Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The Quintessential Statesman
By Rajesh Singh
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the poster boy of development as well as a statesman who saw beyond his times and had the courage to embark on new and bold paths. He showed the way to effective coalition politics, of handling the economy and social friction — all with equal panache, writes RAJESH SINGH
Winston Churchill once said, “You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life.” Churchill was a famous man and his quote is as famous, but it fits only partially on another famous personality: Atal Bihari Vajpayee. India’s former Prime Minister did stand up for something (more than once) sometime in life, but he had no enemies and at best only political rivals. This is not the only template that goes awry on the charismatic leader who could well have been the focal point of the country’s politics even today had ill-health not compelled him to pull out of public life.
As a leader and Prime Minister, he was both consensus-builder and strongly individualistic; he avoided confrontation but also crossed swords for what he passionately believed in; he was a peacenik who didn’t hesitate over a crushing response to adventures against the country; he was both aloof from and cued in to the nuts-and-bolts of prime ministership. And, he was frugal without the abstinence that drives ordinary people crazy.
He grew in age and stature in times that provided for the blossoming of an alternative brand of politics opposed to the Congress, and yet he commands the respect of a broad spectrum of this party. So, how is one to define Bharat Ratna Vajpayee? Simply that he was a charismatic leader who, to rephrase Rosalyn Carter’s words, “took people where they necessarily didn’t want to go, but ought to be”. And, he did, to quote Dwight Eisenhower this time, leading not by “hitting people over the head, because that’s assault”.
Few can deny that Vajpayee counts among the tallest leaders India has produced. Even if he had not become the PM, this would have remained unchanged. No less a personality than Jawaharlal Nehru had spotted the potential in the young Parliamentarian, and had prophesied that Vajpayee could well be the country’s PM some day — and most certainly among its most outstanding leaders.
That he did become Prime Minister, in dramatic circumstances once and again in a more conventional manner, became the icing on the cake. It takes qualities to leave a lasting mark in a short span of five years as Prime Minister; great ones like Nehru and Indira Gandhi had longer tenures to establish their worth.
Still, a just assessment cannot be limited to his prime ministerial term because what he did in five years of 1999 to 2004 was conditioned by how he had shaped up in the decades as the most important leader of the Jana Sangh and later the Bharatiya Janata Party. Vajpayee may have hummed “Geet naya gaata hoon”, but every new song of his political career had a few old notes that kept him rooted to his past without becoming a millstone around his neck.
Vajpayee’s acceptability and relevance across party lines was always evident, and is more so today when sharpened political knives are out at the drop of a hat. On Kashmir, everybody — from the BJP to the Congress to the National Conference to the Peoples Democratic Party to even Hurriyat leaders — holds his passionate appeal of “Kashmiriyat” and “insaniyat” as the cornerstone of lasting peace and communal harmony.
On friendship with Pakistan, he is again approvingly invoked by all. Vajpayee is held up as a fine example in the expertise of managing coalition partners in a way that both soothes egos and allows for effective administration. It never happened during his prime ministership that ‘coalition compulsions’ sabotaged good governance.
In fact, Vajpayee showed the way to effective coalition politics; the earlier half-baked experiments by non-Congress parties backed by the Congress were huge failures. The handling of the economy, of social friction and, yes, of the so-called interference of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in governance, was done with panache.
While it is difficult to short-list the former Prime Minister’s achievements, the most important ones were the massive push he gave to road infrastructure in both rural (the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana) and urban regions (expressways and multi-lane highways: The Golden Quadrilateral), the conduct of nuclear tests and management of the subsequent international sanctions regime, and the renewed thrust on new foreign policy narratives, especially with the US and Israel — something that had begun in PV Narasimha Rao’s regime.
All of this and more made him the poster boy of development as well as a statesman who saw beyond his times and had the courage to embark on new and bold paths. He could do all this because he enjoyed political capital which his immediate successor did not. The contrast in performance is there for anyone to evaluate.
So, how is one to define Vajpayee’s political ideology? There is no doubt that he was steeped in RSS culture and yet, often he appeared, to many, as not ‘being’ one of the socio-cultural organisation. On the other hand, he was a strong votary of anti-Congressism but was viewed by several commentators as a Nehruvian of sorts in many ways.
Author Kingshuk Nag, in his book, Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Man for All Seasons (Rupa Publications, Rs 395), takes us through the former PM’s long political journey, offering an understanding of what shaped his protagonist’s politics. Of course, there wasn’t one definitive incident, but many, and the fast-rising Vajpayee picked and chose what suited his temperament best. In the process he had to encounter stiff opposition from people within what was then the Jana Sangh, and especially from, as Nag writes, the fiery Right-winger Balraj Madhok. If one ignores the bad deal Madhok gets in the book, the author effectively reflects Vajpayee’s determination to take the ‘middle’ or the ‘moderate’ path as opposed to an extreme or confrontationist one. This happened in the early stages and set the tone for Vajpayee’s political branding.
Nag writes that Madhok was “given to temper tantrums unlike Atal who was a cool cat”. He adds, “Atal was a moderate and Madhok mouthed extreme views at a time when moderation was the best policy.”
Given the fact that anti-Congressism could be fought only by aligning with other parties, the Jana Sangh believed that Vajpayee was the right man to head the party after Deendayal Upadhyaya’s sudden demise. He did, much to Madhok’s chagrin. There is an interesting take of the author here. Nag says that the then RSS chief MS Golwalkar had to choose between Madhok and Vajpayee. Madhok appeared more aligned with the RSS worldview, while Vajpayee was the quintessential moderate — neither here or there, but everywhere.
“Guruji (Golwalkar) realised that, given the circumstances, if anybody could run the party effectively, it was Atal. Thus, setting aside the reservations that he had, he nominated Atal.”
Of course, the other reason why Golwalkar went along with Vajpayee’s candidature was that Deendayal Upadhyaya had enormous faith in the young man. Upadhyaya relentlessly patronised him; making Vajpayee a Rajya Sabha member after the latter was defeated in a Lok Sabha poll in the 1960s. The Prime Minister-to-be also became head of the Jana Sangh parliamentary party, giving him a bigger role in shaping both his and his party’s vision and action plans.
Vajpayee then set about cobbling together a grouping that would align with the Jana Sangh to take on the Congress. He carried his belief that “the only readiness is political readiness of all parties to subscribe to coalition politics” to the end-1989 experiment of the Janata Dal, where both the Communists and the Right-of-Centre party, in an amazing bonding never to be seen again, joined hands to support the VP Singh Government.
We saw a different coalition happen in a broader and more nuanced manner when he became Prime Minister, leading as many as two dozen parties in a ruling combine. Contrast this with Madhok’s famous remark: “If the Congress is malaria, Communists are plague”, and you get to understand why Vajpayee surged ahead while Madhok, though no less ideologically astute, often hitting the nail on the head (if at times distastefully) and brimming with potential, fell by the wayside.
And yet, one wonders how a moderate such as Vajpayee — who was so regarded by Nehru that the latter did not campaign against him in the early 1960s during an election out of affection for the budding politician (though Nehru did everything else to get Vajpayee defeated; according to Nag, the then Prime Minister persuaded well-known Left-leaning actor Balraj Sahni to draw votes for the Congress candidate) — was tricked out of prime ministership by just one vote which the Congress engineered, leading to his Government’s fall in April 1999.
One also wonders how the Congress, now so eager to put the Narendra Modi Government in the dock by invoking Vajpayee’s name every now and then, lost no opportunity to run the latter down when he was in office and churlishly refused him the Bharat Ratna even when his successor Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had reportedly been in favour of the move.
But since an analysis of the Congress’s Janus-face, then, in the preceding and the succeeding years, will consume all the newsprint available, let’s return to Vajpayee’s remarkable journey and contribution. The India Shining campaign may have fallen flat, with many believing that it even contributed to the party’s defeat in 2004, but he shone even in that loss, as what he left behind as legacy was seized upon by the Manmohan Singh regime to build what promised to be a sound edifice in governance. That in the following years, the Congress-led Government failed in its task is a different matter.
It’s not a coincidence that until such time the momentum which the Vajpayee Government had established remained, the Congress-led UPA regime benefitted. Once that was gone with time, more so because it was not exploited well, the Government began to flounder, and eventually collapsed in a heap of monumental loss in May 2014.
It may be argued that Vajpayee, for all his dexterity in coalition politics and endearing qualities, had failed to manage his partners in the crucial moments of 1999. It is true that he could not hold on to the AIADMK’s support or ensure that Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party backed his regime as it had promised. It was no doubt a sad moment for the iconic leader.
In his book, Nag quotes Sudheendra Kulkarni, then advisor to the Prime Minister, from an article the latter had written in 2011: “I remember how heartbroken Atalji was that day… ‘Hum keval ek vote se haare, keval ek vote’, he said, tears streaming down his face.” It wasn’t Vajpayee’s defeat, though; it was a victory of opportunistic (some would say unethical) power-play. The tears that flowed were not for the loss of power. They reflected the pain of a tender heart which had not hardened enough for the harsh realities of politics. It was a feeling of betrayal — one that he apparently seemed to interpret as being at a personal level — that drove him to despairing.
It is to the credit of his stature that not even his worst critics publicly ran him down on personal issues, such as his unconventional lifestyle (something that, according to Nag, even the RSS reconciled with, though somewhat reluctantly). The author provides much material to gossip about in the chapter titled, ‘Love, Life and Poetry’.
While the muses may have been personal, they shaped Vajpayee’s sentimental political side and left no option for his opponents but to like him even when they decided to dump him. The Mayawatis, the Mamatas, the Jayalalithaas and the Abdullahs, to this date, have only nice words for him.
A lot has been written about Vajpayee’s style of functioning as Prime Minister. While he was soft even on his opponents, he minced no words when he believed a critic had crossed the limit. According to the book, he had responded devastatingly to Sonia Gandhi’s remark that he was working under the RSS’s pressure. “I do not work under anybody’s pressure. Your party under pressure had stopped nuclear tests. The dates were ready and preparations had been made. But under foreign pressure, the tests were stopped… Who are you to tell me about the Sangh Parivar? This is an internal matter. Aap dakhal mat dijiye (please don’t interfere in our internal affairs).”
When Vajpayee took charge as Prime Minister in 1999, heading a coalition, many things had gone wrong post-Narasimha Rao liberalisation period. The economy had slipped into a sluggish patch partly because Rao’s policies had not been followed through and partly because political instability at the Centre had left no time for rulers to concentrate their energy on the subject.
The economic turnaround will surely rate as among his most valuable legacies. The creation of a Ministry for Disinvestment, which then was the need of the hour, was a master-stroke. That alone, if nothing else, demonstrated his economic ideology: the Government has no business to be in business as far as it is possible. Indeed, this belief flows from positions he had taken and stuck to since more than four decades ago.
According to Nag, back in 1957, Vajpayee had opposed Nehru’s plans for the Government to get into the hotel business. He said the Government should be building hospitals, not hotels. Thus, during his prime ministership, hotels were disinvested, and so were other entities, such as telecom firms. Questions of impropriety were subsequently raised but the allegations proved too frivolous to invite serious action.
These decisions coupled with other imaginative measures, such as the revamp of the power sector (establishment of the Central Electricity Regulatory Commission) and of the insurance industry, ensured that the country’s economy was to gallop at a healthy rate of eight per cent over the next decade.
But this was not just an economic exercise he undertook; there were political ramifications too. Within sections of his party and the RSS, there was worry over the liberalisation drive. They were not opposed to it, but they had reservations over the pace and methods adopted.
Reports had surfaced then that the RSS had allegedly frowned over his choice of Finance Ministers. This was never established, but even if it were true, the Prime Minister hadn’t succumbed to pressure. Vajpayee balanced the conflicting opinions of the so-called swadeshi groups and the ‘liberal’ elements with his legendary persuasive skills, while at the same time giving a free hand to his Ministers.
Life in politics, as it is elsewhere, is full of ifs and buts. If the BJP returned to power in 2004, it would have been a truly crowning glory moment for Vajpayee. His vision, development goals, the work he had begun, would have taken the country faster ahead. India would not have then had a Prime Minister who subordinated his authority to a non-Government functionary.
We would have been spared many moments of national shame, including those of monumental corruption at high places. But the people in their profound wisdom rejected him and the BJP. They made up for the error a decade later; except that Vajpayee was no longer in fit shape to lead the party. But then, as they say: “If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, we would all have a merry Christmas.”
Let’s give Nag the last word. Inventing a sport analogy, he writes: “If the history of the Indian republic over its 65 years of existence can be likened to a football or hockey match, then Atal roughly played in the position of linkman. He was the man who linked the now-past Nehruvian era to the now-upon-us Modi era… Without someone like him straddling the two eras, the Indian republic would not be what it is now.”
-10 January 2016 | The Pioneer