When Sonia spurned Gujral’s advice - and paid for it

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

NEW DELHI - Former prime minister I.K. Gujral had advised Congress president Sonia Gandhi against bidding for the prime ministership in 1999, saying “she would be let down by her friends in the Left at the last moment”.

But Gandhi did not heed his counsel and on April 21, 1999 staked claim to form the next government with support from the so called Third Front of non-Congress and non-BJP parties. She went to president K.R. Naryanan and told him: “We have 272 (MPs) and more are coming….”

But Mulayam Singh Yadav, who had been professing to support her, did a volte face and told the media that his Samajwadi Party will not support the Congress and proposed the name of West Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu instead for prime ministership.

A jilted Gandhi then announced the withdrawal of Congress support to the Third Front that finally led to fresh elections to the Lok Sabha in September-October, following which Atal Bihari Vajpayee came back to power a third time at the head of a National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition.

This is revealed by Gujral in his just published book “Matters of Discretion” (Hay House India), the first ever autobiography written by an Indian prime minister.

Gujral, who led a United Front coalition government (April 1997-March 1998), writes in his book: “Sonia came over to my residence on 20 April 1999 for a cup of coffee. Hers was basically a courtesy call to ask for my support. I told her very frankly that while I would support her candidature for prime ministership, she would be let down by her friends in the Left at the last moment.

“I added that she was being naive if she thought that (Harkishen Singh) Surjeet (CPI-M leader and then kingmaker) was seriously backing her. In fact, their ‘hidden horse’ was Jyoti Basu who had been convinced by Surjeet to enter the fray for the top post in case of a deadlock.”

Much after she was rebuffed in her bid for prime ministership, Gandhi had asked Gujral how he had correctly guessed the course of events.

To which, Gujral replied: “I have spent 50 years of my life in politics with the likes of Surjeet and certain things you learn only through experience.”

Gandhi had subsequently offered Gujral a Congress ticket to contest the elections. She also told him that in case he did not wish to contest, she would back him for a Rajya Sabha seat.

“However, I decided that having held the position of the prime minister of India, I must refrain from switching parties and call it a day gracefully,” Gujral said in his autobiography.

Gujral, now 92 and still quite active, lives in New Delhi with his wife Sheila.

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