A Statesman Par Excellence
‘HE WAS A STATESMAN, He was powered by a wider vision,’ says N. Chandrababu Naidu, who worked closely with Atal when the latter was prime minister. Naidu echoes the commonly accepted view about Atal among the political class and other citizens.
‘His statesmanship transcended politics,’ Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen said after Atal was conferred the Bharat Ratna.
‘He was more a statesman than a politician,’ Brajesh Mishra told a TV channel many years after Vajpayee had vacated the prime ministerial post.
Prime Minsiter Narendra Modi tweeted after the Bharat Ratna was awarded to Atal, ‘Atalji means so much to everyone. A guide, inspiration and a gaint among giants, his contribution to India is invaluable.’
‘He was the right shade of saffron. What made him a skilful, experienced and a successful leader was his ability to build consensus,’ says journalist Sanjay Kapoor, not particularly fond of the saffron brad of politics.
Atal came to Delhi in 1950, barely twenty-five year old, just as the Indian republic was beginning to be constructed and the country was giving itself a Constitution. Atal was beginning his political innings and the republic was beginning its journey.
‘Atal learnt a lot from Delhi as the years progressed and thus became a quintessential part of the Delhi Establishment,’ says journalist Saeed Naqvi. Delhi was the political capital and the Parliament where Atal went, allowed a vantage point that gave him a bird’s eye view of what was happening across the country. This gave him a sort of detached view and enabled him to rise above the party line. It also made him realize what makes India tick and appreciate the unity in the diversity of the country.
In those early days of the Indian republic, the Congress was the only political outfit of any consequence. The party straddled the political spectrum and its philosophy became the philosophy of the country. Many parties like the Jana Sangh, the socialists, the Swatrantra Party and the communists different from the Congress and its leader Jwaharlal Nehru over the country, that they could do precious little.
‘All the parties were like planets moving around the omnipresent Congress party that was akin to the sun and it seemed that there would never be a sunset for the Congress party. It was thus remarkable for someone like Atal Bihari Vajpayee to stick on and actually prosper. This is a mark of his statesmanship,’ says Amit Chaudhuri who grew up in Delhi during the 1960s, a time when many political parties and numerous opposition politicians rose and fell and disappeared into oblivion without being able to leave any mark.
Atal’s potential was recongnised by Jana Sangh workers even in the 1960s when the leadership was thrust on him after the sudden demise of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. Wrokers, heartbroken at the removal of Deen Dayal from the scene, would raise the slogan, ‘Andhera chhatega, sooraj niklega [The darkness will be dispelled and the sun will rise].’ When BJP was formed, with the lotus as its symbol, ‘ Aur kamal khilega’, was added on to the slogan. These slogans were aimed to highlight Atal’s leadership and project the great future that the party had. Incidentally, slogans of, ‘Abki baari Atal Bihari’, were raised by the BJP workers from 1995 onwards in the run-up to the 1996 elections. (However, some old timers assert that they have heard this slogan in the late 1960s also.)
It is not the fact of his survival in treacherous Delhi that is the high water mark of Atal’s life but his ability to fashion an opposition party that could challenge the ruling Congress party. In other words, he was able to position himself as an alternative and be recognized as one. His potential was relised by none other than Mohammedali Currim Chagla, former chief justice of Bombay High Court and a union cabinet minister. Chagla said, at the first session of the Bjp in 1980, ‘In BJP, I see and alternative to the Congress and in Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I see an alternative to Indira Gandhi.’
Atal relised that if the congress party was successful in hanging on to power, it was because it reflected the desires and aspirations of the citizens in some measure. The easiest course for an opposition party is to launch a course of action and espouse an ideology that is diametrically opposed to that of the ruling party. However, Atal never aspired to do so. He knew that if the Congress party was doing something right, it had to be imbibed even at the risk of being criticized.
‘Strange that it may seem now, oftentimes we used to say that Jana Sangh was the B-team of the Congress,’ says Arun Kumar, a political worker with the Socialist Party in the 1970s.
Incidentally, when Atal became prime minister, his bête noire Balraj Madhok was quoted in India Today as saying, ‘Vajpayee’s prime ministership would be disaster. He is basically a congressman.’
To say that Atal as the Jana Sangh president, from 1968 onwards, was copying everything that the Congress party was doing would be a travesty of the truth. He was only accepting that part of the Congress belief system that was in sync with the beliefs of the people of the country.
The Jana Sangh had its independent line in most policies where the congress line began to diverge from ground realities. In Indira Gandhi’s heyday, in the early 1970s, Atal began to realize that many of the policy decisions were being taken by the government not because they were in sync with people’s desires but because Indira believed they would help her perpetuate her rule. Atal also relised that Indira was trying to damage all democratic institutions for of this reason. This included the legal system, where judges in the highest court were being superseded. Therefore, he began to oppose Indira Gandhi virulently. Things came to a head in the aftermath of the Emergency, with opposition parties coming together to form the Janata Party. The Janata Party broke up in less than three years owing to internal tensions. However, Atal tried hard, bending over backwards, to prevent this from happening. He relised that the era of Congress domination was coming to a close, because people were weary of a single party and single—Gandhi—family rule. Atal maintained that only a party that combined the strength of the opoosition could take on the might of the Congress. That was not to be because the socialists were hell-bent on kicking the ex-Jana Sangh members out of the Janata Party.
Atal was convinced that the way of the Janata Party was the only way forward; so he set up the BJP along the same lines. He felt that the philosophy of the Janata Party, a democratic line that did not discriminate amongst people on caste and creed, was best suited for the country.
But times change and ideologies of a country change with changing generations. In the mid-1980s, with the Indian republic three decades old, the beliefs of earlier times were undergoing change. India was always a Hindu-dominated country with Hindus forming 85 per cent of the population. Though the culture and the mores of the country were Hindu, this was couched in secular terms— sarva dharma sambhava. Till then the Congress was a soft Hindu party, its Hinduness masked behind a secular face. Now, in the 1980s the Congress party was itself revealing an increasingly Hindu face. In view of the fact that the Jana Sangh had been seen as a Hindu party, Atal would have been expected to fashion the BHP with a Hindu face. However, Atal had leant his history lessons well and resisted the pressure to revert to the Jana Sangh. He knew that in this vast country where millions of people speaking dozens of different languages, thousands of different dialects and professing numerous faiths lived, only a political party that held the middle ground could survive.
His colleagues in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar would not agree. Thus the Ayodhya movement and the mobilization of Hindus began. Atal had the sagacity to relise that this was a movement that could increase the popularity of the party in parts of the country but could never bring it to power in New Delhi. The popularity would at beast be short-lived.
As subsequent events show, Atal was prescient. On his own and without being propted by anyone, Advani, who had led the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, announced in 1995, ahead of the 1996 general elections, that Atal Bihari Vajpayee would be the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP. Advani, whose stock went up with this gesture, realized that the polity was still fragmented. The Congress was collapsing and the BJP was rising, but the strength of the saffron party was not enough to bring it to power. To come to power the BJP, which was treated as a political untouchable by most, would need allies. His calculations proved correct. The BJP came to pwer under the umbrella of a disparate NDA that only a statesman like Atal could hold together. Atal helped to overcome the untouchability factor.
‘Many politicians and political parties did not like the BJP as a party but liked Atal as a person. So they were willing to do business with the BJP, putting their faith in Atal,’ confesses a senior BJP leader who does not want to be identified.
The NDA had regional constituents like the TDP, BJD, Akali Dal and JD (U) that had little in common. They had disparate interests but after two false starts in 1996 and 1998, Atal sewed them together. The normal tendency as the leader of alliance would be to ram through the agenda of the dominant partner. Atal took care to distance himself from the core agenda of the BJP and resist attempts made by the RSS and Sangh Parivar outfits to pursue the Hindutva line unrelentingly. This was a mark of his statesmanship. ‘Do not forget that Atal’s regime was preceded by two short-lived governments. Expectations were at the lowest ebb. Atal was conscious of this,’ says an additional secretary to the Government of India who wishes to be remain anonymous.
In fact Atal realized that after coming to power, governance rather than politics would have to be in the driving seat. Speaking at the national executive meeting of the BJP on 15 April 2000, he said, ‘What after political success? We have to concentrate on improving the quality of governance. Governance must concentrate on serving the people and keeping national interest paramount.’
A year later, when Parliament was attacked by terrorists, he realized the import of the matter and how to deal with it. He said, at an emergency national executive committee meeting of the BJP in New Delhi on 29 December 2001 (barely a fortnight after the attack), ‘The terrorist attack on Parliament has created a situation that is without precedent. No self-respecting nation that values its freedom can take it lying down. I urge the Party and in fact all political parties to launch a Jan Jagaran [mass awareness] campaign to educate our people about the developing situation. Our endeavour should be to take along each section of our diverse society with us.’
In fact, this theme of taking everyone together had been a constant feature of Atal’s political life. As early as 1982, barely two years after the formation of the BJP and after the bitter experiment of the Janata Party, Atal asserted (at the national council meeting of the BJP at Surat from 4-5 June):
‘The greatest curse, not merely of Indian politics but of national life as a whole, is the general incapacity to work together. Let’s learnt to unite, instead of dividing to create harmony where disharmony exists and to keep our self-interest and ego in leash. Within the Janata Party not once during those three years of its existence did we witness any serious debate on a principle or public issue. Those regarded as stalwarts of the Janata Party became immersed in power lust.
Atal also alluded to how centre-state relations in the country had become akin to saas-bahu relations.
Atal’s realism was seen in his economic policies. Although a product of an era where the public sector controlled the commanding heights of the economy, Atal resisted pressure of going back on the liberalization that was kick-started by the Manmohan Singh government in 1991. There was pressure on him not only from his own Sangh Parivar but also from trade unions and other sundry groups. He relised that India needed accelerated economic growth to eradicate poverty and this could only come through liberal economic policies. It was the turn of the century and Atal recognized that times were changing. The young population was bourgeoning and it had new aspirational dreams. Through he was more than seventy-five years old then, Atal appreciated that status quo could not continue—notwithstanding what most from his generation would say.
‘Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the favoured leader of the aspiring classes and in fact was so even in the run up to the elections that brought him to government,’ says senior journalist Kumar Ketkar.
Atal’s forward-looking economic policies were much appreciated by the private sector but he took care to ensure that he was never seen as being close to private sector barons. Thus, he was industry friendly but not industrialist friendly. This was a great asset and nobody ever brought any charges of favouritism or corruption against him; nobody could accuse him of promoting crony capitalism. At the same time, he was mindful of the social obligations of his government. Therefore, he initiated the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan that was aimed at universalization of elementary education in a time-bound manner.
‘In fact, Atal had realized early in his political career that [first] the Jana Sangh and [later] the BJP would have to be the parties of common men and not those of the rich and the powerful. There were many parties of the rich and the powerful, at least in the Jana Sangh days, and they got considerable votes and more seats than the Jana Sangh. They also professed a liberal economic policy like that of the Jana Sangh but for Atal they were a no-no,’ says a BJP leader, preferring not to be named.
‘No prime minister can be successful in running a government without taking the bureaucracy along with him after all, the bureaucracy implements the policies. So their cooperation is of paramount importance. If the bureaucracy does not buy into the policies of the government and is not comfortable with them, they will go to any extent to sabotage them. Atal was somehow able to foster that confidence in the bureaucracy. This, in turn, helped him to run the government smoothly,’ the additional secretary quoted earlier says.
Another joint secretary-level IAS officer, who held important posts in the Atal government, says that in the Westminster system of government that India has, the prime minister is the first among equals. ‘Atal believed in this and allowed his ministers a huge amount of autonomy. He believed in a democratic fashion of governance. Unless it was really essential, files did not go to his level. The minister in charge of a department took a call on various matters. This gave him acceptability.’
This IAS official also points out that, like many other prime ministers, Atal did not pit bureaucrats against ministers. He also did not have any pet fads, the pursuit of which could have diverted the attention of his ministers and officers. Thus, Atal was able to get the cooperation of both his ministers and the bureaucracy.
Atal was a man who had no dogmas. He responded to the call of the times. Although he had delivered a stirring speech on Tibet in the Lok Sabha in 1959, by the time he became the prime minister, he realized that much water had passed through the Tsang Po and Brahmaputra. Thus in June 2003, Atal formally recognized Tibet as part of China, which de facto it was. The idea was to take a positive step forward to solve the problems with China that had been festering since 1962. He also believed that ‘you can change friends but not your neighbors’, and that is why he aggressively pursued peace with neighbours like Pakistan. In fact, this became an article of faith for the foreign ministry after Atal first propounded this dictum as external affairs minister in the Janata government. Old timers still remember how, in November 2000, Atal declared a unilateral cease fire against Islamic militants in Kashmir in a prelude to peace talks. This cease fire was extended and Pervez Musharraf was invited to talks. Atal took such measures in the face of tough opposition even by a section of his party men. They argued that Pakistan could not be trusted because of its track record of starting the Kargil was just after the Lahore declaration a year earlier. However, Atal was unconvinced by these arguments.
Journalist and author Mayank Chayya, writing in the Indian Express (24 December 2014), described Atal as one of the ‘finest practitioners of India’s enlightened pluralism as embedded in its ancient civilization rather than as mandated by the Constitution of a young nation state’. Chayya recollected that within three days of the Babri Masjid demolition, he said self-assuredly that the whole episode was the BJP’s worst miscalculation. In a similar vein, journalist Harish Khare wrote in Open magazine (19 December 2014), ‘Atal understood how difficult it was to maintain, leave alone impose, any kind of order on this complex and complicated land and that wisdom demanded an approach of accommodation and reconciliation.’ He added that Atal ‘understood that as PM he had to try and win the confidence and respect of all sections of society. as a ruler of a country that had gained statehood after centuries of internal discord and disunity he was mindful of the painful incomplete journey of nationhood’.
Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, director general of the Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, an organization that is now collating speeches and other materials relating to Atal, writing in DNA, said that Atal exuded a ‘Main hoon na’ image to the general public. The public felt reassured by his presence and confident that he would try his best to ensure that everybody’s interest was properly take care of.
He added, ‘All his life he strived to make politics more value-oriented. He contributed to the Indian polity in multiple ways, he is the epitome of alternate political thought and functionality. He has an inimitable style of winning friends. He has several friends with views diametrically opposite to his but this has never come between him and them.’
Indirectly indicating what his beliefs were, Atal had once pointed out in the course of a Lok Sabha debate that the Indian Constitution does not mention the word secularism. Atal said that the members of the Constituent Assembly had discussed what secularism was and come up with multiple views. But during the Emergency (when opposition leaders were in jail), the government had amended the Constitution to declare India, which was till then a democratic republic, a secular socialist democratic republic. Atal said that even when this change was incorporated, Congress MPs had said that Indian secularism is different from western secularism. ‘I agree with this, we do not stone anybody to death; we do not put any one on [the] cross.’
He said that India was not a religious state and could never become one. These beliefs were its ‘jeevandhara’ (essence of life) and were rooted in its soil. Atal added that India was not born a few decades ago in 1947, but was a 5000-year-old civilization.
Kumara Guru of the Indian School of Business in Mohali, who was still a student when Atal was prime minister, says, ‘He was Teflon coated and evoked great confidence in people. They reposed faith in him. No charge against him ever stuck. In fact nobody would even think of charging him of [sic] anything negative. This is the hallmark of a great individual. I think he was greatly underrated as a reformer.’
Senior government officials, who have worked with Atal, say that though he delegated work to other ministers, there was never any doubt that he was in charge. The final call in every complicated matter was taken by him, whether it was related to External Affairs or Internal Affairs. ‘He was the boss without giving the appearance of being one, but there was no doubt that he was the boss. His was the last word,’ says a joint secretary during Atal’s regime.
‘I think he was a thorough gentleman and did not intimidate others. The way he conducted himself was statesman-like,’ says Seeta Murty, the principal of a school in Hyderabad. ‘It is not that there were great expectations of Mr Vajpayee when he came to power. But quietly and without making any big show he was able to deliver a lot. We really saw good governance under him, She adds.
‘He had a quiet confidence, was not a showoff and was easily accessible. People could easily identify with him and also approach him. This was his real strength and these sterling qualities made him the statesman that he was,’ says Delhi-based Supreme Court lawyer, Diljit Ahluwalia.
‘He was certainly accommodative and diplomatic. The nature of his government demanded that. But in spite of his circumstances he was able to achieve much. To me he comes across as the most underrated PM of India,’ says Rajeev Saxena, a bank manager in Delhi.
‘His appeal cut across people of different ages, sexes and regions. If the old woman in Kolkata was his fan, so was the young techie in Bangalore. The same could be said about the acceptability of Atal amongst a crowd of executives in Mumbai and a group of farmers in UP,’ says Manoj Pant from Lucknow.
‘He can be called ecletic akin to ancient philosophers who selected doctrines from various schools of thought. Thus he had imbibed and projected a catholicity of views,’ says Supriyo Banerjee, an academic from Kolkata.
‘A deep thinking man not given toe hasty decisions is what Mr Vajpayee was. None of his steps were impulsive. He had wisdom,’ says Sanjay Gadhalay, a product of IIT Kharagpur.
‘He was a pakka realist. He had been in politics for so many years and gone through so many ups and downs. So he never craved for power and he had grown above this. Nothing really seemed to brother him,’ says Kumar Ketkar.
Atal had many achievements, other than those mentioned before, to his credit. Within a year of his coming to power for five years, Atal divided three big states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, creating Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Uttarakhand. Atal believed in the dictum of small is beautiful and this was in sharp contrast to the Congress line then. The Congress idea was to keep India as it was, possibly because the party bosses realized that breaking India into smaller states could lead to emergence of regional forces that would have their own aspirations. This would challenge the old Congress hegemony over power. Atal realized that in a smaller state the government would be closer to the people and, therefore, he went about the bifurcation of the states. Being the head of a government that had over two dozen constituents, this was not an easy task. However, Atal went ahead in a statesman-like manner only as far as the politics of the day would allow. For this reason, he did not divide Andhra Pradesh to create the state of Telangana and refrained similarly from bifurcating Maharashtra to create Vidarbha. NDA partners like the Telugu Desam Party were virulently opposed to the division of Andhra Pradesh and Atal knew the limitations.
Atal continued the Look East policy in foreign affairs that was started by Narasimha Rao. Atal realized that India had a huge historical connect with South-east Asian countries from ancient times. However, because India had been part of the British Empire, this connect had been lost and India was more focused on relations with the UK, the US, Europe and the USSR. Although these countries were important, it was also necessary to engage with South-east Asian contries that also had a large Indian diaspora besides being part of the same extended civilization. India become part of the BIMSTEC formation that tied Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Atal also focused on rebuilding relations with Central Asian republics, with whom India had traditional historical links.
A strong India was an article of faith for Atal. He believed that only a strong India could stand up to enemies and would be respected by other countries. That is the reason why, after nuclear testing, Atal wisely concentrated on upgrading the defence capabilities of the country. Agni-I, a ballistic missile capable of firing nuclear war heads up to a range of 800 km, was tested during Atal’s regime. This was followed by the induction of Agni-II that had 2000-km range. Brahmos, the supersonic cruise missile that was a joint venture between India and Russia, was also successfully test fired during Atal’s regime.
Atal was described as ‘The Smiling Buddha’ by India Today in its 12 January 2004 issue while declaring him as its Man of the Year for 2003. The cover story by S. Prasannarajan described Atal as the ‘Oriental face of reason and resolution, of peace and restraint. Vajpayee is the eldest statesman of the East.’ The story also noted that Atal ‘handles power with a kind of sagely detachment. He uses renunciation as a means of reaffirmation’. Further Atal was described as ‘larger than the political size of his party. He is in it and above it, keeping his moral system beyond the grasp of real politik even beyond the demands of his own party. He has changed the grammar of leadership. His wisdom does not claim copyright over mass conscience. He is the balmy benefactor’. It was quite clear that his long experience of public affairs had made Atal a wise old man; only this accounts for the profuse praise heaped on him by India Today.
In the run up to the last elections of his life in 2004, Atal said that he never nursed any ambition to become prime minister. All he wanted was to become a journalist. He also said that he wanted to be remembered as a man who wanted to do ‘good’ for his country and the world. Atal was also much concerned about the loss of trust in politicians among the people. However, he held that the politicians were squarely to blame for this.
All through his life, Atal was berated by critics who claimed that he changed his position to suit the convenience. Atal, however knew that the perceived shifts in his ideology had little to do with convenience and were more because of the duality that exists in life. He admitted in a mock trial in the Aap ki Adalat programme of Rajat Sharma that in his belief system, both Satyartha Prakash and Karl Marx could coexist and so could Churchill and Chamberlain. Incidentally, Satyartha Prakash ( literally the light of truth) is an 1875 book written by Swami Dayanand Saraswati, which is the cornerstone of the philosophy of the Arya Samaj that is based on the concept of ‘Back to the Vedas’. Dayanand saraswati believed that ills had entered Hinduism in the later centuries. Whereas Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister at the beginning of World War II, was known to be practical and willing to compromise, Winston Churchill was seen as a tough nut who was inflexible and unbending.
Those familiar with the game of football or hockey (which, interestingly, is listed on the BJP’s website as Atal’s favourite games), are aware of the importance of players in the position of halves. They are the linkmen who take the ball from the defenders and pass it on to the forwards who launch a raid on the goal of the opposing team. In some senses, the linkmen hold the team together by playing the role of defenders (stopping the ball before it can go into the goal region) and offenders (sending the ball towards the enemy goal).
If the history of the Indian republic can be likened to a football or hockey match, then Atal roughly played in the position of linkman. He was the man who linked the now-past Nehruvian era to the now-upon-us Modi era. He was the link between the first republic that was and the second republic that is in the works. Without someone like him straddling the two eras, the Indian republic would not be what it is now. This in a way is the ultimate tribute to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the true mark of his statesmanship.
By Kingshuk Nag
(the writer is a journalist and author of atal bihari vajapyee: a man for all seasons)