Born in the town of Jhelum in Western Punjab, now in Pakistan, he actively took part in India’s freedom struggle, and was jailed in 1942 during the ‘Quit India Movement‘. He belongs to the famous Khatri family of the Gujral clan.
Born to the late Avtar Narain Gujral and Pushpa Gujral, he holds degrees in M.A., B.Com. Ph.D. & D.Litt. (Hons. Causa). He was born at Jhelum (in undivided Punjab) on 4 December 1919. He was married to Shiela Gujral on 26 May 1945.
Gujral belongs to a family of freedom fighters, with both his parents having participated in the freedom struggle in Punjab. At the age of eleven, he himself actively participated in the freedom struggle in 1931 and was arrested and severely beaten by the police for organizing movement of young children in the Jhelum town. In 1942, he was jailed during the Quit India Movement.
Minister in Indira Gandhi government
In the tumultuous days of June 1975, he was minister of Information and Broadcasting. On 12 June 1975, the Allahabad high court gave a verdict that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used unfair means in elections of 1971 and termed her election null and void.
In Janata Dal
Gujral left the Congress Party in the mid-1980s and joined the Janata Dal. The Dal was a third-party with mainly socialist leanings and regional bases. In the 1989 elections, Gujral was elected from the Jalandhar parliamentary constituency in Punjab. He served as Minister of External Affairs in the V. P. Singh cabinet. In 1989 V. P. Singh sent him to Srinagar to seal the deal with the kidnappers in the case of the 1989 kidnapping of Rubaiya Sayeed. The largest issue he had to deal with in this cabinet role was Iraq‘s invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent events that led to the first Gulf War of January 1991. As India’s representative, he personally met with Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. His hug with Hussein during the meeting remains a matter of controversy. In the 1991 mid-term parliamentary elections, Gujral contested from Patna constituency in Bihar against Samajwadi Janata Party (Rashtriya) candidate and then-Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha. However, the election was countermanded following complaints of large-scale irregularities.
In 1992, Gujral was elected to Rajya Sabha and remained a key Janata Dal leader.
After 1996 elections, when the United Front government was formed at the center under the leadership of H. D. Deve Gowda, he was again named Minister of External Affairs. During this second tenure, he propounded his ‘Gujral Doctrine’, which called for better relations with neighbours.
Before becoming the Prime Minister of India in April 1997, he served the country as Union Minister or Minister of State holding different portfolios in the Ministries of Communications and Parliamentary Affairs, Information & Broadcasting, Works & Housing, Planning and Ministry of External Affairs.
The Congress party was supporting the United Front government from outside, but decided to withdraw support, which led to the collapse of the government in April 1997. In order to avoid elections, a compromise was reached. The Congress party agreed to support another United Front government under new leader, provided its concerns—such as not being consulted before taking important decisions and being marginalized—were addressed. The United Front elected Gujral as new leader and he was sworn in as Prime Minister on 21 April 1997.
Gujral inherited the bitterness between the Congress Party and the United Front from his predecessor, H.D. Deve Gowda. However he maintained good relations with the Congress Party, which supported his government from outside. Within a few weeks in office, Gujral faced trouble, not from the Congress party but within his own Janata Dal. The Central Bureau of Investigation asked for the permission from the governor of Bihar A. R. Kidwai to prosecute the state chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav in a corruption case related to the purchase of fodder for the cattle (see Fodder Scam). The state governor granted the permission for the prosecution of the chief minister and demand for the resignation of Yadav was raised both from within and out of the United Front. However, Yadav sternly rejected the demand. Prime Minister Gujral just exhorted Yadav to step down without actually taking any action against his government. When Gujral transferred the CBI director Joginder Singh, who was investigating the case against Yadav, many people considered this as an attempt on the part of Prime Minister to protect Yadav. When Yadav felt that he no longer enjoyed a commanding position in Janata Dal, he left the party and formed his own ‘Rashtriya Janata Dal‘ (RJD) on 3 July 1997. Out of 45 Janata Dal members of parliament, 17 left the party and supported Yadav. However, the new party continued in the United Front and Gujral’s government was saved from immediate danger.
Prime Minister Gujral continued in the office for over 11 months, including 3 months as caretaker Prime Minister. During this time, he attempted to improve relations with Pakistan.
One of the most controversial decisions of his government was recommendation of President’s rule in Uttar Pradesh, following unruly scenes in the state assembly on 21 October 1997. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government headed by Kalyan Singh sought vote of confidence when the violence and unruly scenes took place in the assembly. However President K.R. Narayanan refused to sign the recommendation and sent it back to the government for reconsideration. The Allahabad high Court also gave a decision against President’s rule in Uttar Pradesh.
In early November 1997, parts of interim report of Jain Commission inquiring into the conspiracy aspects of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case were leaked to the press. Reportedly, the Jain Commission had indicted the political party, Dravid Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), for tacitly supporting the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which was responsible for Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. The DMK was part of the ruling coalition at the center and the Union Cabinet had ministers belonging to the DMK. The Congress Party first demanded the tabling of the report on the floor of the parliament. The report was tabled on 19 November 1997. When it was confirmed that the Jain Commission had in fact held the DMK responsible for supporting the LTTE, the Congress party demanded that the ministers belonging to the DMK be dropped. There was exchange of letters between Congress President Sitaram Kesri and Prime Minister Gujral. However, Gujral refused to budge. In a public function in Calcutta on 23 November 1997, he gave a hint of what was to follow saying ‘mid-term elections are around the corner’. The Congress Party finally withdrew support from his government on 28 November 1997. Gujral resigned following this withdrawal. As no alternative government could be formed, the only alternative was mid-term elections, as Gujral had foreseen.
The elections were held in February-March 1998. Gujral contested again from Jalandhar constituency in Punjab with the support of Akali Dal. The Akali Dal, though a part of BJP-led coalition, opted to support Gujral because during his Prime Ministerial tenure, Gujral declared that the central government will share the expenses on stamping out terrorism in Punjab during 1980s and early 1990s, along with the state government of Punjab. That eased the strain on economy of Punjab to a great extent and the Akali Dal decided to support Gujral. Gujral defeated Umrao Singh of the Congress Party by over 131,000 votes.
In the 12th Lok Sabha, Gujral actively opposed the BJP-led coalition government. In a debate in Lok Sabha on 29 May 1998, he pointed out some of the drawbacks of the government in handling of the nuclear tests conducted at Pokhran. He also opposed the government’s decision to impose President’s rule in Bihar. However Gujral actively supported Prime Minister Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore in February 1999 and signing of Lahore Declaration with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. On 19 April 1999, when the BJP-led government sought vote of confidence on the floor of the Lok Sabha after the withdrawal of support by All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, Gujral opposed the government.