This was a prime minister who readily – in fact, happily – faced questions about his lapses and failure
Last Wednesday was Inder Kumar Gujral’s 100th birthday, but, nearly 22 years after he stopped being prime minister (PM), I wonder how many of you remember him? He was small and slender, with a striking goatee, large spectacles, and a warm gracious manner. He was one of our shortest duration prime ministers, but definitely one of the nicest. His attitude to the prime ministership, his concept of leadership, and the way he handled criticism speaks of a world that’s been overtaken and very possibly forgotten. Yet there are lessons we could usefully learn.
He was the only prime minister I know willing to discuss his leadership, style and performance. “They say Gujral is a good man but he isn’t suited to be prime minister,” I asked. I cannot imagine any anchor asking that of Gujral’s successors. He smiled disarmingly and replied: “So do people want a non-good man instead?”
When I persisted, and said: “They say Gujral is not a leader of men”, his answer defined how a prime minister should view leadership. “In a democracy, leadership means the capacity to persuade, to convince, to carry people and the patience to build consensus.” Leadership is not a licence to be authoritarian. “It’s not bullying people to fall into line. That’s anything but democratic.”
Gujral said his intention was to make the Prime Minister’s Office “an office of sensitivity with a human face”, and, almost poetically, added, he wanted to bring “the touch of gentleness Indian democracy demands and needs”.
People may question whether he succeeded, but few can doubt his prescription. Alas, at the time, during the political chaos of the late ’80s and ’90s, this was not appreciated.
Yet this was a prime minister who readily – in fact, happily – faced questions about his lapses and failures. Was he too soft and gentle handling Lalu Yadav? Would a strong prime minister have forcefully insisted on an earlier resignation? He didn’t blanche. “That is my own way of doing things,” he replied. “I cannot copy others. But, ultimately, he had to step down.”
Just eight weeks into his prime ministership, Gujral admitted, “I don’t have a magic wand to cure corruption.” This was candour of a sort India was unaccustomed to. But critics said Gujral is pleading helplessness. This proves he’s weak. However, he was unabashed when I put that to him. “Sometimes criticism does come. That’s part of democracy,” he gently responded. How can a journalist think otherwise, the smile on his face seemed to suggest. “When you need to carry people they must know you’re not trying to pretend.”
No doubt there were times when people took advantage of Gujral’s gentle manner. Looking back, it seems the best example was the brazen, even brutal, way Sharad Yadav shouted at the prime minister in Parliament. It made headlines. Rarely, if ever at all, has an incumbent PM been treated so shabbily, and that too by one of his own members of Parliament. The question now was what would Gujral do?
The common expectation was the prime minister would seek to enforce discipline and punish this outrageous outburst. In fact, a show of strength was not just expected, but necessary to re-assert the PM’s authority. After all, Yadav was not only rude, he had also undermined the PM’s office.
Gujral, however, thought differently. He did absolutely nothing. Later, he explained it does not behove a prime minister’s dignity to either respond in kind or vindictively. As he put it, the wisest course was to overlook Yadav’s behaviour. Consequently, Gujral did not descend to his level. He rose above it. Perhaps this is why Sharad Yadav publicly apologised. Had Gujral acted any other way, that might not have happened.
Now, I know he only served for 11 months, but that’s often enough to change the man who holds the highest office. Not in this case. Gujral is the only prime minister who agreed to participate in panel discussions and even travel to Noida to do so. The office of prime minister did not alter his accessibility, and it certainly didn’t give him an inflated sense of his own importance. When he came late for the launch of his brother, Satish, the artist’s, autobiography, he began with a disarming apology: “I know you’ll find this unacceptable but the truth is an urgent cabinet meeting detained me.” No one knew, but it was the fall of his government he was talking about. The next morning the Congress withdrew support, and his brief prime ministership
We’ve had three prime ministers since. It would be invidious to compare, but there’s one lesson they could have learned. It’s the duty of a prime minister to face up to criticism of his government and his own performance. Never be scared to subject yourself to tough interviews. This is what transparency and accountability require. Gujral did. Sadly, his successors have not or they’ve only agreed to controlled and doctored questioning. But then, as I said, it’s a very different world today.