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HomeSG National InterestThe man who got it right: Poet, pragmatist, always political

The man who got it right: Poet, pragmatist, always political

Atal Bihari Vajpayee's greatest, durable legacy is to show that India is best governed with a large heart.

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Just how exactly do you rate the performance of a former prime minister of India? Or his deserved place in our political history? And when? You can’t do it like today’s T20 news TV or listicle “analysis” and instantly on a scale of 10. Nor can you take the cue from Zhou Enlai who, asked by Henry Kissinger in one of their first conversations in 1971 what he thought was the impact of the French Revolution on history, said it was too soon to tell. So a decade, or precisely 11 years later, is a good time to explore that question. The Narendra Modi government has given us the perfect reason to do so by honouring Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the Bharat Ratna.

One key assessment for a full-term prime minister, particularly a popularly elected one, would be how much of what he willed, began and believed in survive his departure. On that, Vajpayee scores very well indeed. Let’s see why.

There’s been broad continuity in the direction of India’s economic and foreign policy. A leader, therefore, can only change the pace and width. But this isn’t a big, substantive change in mindsets, a big idea that challenges ossified ones and is established so firmly that it is unassailable to future depredations. Nehru’s liberal pluralism is one such idea.

Even Modi has to swear by it, even if he prefers to do so in the name of Patel and Gandhi. His second contribution – a rational, questioning, secular society with scientific temper – has sustained so far. But it will be tested in the coming years as India’s new politics probes an important fault line there: contradiction between his nearly godless view of secularism and a deeply god-fearing society.

Also read: A Lesson from the Vajpayee school of large-hearted leadership 

The third one, socialism, Nehruvian or Fabian, has been fully demolished, notably for 15 years by Nehru’s own party’s governments (under P.V. Narasimha Rao, Manmohan Singh). Ditto for Indira Gandhi. Her idea of a powerful, no-nonsense India not shy of playing Great Power politics endures, and will be strengthened as the BJP reaches out to get in their creeping acquisition of Congress icons after Madan Mohan Malaviya, Sardar Patel, and now Lal Bahadur Shastri. Her aggressive equal-distribution-of-poverty in the name of Garibi Hatao is now dead and buried, and derided as povertarianism. If her party’s score of 44 in 2014 is the coffin, legislations amending coal and mineral laws and states loosening labour regulations are the last nails in it.

Now the unusual suspect, Rao. The demolition of two of the three ideological pillars of the Nehru-Indira era, statist socialism and Westophobic worldview, began in his five years. He was a socialist but more a pragmatist. He was helped greatly by the seven-year eclipse of the Gandhi family, directly for five years through his prime ministership and for his new ideas through the Gowda-Gujral period, when a coalition backed by the Congress left its economy to P. Chidambaram, then of the breakaway Tamil Maanila Congress. No matter how deep the Congress may bury his name in their party history, Rao won that intellectual battle, and you can never take away from his five difficult years.

Vajpayee followed in his wake (after the short-lived United Front) to become the first non-Congress leader to get five, in fact six, years of prime ministership, with one hiccup when he was defeated in the Lok Sabha in 1999 and forced to fight yet another election, his third in three years. Both were veterans of Parliament and had a great deal of mutual respect and admiration between them. Vajpayee always saw Rao as an experienced, wise patriot, and did not have the same suspicions of him as of the Dynasty. Rao saw Vajpayee as an alter ego of sorts, in spite of such a contrast in their personalities. Remember, he sent him to Geneva as leader of the Indian delegation to counter a threatened UN Human Rights Commission vote against India, with Salman Khurshid, then MoS for external affairs, as his deputy. He never detested Vajpayee personally or ideologically. That “honour” was reserved for Advani. I, therefore, firmly believe the story that as Rao handed over to Vajpayee (although initially only for 13 days), he told him that he had kept all “saamagri” (material, nuclear) ready, and Vajpayee should go ahead and test once he had the mandate. The departure Rao bravely made from the Nehru-Indira construct on foreign and economic policies has sustained.

What exactly was Vajpayee’s opportunity once the direction of foreign and economic policies was set? Deep inside, he was an RSS man. But also a liberal constitutionalist and a romantic, a bit like Nehru, and a poet too. Not gifted with the ruthlessness of an Indira, a Rao or now Modi, nor a visionary like Nehru. But he had a great, instinctive mind and a wonderfully warm and, more important, large heart. God never designed a man with all the key attributes of leadership. The greatest leaders in history have some and lack a few. But nobody ever did, or will, become a great leader in any field without a big heart. On that test, Vajpayee ranks very much at the top. We leave Manmohan Singh out of this as he really wasn’t a fully empowered leader.

Nor was Vajpayee when sworn in prime minister for the first time in 1996 by virtue of being the leader of the largest single party/coalition. He knew he was going to fail his first test, the vote of confidence in Parliament within days, as all of the opposition was against him under the secular umbrella. But his mind was made up and his heart was ready to chalk the course that would ensure for him such a special place in our history.

Also read: Remember Vajpayee-Nehru episode? That is why Congress must let Modi off the hook on China 

It was two days before he was to speak in that debate that I got a call to see him in his old Raisina Road home, which he had not moved from, knowing his tenure was short. He was calm, determined, even smiling. “I believe you once wrote somewhere that the majority in India had acquired a minority complex?” he asked. I said yes; it was in a monograph I wrote for the International Institute of Strategic Studies, London (India Redefines its Role, OUP, 1995) while on a sabbatical from this magazine. He engaged in a short debate on why Hindus in India felt vulnerable, even persecuted, despite being in an overwhelming majority. He said he understood why, but did not fully agree with it. In any case, he said, he was elected prime minister not to feel sorry for the Hindus, but to lead them out of that hole and also reassure the minorities. He dwelt on that majority-getting-the-minority-complex idea in his emotional speech facing a confirmed defeat.

But in that defeat he had told India’s Parliament and its people that he was different from the usual BJP/RSS stereotype. That trust ensured two things. One, that a lot more people, besides the BJP’s committed voters, were willing to check him out now. And two, many smaller parties sitting on the secular fence found the reassurance to cross over to the NDA. Remember, Nitish, Mamata, Naveen Patnaik, even Omar Abdullah of the National Conference were in his council of ministers.

In his six years, he established two new ideas in Indian politics. One, that the BJP could lead a centre-right government in India entirely within the classical framework of the Constitution, thereby confirming the idea that India would change BJP more than BJP change India. Two, that the doctrine of strategic restraint would hold, even under grave provocation, as in Kargil and the attack on Parliament. The gains were evident: the first established the sanctity of the LoC and the second globally confirmed Pakistan’s status as a terror-exporting nation.

The second postulate will be tested in the coming years. But the first, the Vajpayee definition of Rajdharma for the BJP, has been established. If Modi now swears by Vajpayee rather than Golwalkar, the direction he set for the BJP, or the governing ideology of the Indian Right, will sustain. That will be his lasting contribution, and it is as formidable as Nehru’s liberalism, Indira’s strength and Rao’s pragmatism. On that scale, Vajpayee will rank right up there. Never mind the irony of his being conferred the Bharat Ratna by Modi’s government.

Also read: When Advani and Vajpayee founded BJP, they knew RSS needed to be kept at arm’s length 


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