In the 2004 sci-fi thriller The Final Cut, the actor Robin Williams plays the role of a “cutter”, who crafts life stories of dead people – as recorded by devices implanted in their bodies all their lives – and presents film obituaries for their families and friends to remember the dead by. The craft of the ‘cutter’ lies in editing out the darker aspects of a dead person’s life, and presenting only a glowing account of his life and times: it gives everyone a chance to be remembered in the way that they want to be, with all the painful episodes snipped out.
Beyond the immediate narrative, the film is about memory and history, and the subjectivity bias that determines how we make assessments of people and historical events. It is a philosophical exploration of the question: If history is what is written and remembered, then what happens when memories are edited and rewritten?
Obituary writers – in India and elsewhere – are, in the main, consummate ‘cutters’. That’s partly because the due process of post-mortem protocol requires one not to speak ill of the dead. As a result, obituaries tend to be soppy, syrupy, sentimental balderdash, which present an intellectually dishonest assessment of the place in history of the dear departed. They tend to dwell overmuch on the kinder, softer, personable side of the deceased, while passing lightly over – or even airbrushing – anything that might be remotely seen as unflattering.
Which is perhaps why virtually every obituary of former Prime Minister IK Gujral, who passed away on Friday, dwells excessively on the fact that he was a “gentleman in politics” and on his contribution to India’s foreign policy orientation, which he formulated as the Gujral Doctrine.
It is, of course, true that Gujral was a gentleman in politics, who became an accidental Prime Minister; and that distinguishing trait stands out primarily because there are so few “gentlemen” in politics. It is also true that at a personal level, and in his interactions with world leaders, he brought to bear the suave, affable manner that earned him much distinction as a diplomat, as a Foreign Minister and as Prime Minister.
But any assessment of Gujral’s place in history is incomplete if it doesn’t consider the impact of his doctrinal view of India’s foreign policy thinking on the way that policy played out in the Indian subcontinent and in the larger world beyond.
The Gujral Doctrine was principally a set of five principles – a sort of Nehruvian Panch Sheel for the 1990s – that, he said, ought to guide the conduct of India’s relations with its immediate neighbours. These are:
With neighbours like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity, but gives and accommodates that it can in good faith and trust.
No South Asian country should allow its territory to be used against the interest of another country of the region.
No country should interfere in the internal affairs of another.
All South Asian countries must respect each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
They should settle all their disputes through peaceful bilateral negotiations.
In spirit, of course, no one can disagree with these “motherhood and apple pie” principles. Which is why, in the absence of any other coherent formulation of foreign policy orientation, the Gujral Doctrine became something of a totem. The spirit of that formulation has governed India’s relationship with its neighbours since then – and it continued to determine foreign policy even during the time in office of the NDA government under AB Vajpayee.
But the fundamental weakness of the Gujral Doctrine and, more important, in the way that it was implemented during Gujral’s tenure, was in the fact that it amounted to unilateral disarmament on India’s part, and left the conduct of international diplomacy to an abiding trust in the goodness of others.
In an ideal world, of course, there would be peace on earth and goodwill among all fellow men. But the world that we live in, and particularly in India’s troubled neighbourhood, is far from ideal. And given the historical baggage that weighs down the region’s contemporary politics, such unilateral disarmament has actually harmed India’s strategic interests since then.
Indicatively, even in his time in office, Gujral was swayed by his own goodness into extending unilateral “concessions” to Pakistan – even though he did not list it among the countries with whom his Doctrine would apply. Indicatively, he shut down India’s covert operations in Pakistan, which severely cramped India’s ability to gather intelligence, at a time when the Pakistan military-intelligence complex was actually plotting yet more jihadi crimes against India. It is no mere coincidence that India was caught off-guard barely a couple of years later, when Pakistan launched its war in Kargil.
And over the years, we’ve seen Pakistan egregiously breach virtually every pillar of the Gujral Doctrine. It has allowed its territory to be used against India, has interfered in India’s internal affairs, has violated India’s territorial integrity, and insists on raising its invented disputes with India on multilateral forums.
And it’s not just with Pakistan. India’s softly-softly approach to its neighbours has caused even the Maldivian worm to turn against us, as evidenced by that government’s recent action in kicking out an Indian company from a prestigious infrastructure project on the island.
The problem with the Gujral Doctrine is that it assumed that peace would flow from unilaterally dismantling one’s defences. It was oblivious to the very real lesson from history that peace flows from an asymmetry of power. And that while you may need to “speak softly”, it is always prudent to carry a big stick.
It is no one’s case that India should be belligerent towards its neighbours, but the Gujral Doctrine’s peacenik unilateral concessions, which have since become institutionalised, not only did not earn goodwill, but actually signalled weakness, which cussed strategic constituencies in neighbouring countries have used to their advantage. The more useful doctrine in international diplomacy is the one that former US President Ronald Reagan abided by: doveryai, no proveryai (Trust, but verify).
In many ways, Gujral was the original Manmohan Singh – a gentleman in politics and a peaceable Prime Minister who may have meant well, but whose incapacity or unwillingness to signal strength – at home and in the conduct of diplomacy with our immediate neighbours – has cost India dear. In the end, Gujral proved, like Manmohan Singh does every minute of every day, that “gentlemen” in politics don’t make good Prime Ministers.