I had the opportunity to work closely with the late Inder Kumar Gujaral when he was the foreign minister and later the Prime minister of India. He was my first introduction to a senior Indian politician and so when I went to meet him as the foreign minister of Nepal in New Delhi (South Block), I was not sure what to expect. Once I entered his office all my anxieties were gone. Gujral welcomed me with a warm smile. Standing before me was a person who projected sincerity and goodwill. When we started talking he almost gave me a blank check. He wanted to know what Nepal desired and added that India would leave no stone unturned to fulfill it. I told him that at that moment all we wanted was his goodwill and friendship. Gujaral was a statesman who meant what he said.
During my tenure as the foreign minister of Nepal, I met Gujral on several occasions and it was hard not to be impressed by his commitment to think in terms of South Asia as a region rather than a collection of different states, each trying to maximize what it considered its national interest. He was all the time emphasizing that as the largest and the most powerful member of SAARC India should aim for stability in the region and go an extra mile in accommodating the interests of its smaller neighbors, without always thinking of strict reciprocity. In many ways he was ahead of his times in his vision of South Asia. In one meeting, we from the Nepali side had formally proposed the concept of a “growth quadrangle” consisting of Nepal, north and eastern part of India, Bangladesh and Bhutan as a new economic unit for regional development, so as to make the best use of natural resources and complementaries in industry, agriculture and tourism.
Gujaral wholeheartedly supported this idea and was willing to ask the Asian Development Bank to be involved in its implementation. He even suggested that we should go for some kind of economic union that would provide the benefits of free trade and the advantages of a big market to smaller countries while respecting the sovereign equality of each member state. We were all impressed by the sincerity of his statement and we knew that he meant what he said. He was in fact a person who was willing to think in terms of a South Asian identity and the prosperity of the whole region. However it is somewhat disheartening that the growth quadrangle concept has not yet found a hospitable environment to take roots in.
Gujral wanted to improve economic ties among all the states in South Asia. Nepal government then wanted a land access to Bangladesh via Jhapa in eastern Nepal. The Bangladesh government was also keen on this link. On the Indian side, there was security concern in the so called “chicken neck” area if this access was approved. It was clear that we were getting nowhere. We brought this issue when Gujaral visited Nepal as the Prime Minister of India. In our discussion we presented our request with maps and charts. It was to be nothing more than a courtesy call but it turned into a businesslike meeting with the Indian foreign secretary and home secretary also in attendance. After a while Gujral agreed to Nepal’s request to provide a new road link to Bangladesh with the proviso that the transport convoy have security escort. This provision was to be reviewed after six months. Unfortunately, all three nations have been unable to take advantage of this generous gesture from a leader who was proud to be not just an Indian but also a South Asian.
In my dealings with Gujral I found that he dealt with us in a framework that I would label as one of “shared concern” and “shared prosperity”. He was quite clear about India’s national interests but at the same time he had the magnanimity of a leader of a great nation. He was well aware of the size and resource asymmetry among nations in the region and was always at pains to emphasize the fact that India wants to be seen not as a regional hegemon but as a civilized nation that relies on a cooperative framework to pursue its national interests.
In informal meetings at the sidelines of SAARC summit, it was always interesting to watch Gujral interact with his Pakistani counterpart. Looking at the body language and the verbal interaction between the two, anyone would think that India and Pakistan were the best friends in the world. They shared the same jokes, the same music and enjoyed reminiscencing about the old days in Lahore. At one time I suggested jokingly that in view of the warmth and friendship between the two the best course for both India and Pakistan would be to freeze the present status quo for the next twenty five years with the understanding that the issue will be discussed then by a new generation of leaders. In the meantime both countries could open their doors for trade and investments. Perhaps by then the economic costs of conflict for both the countries would be so high that a mutually acceptable solution would be found. Both listened to my suggestion and then laughed, reflecting more a sense of helplessness than anything else.
Gujral was a great visionary leader not just of India but of South Asia as well. We in Nepal have lost a great friend. In the past when I visited the Indian capital I made it a point to visit Gujral and exchange opinions on bilateral and regional issues. He was always hoping that Nepal would find the road to stability, peace and democracy. Now he is no longer in this world. In his passing Nepal has lost a great friend and South Asia, a visionary leader.