By any measure, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who passed silently into the night on Thursday, was not merely a politician who went on to occupy the office of the prime minister of India. He was a leader in the truest form, one who matured into a statesman accepted and respected even by political rivals opposed to the ideology of the party he represented, not only within the country but even outside the nation.
Not just that. A poet and orator par excellence, he could make you laugh or cry but would never make disparaging remarks about his opponents even if he was the sufferer. In sum and substance, that was the personality of Atalji, as he is fondly remembered by friends within and outside the BJP. Not surprisingly, the condolence messages that poured in went beyond the customary courtesies and one could sense genuine grief. He was described differently by different leaders—an excellent human being and public servant, a Ratna that Bharat lost, a great son of India and an unparalleled leader loved by millions. Every description fits him well.
At the political level, not many would disagree that it was Vajpayee, along with his peer L K Advani, who provided the propulsion for the growth of the BJP from a party shunned by all in the 80s to one that crossed 100 seats in the Lok Sabha by the late 90s. If Advani provided the ideological arsenal, it was Vajpayee’s charm and oratory skills that had transformed the BJP to a party that was acceptable and seen as capable of running the Indian government. From heading the first BJP-led government that lasted just 13 days to a second one that survived a little over a year, Vajpayee earned the distinction of leading the first non-Congress regime that could complete its full term.
In doing so, he also proved that coalition governments could last the term, despite the failed experiments in the past. Unlike the current day politics, full of rancour and ill will, Vajpayee was the consensus builder so much so that the likes of George Fernandes, Naveen Patnaik and Mamata Banerjee could work with him with ease. In other words, even those inimical towards the BJP for ideological or other reasons were willing to sail with him.
He will be remembered for all this and much more —as the one chosen by a Congress government to represent India at the UN, the premier who went ahead with the Pokhran nuclear test much to the chagrin of the US and as the architect of the massive national highways project connecting India from all sides. On the foreign policy front, he had his hits and misses. However, none can take away the genuine attempts by him to improve relations with neighbouring Pakistan or in building faith among people of the strife-torn Kashmir in the Indian establishment.
Beyond politics and achievements as an administrator, he will also be remembered as one who remained humble irrespective of the heights he achieved. He never saw himself as a supremo but instead let the team—be it ministers or bureaucrats—do the work, lending them his guidance if and when they needed it.
There are many lessons that the current leaders of the BJP could possibly learn from the long and illustrious role played by Vajpayee in shaping the party that finally managed to get a majority on its own in 2014.
It could be in not viewing political rivals as enemies or in being realistic that there will be ups and downs in politics and coalition regimes could be back again in the future. But nothing matters more than what Vajpayee said about this country: If India is not a secular nation, India is not India at all. Remembering this and ensuring that every shade of opinion gets recognition would be the biggest homage that the country’s politicians could offer to one of the tallest leaders this country has ever seen.