Vajpayee I knew
Atal Behari Vajpayee was a statesman, not a politician. That is how history separates a visionary from ordinary mortal. A statesman, the visionary, leaves behind his legacies that are eternal or “irreversible”. I am deliberately using the word irreversible” because during Vajpayee’s second term as Prime Minister, I had co-authored a book with my Professor, late M L Sondhi, titled “Vajpayee’s Foreign Policy: Daring the Irreversible”. I distinctly remember the initial hesitation on the part of Prof. Sondhi to this title, but, I convinced him subsequently on its appropriateness. I thought strongly that Vajpayee’s decision to go for the nuclear explosion in May 1998 was a momentous one that made India a nuclear weapon power. More than the adverse international reactions, including sanctions, it was the adverse reactions of the then opposition Congress party and the Communists (both of them had solid numbers in the opposition benches unlike now) to the nuclear explosion that was really problematic. Unlike the 1974 peaceful nuclear explosion, made during the reign of Mrs. Indira Gandhi, that evoked a broad national consensus (as the Jan Sangh leader, Vajpayee had supported Indira Gandhi on the test), the one in 1998 under the Vajpayee regime was vociferously criticised by the Congress and the CPM. So much so that, in its election manifesto for the 2004 parliamentary polls, CPM had promised to “revert to nuclear policy of using nuclear energy for civilian and peaceful purposes”, “provide parliamentary sanction for moratorium on testing” and “open talks with Pakistan for a denuclearised environment in South Asia.”
However, Vajpayee stood tall despite these intense pressures from both within and without to reverse the course. His decision to make India a nuclear weapon power was ‘atal” or firm. It was “irreversible.” India remains a nuclear weapon power and it will remain a nuclear weapon power. For this, the history will remember Vajpayee. And this was the reason why I had stressed particularly on the word “irreversible” in the title of our book. All told, Pokhran – II (1998 nuclear tests) was simultaneously a policy of self defence as well as a powerful plea for global nuclear disarmament. Vajpayee took this policy to the logical conclusion by encouraging the tests of the Agni series missiles that today can go up to the range of 10000 km. It was Vajpayee who created the post of National Security Advisor, a post, whatever critics may say, has become critical for all his successors. In fact, Prof. Sondhi rang me early one morning to tell why I was right in choosing the title – that morning Congress leader Manishankar Aiyar, a leading critic of Vajpayee, had written a newspaper column in which he had grudgingly accepted that reversing Pokhran- II was not politically feasible and the path charted by Agni-II irreversible.
Vajpayee represented a school of thought which believed either in genuine global disarmament or in “the principle of equal and legitimate security for all”. The first option was not being realised in the face of the so-called nuclear weapon countries legitimising the permanence of nuclear weapons. And ironically, these countries denied others the second option. Not to speak of the United States and other Western countries, even China did not like the rise of India as a power.
Our book dealt with some of the major defence and foreign policy initiatives taken by the Vajpayee government before it lost the parliamentary confidence by one vote in early 1999. That it remained a caretaker one during the crucial Kargil war and it was re-elected in the polls held later is a different story. It was not that every policy initiative by Vajpayee clicked. In fact, his momentous decision to visit Lahore by bus and rewrite the India-Pakistan equations was a major failure, as was evident by the Pakistani intrusion into Kargil. Vajpayee’s big heart to forget the past and create and better future with “stable, secure and prosperous Pakistan” remained, as it is the case today, a pipe-dream. So was Vajpayee’s China-policy, though that was not the focus of our book (Vajpayee’s major policy initiatives towards China were visible after 2000).
It is to be recognised that it was not the sudden brain wave of an individual to take a bus ride to Lahore and not highly mechanised, sophisticated tanks to Lahore. It was one of a series of well-planned initiatives taken by his government in the sphere of defence and foreign policies. Like the bus ride, it needed a lot of courage to withstand powerful internal and external pressures at every step. As Henry Kissinger had correctly observed: “Tranquillity is not the natural state of the world; peace and security are not the laws of nature.” Both military power and economic strength, whether one likes it or not, do count in international politics in order to achieve legitimate national goals. And Vajpayee sincerely tried to make India an economic and military power, of course within the limitations that the country had at that point of time. It is a great credit to him that unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, who failed to use air power in 1962 against China, under pressure from US Ambassador Galbraith, Vajpayee showed himself as a realist in the assessment of the field of battle, by ordering air strikes by the Indian Air Force to meet the challenge of large scale Pakistani intrusion in the Kargil sector of Jammu and Kashmir.
As a professional journalist, I had few interactions with Prime Minister Vajpayee. I had covered two of his foreign visits and had travelled, as was the system those days, by the Prime Minister’s aircraft. And once I had attended a relatively private function that he had attended to celebrate the birth day of his human resources development minister Murli Manohar Joshi. I had met him twice exclusively, once for professional reason and once for some favour to a group in which I had some personal interests. On both the occasions, he was warm, friendly and very hospitable with some tasty snacks and sweets. He made it sure that I ate them along with him. He told me on the first occasion when I met him that he had read my book; but he did not say whether he liked it. Nor did I think it proper to ask him whether he liked it. Because, the book was not exactly laudatory of his policies; I had a critical view of his policy towards Pakistan, though overall it was supportive of his regime. It must be remembered here that Vajpayee had his own constraints, leading as he did a coalition government whose parliamentary majority was very shaky.
The only occasion that I had heard Vajpayee as an opposition leader was on November 11, 1996 when he was delivering at FICCI auditorium (to the best of my memory) the thirteenth Desraj Chowdhary Annual Memorial Lecture. It was a remarkable speech in the sense that here Vajpayee was advocating for a Presidential form of government in India. “I often wonder whether the Westminster model has been defeated by the Indian reality. Is it time to think in terms of a second republic? … Let there be a serious nationwide debate … We should not shy away from discussing the merits of even the presidential system of government”, he said.
Among many reasons he cited for the failure of the Parliamentary form of government, I found two of them striking. Let me quote Vajpayee on the two:
“Neither Parliament, nor the state Vidhan Sabhas are doing with any degree of competence or commitment what they are primarily meant to do: legislative function. Their inability and apparent unwillingness to perform this function is due to a number of known reasons. Barring exceptions, those who get elected to these democratic institutions are neither trained, formally or informally, in law making nor do they seem to have an inclination to develop the necessary knowledge and competence in their profession.
“The second, equally important, function of the elected representatives is to reflect public opinion in Parliament and the state legislatures by debating matters of vital public importance, and thereby influence the policies and actions of the executive. Sadly, serious debate has ceased to take place in our elective bodies, which have come to resemble akharas (arenas for fighting bouts) where noisy confrontation is the norm. Those individuals in society who are genuinely interested in serving the electorate and performing legislative functions are finding it increasingly difficult to succeed in today’s electoral system. The reason is obvious: Notwithstanding the changes introduced by T N Seshan as chief election commissioner, the electoral system has been almost totally subverted by money power, muscle power, and vote bank considerations of castes and communities. As a result, although casteism and communalism may be weakening in social life, the same are being aided and abetted by the electoral process. Elections are not entirely free and fair: they are not reflecting the true will and aspirations of the people.”
It was against this background that Vajpayee went on to say “Let there be a serious nationwide debate on all the possible alternatives for systemic changes to cleanse our democratic governing system of its present mess. We should not shy away from discussing the merits of even the presidential system of government. If the presidential system of government is considered impractical or undesirable, then we should introduce radical and undelayed changes in the present parliamentary democracy system itself.”
And what are the radical changes he suggested? I found two of them equally striking. Let me quote Vajpayee again:
“The present ‘first past the post’ system in which the candidate winning the largest number of votes in an election is declared the winner, irrespective of whether he had the first or the second preference support of the majority of the voters who exercise their franchise, weakens the representative character of elective bodies. Thus, a party with a larger percentage of overall votes may still have a lower number of seats in the Lok Sabha or the Vidhan Sabhas. This anomaly needs to be corrected by introducing proportional representation for political parties in at least 50 per cent of the total number of seats in the Lok Sabha and the Vidhan Sabhas…..
“The certainty of scope of corruption in the governing structure has heightened opportunism and unscrupulousness among political parties, causing them to marry and divorce one another at will, seek opportunistic alliances and coalitions often without the popular mandate. Yet they capture, and survive in, power due to inherent systematic flaws. Multi-party system is the soul of democracy but opportunist power seekers have distorted it by developing a vested interest in political fragmentation. Political parties winning or losing power in elections is a natural happening in a democracy. This, however, did not affect the governance itself because India rightly boasted of having a great asset in its permanent but non-political and impartial civil services. Sadly, the rot has set in here too. Casteism, corruption and politicisation have eroded the integrity and efficacy of our civil service structure. The manifestoes, policies, programmes of political parties have lost meaning in the present system of governance due to lack of accountability.”
I have quoted extensively Vajpayee’s view on a change of the governance system (in fact, in 2000 his Government set up the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution. But the Opposition compelled him to restrict its work “within the framework of parliamentary democracy), because the overwhelming majority of the writings and discussions in our media following his irreparable death make you believe that Vajpayee was in reality a Congress man, though he remained in BJP. He has been described as India’s second Nehru and that he was a right man in a wrong party.
In my considered opinion, such descriptions do Vajpayee a great disservice. He was proud of BJP and in love with his association with the RSS. His sense of nationalism was radically different from the Congress version. He was never shy of proclaiming himself to be a proud Hindu, He had distinct ideas. His ideas such as the “Golden Quadrilateral”, the ambitious roadways project to link Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai; his “Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna”; and his “Sarva Sikshya Abhiyan” were certainly not borrowed from the Congress. In fact, those who are making him a Congress man after his death should read the stuff the Congress leaders wrote and spoke about him when he was the Prime Minister.
In this country public memory has always been short. But long live the legacy of Vajpayee!
By Prakash Nanda