 9, 1997, the day he returned from Mali where he had gone on one of his conciliatory, ‘good neighbourly’ visits. Seeing my wife and myself, he asked us what we were doing that evening for dinner. Nothing that could not be re-scheduled, I replied.

“Why don’t you join Shiela and me? We are giving a small dinner for Henry Kissinger and his wife Nancy. My people will deliver the invitation at your hotel room.” When we reached our room less than an hour later, we found the invitation had been slipped under the door.

The venue of the dinner was Hyderabad House on Rajpath, a residence that Edwin Lutyens had designed for the Nizam of Hyderabad as his town house in an imperial New Delhi. Shahnaz and I were ushered through cavernous rooms officially furnished but yearning for a grander occupancy. The dining room was on the first floor. There, we were received very warmly by Gujral sahib and his wife and introduced to his guests.

Many of them we knew already, including K. Shankar Bajpai who had been India’s ambassador to Islamabad from 1976-80, and Montek and Isher Ahluwalia. Gujral sahib led us to each guest, one by one, introducing us as his Pakistani friends.

“Karan-ji”, he said to the former Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir, “I would like you meet Aijaz and his wife Shahnaz. They are from Pakistan”. “I have always wanted to visit Pakistan,” Karan Singh replied. “Why don’t you?” I responded. “And bring your state with you….” He caught the joke: “I can guarantee I’ll come. But I cannot say anything about the state.…”

Six weeks later, Gujral sahib became prime minister. He survived in that post for just under a year until March 1998. We never met during his tenure, but soon afterwards we met again at Lahore. He was as always gracious and ineffably polite, asking after each of my children by name. On that occasion he narrated to me how he had come to be selected prime minster after Deve Gowda’s precipitate departure.

“All of us senior party members in the United Front were in one of the state guest houses in Delhi. No one could agree upon a commonly acceptable candidate. At about 2.00 am, I decided to go to sleep in an adjoining room. At 6.00 am, I was woken up and told: ‘We have decided on a candidate. It is you. Could you get ready so that you can go to Rashtrapati Bhavan and be sworn in as prime minister?’ I went home and was met at the door by a very angry Shiela. She wanted to know where I had been all night and whether I had taken my medicines or not. I looked at her and said: ‘Woman, be careful what you say. You are addressing the prime minister of India!’ Now, Aijaz,” he continued mischievously, “how many times would I be able to use that line?”

Gujral sahib and I remained in touch after he had left office. We exchanged greetings each year and whenever I visited him in his grace and favour residence in New Delhi (all Indian prime ministers are entitled to one), we would discuss politics, literature and exchange books that we had written since our last meeting. It was during one of these sessions that he remarked with searing finality: “The Kashmir issue has been settled, Aijaz. Neither can you take it, nor can we give it.”

Our last communication was in mid-November this year when we exchanged Diwali greetings. He died a fortnight later, on Nov 30. I am not sure which religious slokas were read at his cremation. As one of his Pakistani friends ranged before him in the modern field of Kurukshetra known as diplomacy, I would have chosen this line from the Bhagavad Gita: “The destruction of our kindred means the destruction of the traditions of our ancient lineage and when these are lost, irreligion will overrun our homes.”

It reads like the Gujral doctrine in Sanskrit.

The writer is an author.