Right man in the wrong party?
Nehru and Indira trusted Vajpayee because he kept the nation above the party The death of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has been widely mourned by leaders across party lines, by professionals across discipline. Some of the praise lavished upon him may be customary lip service, but many seem to have genuinely admired him as a leader and as a person.
What was the most admirable quality of the man and the leader? Possibly it was his persona that exuded humility. Look at the body language of many of our Prime Ministers; they all betray a certain arrogance. But Vajpayee’s characteristic humility did not desert him when he graduated from the opposition bench to the treasury bench. It was because humility was intrinsic to his persona, not a mask he wore for a photo-opportunity.
But humility was not the only strength that propelled Vajpayee to India’s most coveted chair. He was always trusted as a man who would rise above partisan considerations and speak and do what was in India’s interest. It was these sparkling qualities of Vajpayee that impressed Jawaharlal Nehru in Parliamentary debates (Vajpayee entered Lok Sabha in 1957 when Nehru had built a reputation as a world leader) and Nehru is said to have remarked that he saw the potential in Vajpayee to become the future Prime Minister of India.
Remember the photograph in which Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister, was seen holding an umbrella over the head of Vajpayee? When asked, Vajpayee fondly recalled that both of them were in an official reception when Mrs Gandhi took him out to the lawn for some discussion. That is when it began drizzling and someone came up with an umbrella for the Prime Minister. Mrs Gandhi took the umbrella from the man and asked him to go. She held the umbrella over Vajpayee’s head and continued the discussion.
Remember P V Narasimha Rao sent an official delegation to the United Nations with Vajpayee, the Opposition leader, as the head of the team! That was the level of trust and confidence that Vajpayee, the Jan Sangh leader, commanded from the Congress Prime Ministers.
This intrinsic humility and trustworthiness as a political leader paved the way for Vajpayee to occupy the most coveted position in the country. After all, it was L K Advani, not Vajpayee, who was instrumental in the rise of BJP as a national party contending for power at the Centre in the 1990s. But BJP did not win a full majority; it needed regional allies and most allies did not want to accept Advani, the inciter of the Ramjanambhoomi movement, as their leader. But Vajpayee was acceptable to all.
Vajpayee, in that sense, laid the foundation of the coalition politics. Again, his humility and trustworthiness came to display when he steered a 13-party coalition – with hugely arrogant leaders like Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalithaa supporting him at different times – to complete a term.
Vajpayee’s conciliatory stance had earned him both bouquets and brickbats. He succeeded in putting an end to the isolation, the untouchability, of BJP in national politics. But the same conciliatory stance prevented him from taking some strong decisions.
It is an open secret that Vajpayee wanted Narendra Modi to resign as chief minister of Gujarat after the 2002 massacre of Muslims.
But Advani, his deputy in government and a fellow RSS leader, impressed upon Vajpayee that Modi was crucial to the BJP’s long-term success in Gujarat. Vajpayee was persuaded to hold his thought and he merely mumbled the rajdharma advice to Chief Minister Modi.
There is no denying that Vajpayee had excelled as a trapeze artist; he was a leader of the RSS and professed his loyalty to the organisation; but seculars viewed him as a liberal leader. He had repeatedly addressed the Ram janambhoomi meetings, but when the Babri masjid fell, nobody pointed the accusing finger at him. He walked the tight rope to win fulsome praise from both party faithfuls and party antagonists. That made him an extraordinary leader in polarizing times.
What was Vajpayee’s achievement as the Prime Minister? Well, many would cite Pokhran II. Vajpayee had supported Indira Gandhi when she took the world by surprise and anger by carrying out the first nuclear test in Pokhran 1974. Narasimha Rao was the architect of the second Pokharan adventure but he could not carry out the mission due to technical issues. Rao did not trust Deve Gowda when he became Prime Minister after him. But Rao briefed Vajpayee when he became the Prime Minister in 1998. Within two months of coming to office, a confident Vajpayee ordered the execution of the Pokhran II mission, ready to face the international consequences.
Vajpayee is often described as the pioneer of the telecom revolution in India. Well, the baby steps in the new telecom trajectory was taken when Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister and that inched ahead in the regime of Rao and Gowda but the real big push came during the Vajpayee government. The same can be said about the infrastructure development, with the golden quadrilateral as the signature plank of Vajpayee’s developmental initiative.
The world had expected a BJP Prime Minister, with a Hindutva plank, to exacerbate the existing tension with Pakistan. But Vajpayee surprised his party, the country and the world by making repeated attempts to make peace overtures to the hostile neighbor. He did it by opening a bus route to Lahore; he reinforced it by inviting General Musharraf, the perpetrator of the Kargil War, for reconciliation talks. He might have failed in his efforts in resolving the knotty issues, but his initiatives were praiseworthy. He perhaps deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, if not the outcome.
Was Vajpayee the best Prime Minister India has ever had, as many of the protagonists of the BJP claimed in the TV debates? Swaminathan Aiyar, the ace columnist, responded to a similar comment in an ET Now debate: “You can’t dismiss the contribution of Jawaharlal Nehru who built several institutions that helped India survive as a democracy. You can’t even ignore the role of Indira Gandhi who piloted India adroitly in a turbulent phase of India’s growth story. Yes, Vajpayee was one of the great Prime Ministers that India has had.” I agree with Mr Aiyar.