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India No Bully Under New Premier

Popular peacemaker will face a struggle to maintain his coalition

As India prepares to celebrate 50 years of independence this August, a man who fought for his country's freedom looks set to deliver the national address from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort in Delhi.

Such symbolism is important in a highly nationalist country like India and gives Inder Kumar Gujral, who was sworn is as the country's 12th prime minister last week, the legitimacy many people are looking for after a month of political turmoil.

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Fluent in English, Russian, Hindi, and Urdu, Mr. Gujral is known for his pacifist approach to politics and foreign policy and his humble political style.

His admirers consider him the first intellectual to lead the world's largest democracy since the death of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in 1964.

"Gujral is a Punjabi bhadralok [gentleman]," says close friend and author Kushwant Singh. "He is like a Boy Scout - always ready to help an old woman across the road."

Born in Jhelum, a town now in Pakistan, Gujral's first brush with politics came at the age of 11, when he organized an anti-British demonstration by children.

A member of the Communist Party in the early 1940s, he was jailed at the age of 23.

After independence, Gujral joined the Congress Party, becoming a part of Indira Gandhi's "kitchen Cabinet" until he fell out with the prime minister when she curtailed civic rights and declared a state of emergency in 1975.

He took up the post of ambassador to Moscow and went on to become a highly regarded envoy for India, nurturing its links with the Soviet bloc and the Non-Aligned Movement.

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Helping, not bullying

India's neighbors have welcomed the choice of Gujral as prime minister, saying it heralds a new era in regional cooperation.

By retaining the post of external affairs minister, which he has held since last June, Gujral wants to ensure his own brand of foreign policy will continue.

For countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan, used to being bullied by their "big brother" in the region, that comes as a relief. In what has become known as the "Gujral Doctrine," the new prime minister pursued a policy based on the idea that India must be prepared to offer neighbors concessions without necessarily expecting reciprocation.

One of his first major achievements was to conclude a controversial water-sharing agreement with Bangladesh.

But it is with India's archrival, Pakistan, a country with which it has fought three wars over the past half-century, that an improvement in relations looks most promising.

Gujral helped break a three-year diplomatic freeze in relations with Pakistan and is scheduled to have a summit meeting with his counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, in the Maldives next month.

The summit - the first official contact between the leaders of the countries in more than eight years - is expected to pave the way for further talks aimed at settling a long list of bilateral disputes starting with the future of the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir.

A fragile coalition

But there are already nagging doubts at home as to whether Gujral will survive his full term, given the poor track record of coalition governments in the past.

Gujral's main failing, critics say, is that he has no political base beyond the capital's intelligentsia.

With four years to go before the next election, Gujral will now have to muster all his diplomatic and negotiating skills to keep his government together.

His election brought about the exit of one of the key supporters of his United Front, the Tamil Maanila Congress (TMC), which ditched the United Front when its own leader, G.K. Moopanar, missed out on the top post. The United Front is made up of 15 parties and is backed by the Congress Party.

The TMC's decision to opt out of the United Front has also deprived the government of vital support in southern India, where the party is based.

New rules

Gujral also faces a much trickier playing field than before. Not only does his minority government still have to rely on the tacit support of the Congress Party to stay in power, he will also have to consult the party before taking any major policy decision.

President Shankar Dayal Sharma recently insisted that an "institutional mechanism" be set up to ensure better coordination between Congress and the United Front.

Some analysts say that this will elevate Sitaram Kesri, parliamentary leader of the India National Congress, to the post of de facto prime minister, or at least to a position as political umpire.

Most commentators agree that Gujral has a great deal of integrity.

But in a highly polarized and inherently unstable political environment will this be enough to ensure the longevity of one of India's great political survivors?

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