If my memory is correct, I first met Inder Gujral at a New Year’s eve party given by my cousins Raj and Romesh Thapar. On holiday from Cambridge, I was skulking around the punch-bowl, looking for surreptitious moments to quaff more than I should, when an avuncular hand rested on my shoulder and, turning around, I encountered Mr Gujral.
“Making the most of the opportunity?” he said, beaming because he had caught me in the act. “Fill your glass and come and talk to me.”
I thought I was in for an admonition but, instead, I found a warm and genuine interest in what I was studying and a curiosity to find out what I thought of the situation at home. I can’t claim I had anything of value to say but Mr Gujral treated me as if I was a well-informed adult.
We must have met on several occasions thereafter but never for very long and certainly not in ways that would establish any intimacy. So you can imagine my surprise — and delight — when in July 1997, months after he had become prime minister, I was rung up and invited to “a small dinner for friends” at 7 Race Course Road. ‘Was this a mistake?’, I asked myself. I suspected it was but I wasn’t going to say no and miss the best opportunity of my 41-year life.
If Inder Gujral was surprised to see me step through the prime ministerial front door nothing in his manner, voice or the look on his face gave that away. He greeted me with a warm hug, his face covered in a full smile and, then, with an arm around my shoulder, introduced me to his other friends, all older and considerably senior.
Mr Gujral must have noticed I was keeping quiet. So every five minutes he would pointedly include me in the conversation. Sometimes it was with a carefully planned “What do journalists think about this?” but on other occasions it was a more blunt “Do you agree, Karan?” By the time the evening ended I felt I belonged. And I was talking unstoppably!
In the years that followed I felt I knew Inder Gujral well enough to demand repeated interviews and he never refused. As PM he did them at his official residence but, when I insisted, he agreed to travel to studios in Noida. No other PM has done that. After relinquishing office he was a frequent guest on my programmes.
In 2007, when Burmese monks had risen in revolt against the junta, I rang to ask if he would speak in support of democracy in Burma and in criticism of our government’s policies. I’ll never forget his reply: “There can be nothing else I can say”. That day, in our studio, sitting beside Jaya Jaitley and a member of the Burmese government-in-exile, he was passionate, forceful and delightfully outspoken.
He repeatedly said he was “embarrassed” by the way the Indian government had turned its back on democracy and Aung San Suu Kyi. Calling her the Gandhi of our times, Inder Gujral pointedly added that, if he’d been alive, Mahatma Gandhi would never have permitted this betrayal of Suu Kyi.
Last month, when she visited India, Suu Kyi made the same point about Mahatma Gandhi and in almost the same language. I wish I had remembered to tell her that Inder Gujral was the first to say so five years ago. Foolishly, and very regrettably, it slipped my mind.
Views expressed by the author are personal