It isn’t the death of yet another leader. In Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s demise, India has lost a part of its noble soul. Atalji had the charming rhythm of a poet, wisdom of a visionary and poignant prose of a gifted orator. He was a saint in Indian politics. For him trust in humanity and human values was a matter of faith. He was a rare human being who had only friends and hardly any foe.
Politics is not just an exercise in the rhetoric of posturing; it is also the art of forgetting the lessons of history. In the BJP’s hour of conflict over the intolerance debate, it would serve the government and the BJP to remember the lessons of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era and adopt his Idea of India. His style, substance, intellectual and aesthetic depth, and the wry sense of humour with which he handled victories and defeats alike hold lessons to follow. After retirement from politics, Vajpayee spent his time in a quiet, leafy enclave of Lutyens’ Delhi. But his vision would continue to be relevant at a time when the BJP’s first standalone government is preparing for the 2019 general elections.
Vajpayee believed in an India where the common man triumphed. Almost two decades before Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of a tea-seller’s son becoming the nation’s leader, Vajpayee had spoken on August 15, 1996, “It is a symbol of strength and the potential of the Indian democracy that the son of a school teacher hailing from the dusty and smoky environs of a village has the privilege of unfurling the Tricolour from the ramparts of the Red Fort on this auspicious Independence Day.”
He can be called India’s most secular, nationalist and liberal Hindu, history’s most inclusive nationalist, and the greatest leader the country has ever had who could reconcile geopolitical contradictions with astute diplomacy and elegant intelligence. In an interview in January 2004, Vajpayee had explained swaraj to me in a nutshell: “Yes, I am (a swadeshi). But the difference between swadeshi and videshi has narrowed considerably.” Yet he has been always conscious of being an Indian first. His motto—“a sense of oneness, a sense of Indianness, requires to be created among our youth to halt the mad rush towards an imported five-star video culture”—can direct his party to reconcile India with Bharat.
More than 14 years after he stepped down as the prime minister, Vajpayee will be remembered as the “Great Connector”. Connectivity is the essence of harmony, an ancient law that has helped the evolution of cultures and civilisations. It was Vajpayee’s signature—in politics by achieving consensus and respect from both allies and opponents; in governance through linking India by creating a vast new network of highways and envisaging linking the country’s rivers; and for the common man by heralding the telecom revolution engineered by his Lakshman, Pramod Mahajan.
The India he envisaged is a celestial allegory of the cosmos, where different galaxies existed without conflict, each one containing its own solar systems, where planets orbited the Centre, obeying natural laws. It is also an allegory for different intellectual universes of varied cultural and socio-political opinions, which he enjoined with the quiet charisma of his paternal presence.
Over the last decade of Vajpayee’s stint, Parliament had become a battlefield of invective and noisy grandstanding to block development to score political points. As a parliamentarian, Vajpayee’s record has been unparalleled both as a resplendent orator and an uncompromising democrat. He was known for his generosity cutting across political lines. Although he had clashed with India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru over Jammu and Kashmir when he was still a young MP, Vajpayee’s speech after Panditji’s death was perhaps the most moving tribute anyone has paid him, saying “a flame has vanished into the Unknown.” Later, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi would throw him in jail during the Emergency. He underwent surgery and suffered from extreme back pain but refused to be released on medical grounds. “Hum toot sakte hain, jhuk nahi sakte (We could break, but should not bend),” he would say.
One morning, sometime in mid-July 1998, I had gone to 7, Race Course Road to meet him. Vajpayee was with four of his ministers, who were forcefully advocating action against Sonia Gandhi. He sat silently like a contemplative Buddha, his chin sunk on his chest and his eyes partially closed. When they finished, he raised his head and looked at me, ignoring his companions. “Editorji,” he addressed me by the nickname he used for me. “Aise karenge toh phir Congress aur BJP mein farak kya hoga (If we do this, what is the difference between the Congress and the BJP)?” It provided a window to Vajpayee’s thinking: no vindictiveness, but adhere to the letter of the law.
The five qualities of Vajpayee can form the manifesto of today’s political conduct—one who inspires, delegates but also takes charge, accommodates, gives respect where it is due, and has a great vision. Even if he had strong reservations on any issue of policy or politics, Vajpayee was a magnanimous leader, never insecure about his position, always refraining from personal attacks on his adversaries. These are marks of a true visionary.
Vajpayee was perhaps the first South Asian leader to create a patent ideology of his own—Vajpayeeism. While Marx and Mao may have provoked the masses to start bloody revolutions, Vajpayee could work wonders by steering a government comprising 25 parties which had hardly anything in common barring a noun: NDA.The correct use, instead of its misuse, of power was ingrained in Vajpayee. When his government fell in 1996 after 13 days in power, Vajpayee told his political foes in Parliament, “We bow down to the strength of majority.
We assure you that till the time the work that we started in national interest is not completed, we shall not rest. Respected Speaker, I am going to the President to tender my resignation.” It was a democratic defeat, but a moral victory. And Vajpayee was vindicated when the BJP formed the government after winning the next elections in less than two years. In May 1998, the Vajpayee government pulled off nuclear tests in Pokhran, named Operation Shakti, catching the big powers by surprise.
As with all Indian prime ministers, Vajpayee’s dream was also to leave behind everlasting peace with Pakistan as part of his legacy. Between July 14 and 16, 2001, he met Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf in Agra to resolve long-standing issues between the two countries. On the last day, the general told the assembled editors that no accord was possible without including Kashmir: “Kashmir pehla mudda uthaayenge (The first issue we will raise will be Kashmir),” he said.
When I informed Vajpayee, he sounded incredulous. “Aise bola usne (Did he say that)?” he asked. When I replied in the affirmative, he refused to issue the joint statement planned at the end of the summit. This was after he had initiated the historic Lahore bus journey in 1999, meeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and urging an end to Pakistan’s covert activities. “Friends can be changed but not neighbours. We either live as friends or we keep fighting, making ourselves the butt of ridicule before the world,” he said.
Vajpayee has often been called “the prime minister the Congress never had” and “the right man in the wrong party”. His gift of the gab was always self-deprecatory, but it won the day. During the BJP’s 1992 session in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, asked whether he was being marginalised in the party, Vajpayee replied, “No, but usually corrections are done in the margin.” As the BJP grew in stature during the 1990s, its leadership fell on the shoulders of two old comrades in arms, Advani and Vajpayee. They complemented each other—the warrior and the poet-philosopher.
Ayodhya was a defining point in the life of the BJP, and of both the leaders. The Rath Yatra made Advani the new Ram. The pluralist in Vajpayee was not for aggressive Hindutva, although he remained a loyal member of the party. Yet, on December 6, 2000, the eighth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Vajpayee told the Lok Sabha that the Ram Mandir issue was a “nationalist movement”, and “kaam adhura reh gaya hai (the mission is unfinished).”
The Opposition exploded. The next day, at an iftaar hosted by minister Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, Vajpayee explained that what he meant was not that no temple construction would begin but that the dispute continues. Vajpayee chose to stay enigmatic over the demolition. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, which lowered the BJP’s ratings as a modern Hindutva party, Vajpayee was unsure whether Narendra Modi should stay on as chief minister.
After the riots were brought under control, various meetings were held in Delhi between George Fernandez, Nitish Kumar and senior Opposition leaders, who felt that Modi should quit arguing that it affected the NDA’s image. At a meeting at 7, Race Course Road, attended by Advani, Venkaiah Naidu and allies, the non-BJP leaders urged Vajpayee to sack Modi. He conveyed to the RSS leadership that Modi had to go, or else he wouldn’t go to Gujarat to campaign for the party. Eventually, the RSS persuaded Vajpayee to change his views in the party’s interests—for he was the prime minister, not just any politician, and moreover it would send out the message that the PM was protesting against the riots because Muslims were killed.
In January 2004, I met Vajpayee to interview him for the third and final time, when he was the prime minister, for India Today, an honour not given to any other Indian journalist. Rumours about midterm polls were flying thick and fast. Advani had already announced the slogan ‘India Shining’. Jaswant Singh was on a publicity binge even though the elections were due only later in the year. I asked Vajpayee whether the BJP would go for early elections. “Prashan hi nahin uthta. Chunav samay per honge (The question doesn’t arise.
The elections will be held on schedule),” he answered. But later on, BJP leaders such as Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Venkaiah Naidu, Pramod Mahajan and others persuaded the prime minister to cash in on the goodwill and feel-good factor they believed the government had generated. Vajpayee agreed, although he knew he was signing off not only as prime minister but as India’s most magical, magnetic and large-hearted leader. This is the essence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, even in death; he remains above any party or organisation. Ultimately he belonged to India. It is Vajpayee Shining. It always will be.(Courtesy: India Today. This is the edited version of an article published in the magazine’s 40th anniversary issue.)