The outpouring of grief across the country and across the political spectrum following the demise of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was indicative of how well he had endeared himself to the people during his long innings in politics—truly an Ajatashatru (one without an enemy).It was this winsome nature of his that enabled the BJP, which, unlike him, was virtually friendless, later acquire allies and even dislodge the Congress from its perch.
He therefore played a critical role in ensuring the smooth transition at the federal level from the centre-left to the centre-right. When Vajpayee took oath as prime minister after the 1996 Lok Sabha elections, he was perceived by the media to be India’s first ‘right-wing’ PM. He headed the single-largest party, but did not enjoy a majority in the House. His government lasted just 13 days. But Vajpayee knew that it was just the beginning. Although the BJP was the single largest party, it was regarded as an ‘untouchable’ by other political parties. So it found it difficult to cobble up a coalition and form a stable government. The lessons from this defeat were not lost on the party.
Therefore, when the United Front government collapsed and fresh Lok Sabha polls was called in 1998, a lot of background work was done to overcome the deficiencies of 1996. Vajpayee sent his emissaries around and succeeded in ending the ‘untouchability’ stigma that the party suffered from. Leaders of many disparate parties backed him and found him to be a moderate voice. In no time, Vajpayee demolished the fears in the minds of his coalition partners about associating with a ‘right-wing’ party. He made the ‘untouchable’ in Indian politics eminently touchable and the party that had a horde of shatrus (enemies) now had 23 allies!
This became possible because Vajpayee had genuine respect for smaller parties and regional forces and hence struck a good equation with Karunanidhi, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik and many other regional leaders. He also saw merit in the regional aspirations of people from the regions of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand and therefore facilitated the emergence of the new, smaller states—without any bloodshed or violence. It was Vajpayee’s statesmanship that enabled the smooth bifurcation of three big states—Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. This was quite in contrast to the muddled approach of the Congress and UPA during the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh when a lot of violence preceded the creation of Telangana.
Vajpayee was a great admirer of Jawaharlal Nehru. In fact, it is said that Nehru realised Vajpayee’s potential even during the latter’s first term in the Lok Sabha and even introduced him as a future leader of the country to some foreign guests. Nehru’s influence tempered Vajpayee and although he came from the RSS-Jan Sangh stock, he gained acceptability from parties on the other side of the political divide. Therefore, many saw him as a Nehru of the right-wing. When he wrote the poem Kadam milakar chalna hoga (We must walk in step), it was not just the daydream of an idle poet. It conveyed the liberal inner voice of a true democrat!
While Vajpayee retained this liberal approach to politics, he was unrelenting when it came to national interest. That is why he was keen to make India a nuclear state and it is said he had discussed this with nuclear scientists even during his 13-day government in 1996. PM Narasimha Rao was keen to conduct the tests during his tenure from 1991-96. However, somehow the Americans got wind of the plans and Rao didn’t want to antagonise them. He needed the US during the process of liberalising the Indian economy, which was in tatters when he took charge. Rao had acknowledged that he regarded Vajpayee as his guru. Anyway, Vajpayee had been fully briefed by Rao in regard to the readiness of Indian nuclear scientists. It was therefore no surprise that Vajpayee went ahead with the nuclear tests in May 1998 after returning as prime minister.
The nuclear tests skyrocketed India to the status of a major nuclear power but the Americans were indignant and imposed sanctions. US President Bill Clinton was angrily wagging his finger and accusing India of escalating the nuclear race but Vajpayee stood his ground. He knew that the Americans would soon realise that India was a huge market. He sent his minister Jaswant Singh to talk to the Americans and to bring them round, and eventually succeeded in restoring Indo-US ties.
Pokhran–II showed the true Vajpayee—a gutsy, strong leader who was confident that he would eventually bring the western world to accept India’s new status. PM Narendra Modi’s approach to international relations is largely in line with Vajpayee’s approach. Unlike the hemming and hawing of the centre-left establishment, Modi’s policy is far more muscular and has given India its rightful place at the high table in international politics.
Vajpayee was a strong leader who handled his responsibility with tact and firmness. That is why India comprehensively defeated Pakistan in the Kargil War. He also stepped up investment in infrastructure in a big way, opened up the telecom and transport sectors and laid the foundations for the spectacular development of highways with his Golden Quadrilateral scheme and turned the focus on the Northeast.
Finally, one can say that Vajpayee’s statesmanship was the ideal bridge that enabled India to transit from the left-of-centre politics of Nehru and Indira Gandhi to the centre-right. That is why the transition has not been so harsh. And that is why he commanded the adulation and admiration of all Indians across the political spectrum.