Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The Smiling Buddha

Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The Smiling Buddha


Men don’t make history. Not always. History makes use of them. Quite often. Nations are redeemed in their dreams. Nations have gone asunder in their fantasies. They are leaders as events, and they happen unannounced, as if their arrival is an inevitability that cannot be postponed by the truisms of the day. As their passage through the aspirations and anxieties of a people becomes a performance in renewal, paradigms are punctured, stereotypes are shattered, dogmas declassified, and on their footprints lie the first notations of a new coda of national rhapsody. They are cartographers of destiny. The chosen ones.

Like Atal Bihari Vajpayee. There he is, alone in reassuring stillness, and behind him spreads 2003 as a fresh memory of national well being: a year that brought India from the backyard of hate to the forefront of healing, from the stagnant bazaar to a new Sensex sensation, from the banality of political greed to the fairness of punishment. A year that bears the indelible stamp of Vajpayee, the unifier-in-chief in a country where Partition has graduated from being a fact in history to a state of the national mind. In 2003, though, the mind of Vajpayee prevailed.

The day of the active interventionist? No. His patented pause has come to signify a new doctrine of passivity in political management. In a party where the abiding image of national assertion is demolition, he is the patron saint of consolidation, the last inaction hero in politics. It is not inaction as inability. It is a cultivated counter-strategy in a political space where the extreme actions of otherscolleagues in the party or partners in the coalitioncan only divide, demolish or unsettle the calm. The Gandhian passive resistance has become a weapon of mass discipline in Vajpayee’s hands. The stability of 2003 is indebted.

Stability in the theatre of politics as well as the marketplace of aspirations. Give credit to him: the much typecast Hindu nationalist party is not a politically metamorphosed Dementor out of the pages of Harry Potter, lurking in the dark to suck the soul out of secular India. The BJP has evolved into the natural party of governance for whom the idea of the nation is no longer a force that divides and intimidates, and it is no longer in search of a Kurukshetra where enemies have to be invented. In the House of Saffron, where some still live in the make-believe of a Hindu Ruritania, Vajpayee is sanity, the Dubcek of Hindutva. The year 2003 saw the BJP winning yet another acceptability test in three of the Congress’ poster states. And in Ayodhya, faith didn’t turn into fear, tridents were tamed. In the market, freedom was not in fetters. In 2003, wisdom rhymed with Vajpayee.

The wise leader, indeed. It is an Asian stereotype institutionalised by Confucian societies where biological seniority is an essential condition for having an enlightened mind. Leader VSOP. The knowing one. The doddering deliverer. He is fast disappearing from his favoured homelands: south-east Asia and China. Today, Vajpayee is the Eldest Statesman of the East, and he is culturally distinct from his retired or dead counterparts: he presides over one of the most volatile democracies of the world. His wisdom doesn’t claim copyright over mass conscience. He is the balmy benefactor. In the Global India of 2003, he, a quiet but affirmative presence amidst the richest and the powerful, was the oriental face of reason and resolution, of peace and restraint, nevertheless carrying a very special message from the subcontinent: how to remain intact in a world rewritten by terror.

Never before in India has power been redefined by one leader in such a short time. In the universe of Vajpayee, it is never absolute, as it was in the days of the Dynasty. India’s most popular politician, a position that is not subordinated to the mystique of the family, handles power with a kind of sagely detachment. He uses renunciation as a means of reaffirmation. He withdraws only to make his indispensability an awesome reality to the enemies within, only to return with another confounding couplet. He is larger than the political size of his party. He is in it and above it, keeping his moral system beyond the grasp of realpolitik, even beyond the demands of his own party. He has changed the grammar of leadership, that too in a world where the most visible leaders of the most powerful nations are caught in the credibility trap, in spite of wars and victories. Vajpayee wins without trying, and his triumph, in true tradition of positive leadership, is translated as triumph of India 2003, making him the obvious choice of our Newsmaker of the Year. History has not made full use of him.

Or, is it the other way round?

(This profile was written in 2003 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was named India Today Newsmaker of the Year.)



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