If Politics is an exercise in the rhetoric of posturing, it is also the art of forgetting the lessons of history. In NDA’s hour of conflict over the intolerance debate, it would serve the government and the BJP to remember the lessons of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee era and adopt his Idea of India. His style, substance, intellectual and aesthetic depth, and the wry sense of humour with which he handled victories and defeats alike hold lessons to follow. After retirement from politics, Vajpayee spends his time in a quiet, leafy enclave of Lutyens’ Delhi. But his presence and vision continue to be relevant at a time when the BJP’s first standalone government is trying to find its feet in governance and the adversarial arena of statecraft.
Vajpayee believed in an India where the common man triumphed by example. Almost two decades before Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of a tea-seller’s son becoming the nation’s supreme leader, Vajpayee had spoken on August 15, 1996, “It is a symbol of strength and the potential of the Indian democracy that the son of a school teacher hailing from the dusty and smoky environs of a village has the privilege of unfurling the Tricolour from the ramparts of the Red Fort on this auspicious Independence Day.”
Prabhu Chawla @1987
He can be called India’s most secular Hindu, history’s most inclusive nationalist, or the greatest leader the country has ever had who could reconcile geopolitical contradictions with astute diplomacy and elegant intelligence. In an interview in January 2004, Vajpayee had explained to me ‘swaraj’ in a nutshell: “Yes, I am (a swadeshi). But the difference between swadeshi and videshi has narrowed considerably.” Yet he has been always conscious of being an Indian first. His motto-“a sense of oneness, a sense of Indianness, requires to be created among our youth to halt the mad rush towards an imported five-star video culture”-can direct his party to reconcile India with Bharat.
More than a decade after he stepped down as the Prime Minister, Vajpayee is still known as the “Great Connector”. Connectivity is the essence of harmony, an ancient law that has helped the evolution of cultures and civilisations. It has been Vajpayee’s signature-in politics by achieving consensus and respect from both allies and opponents; in governance through linking India by creating a vast new network of highways and envisaging linking the country’s rivers; and for the common man by heralding the telecom revolution engineered by his Lakshman, Pramod Mahajan. The India he envisaged is a celestial allegory of the cosmos, where different galaxies existed without conflict, each one containing its own solar systems, where planets orbited the Centre, obeying natural laws. It is also an allegory for different intellectual universes of varied cultural and socio-political opinions, which he enjoined with the quiet charisma of his paternal presence.
Vajpayee’s greatest virtue is to have become the connector who created an image of India in the world as a harmonious whole. He also connected the world with India, through his visits to the US, Russia, China as well Asian countries such as Malaysia, Singapore and Cambodia to ink economic deals and push neighbourly ties. Integrating India is Vajpayee’s main legacy. But India had to become a power by itself, breaking away from its moribund socialist past which made the poor poorer and the rich richer, where the economy and society were controlled by a cabal of the rich and powerful, who influenced government policies.
Connectivity is part of ancient Indian heritage, achieved by glorious empires like Ashoka’s and Chandragupta’s, which made Bharatvarsha the hub of commerce by building a vast grid of roads, rivers, canals and ports and helped commerce and industry. Determined to upgrade the country’s infra-structure, destroyed by years of colonialism, Vajpayee pulled General Khanduri out of retirement and appointed him the minister in charge of road transport and highways in 2000. The Golden Quadrilateral-the largest highway project in India-came into being in 2001, and was finished under the budget with 21 km of roads having been built daily. Mahatma Gandhi, who said India lives in its villages, was an inspiration for Vajpayee-both as a selfless emancipator and reformer. The Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sadak Yojana linking 5 lakh villages to cities took off. The connectivity that followed increased immigration from the hinterlands to cities, offering millions of villagers a dream. Prosperity and semi-urbanisation helped in obfuscating entrenched prejudices such as caste and backwardness in education. The Sarva Siksha Abhiyan gave education a much-needed impetus.
The Delhi Metro, which began under Vajpayee, changed the way the common man travelled in the Capital, connecting slums, non-glamorous colonies and upscale areas, thereby becoming the great equaliser. The modern is being replicated successfully all over the country: SEZs flourished, connecting expansion with results. The NDA 1 government lowered interest rates to boost the economy. The foundation Vajpayee’s economic policies laid enabled Manmohan Singh to claim the title of India’s Reform Man.
This is because Vajpayee understood his connection with India as a holistic covenant. He grew with India. He didn’t become the Prime Minister because of hierarchical reason, heading a state or an important Union ministry. He is India’s true face even today. At the age of 35, his admirers called Vajpayee Hriday Samrat. Even before the age of India’s television blitzkrieg made its brash entrance, he had acquired a mass following in major parts of India-I remember walking for three miles to listen to Vajpayee’s speech in a trans-Yamuna area in Delhi. He is a man who wins both the mind and the heart-a symbol of power, rarely feared but always revered.
Neither break nor bend
Over the last decade, Parliament has become a battlefield of invective and noisy grandstanding, to block development to score political points. As a parliamentarian, Vajpayee’s record has been unparalleled both as a resplendent orator and an uncompromising democrat. He is still known for his generosity cutting across political lines. Although he had clashed with Jawaharlal Nehru over Jammu and Kashmir when he was still a young MP, Vajpayee’s speech after Panditji’s death was perhaps the most moving tribute anyone has paid him, saying “a flame has vanished into the Unknown.” Later, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi would throw him in jail during the Emergency. He underwent surgery and suffered from extreme back pain but refused to be released on medical grounds. “Hum toot sakte hain jhuk nahi sakte (we can break but cannot bend),” he would say.
Vajpayee’s belief that India should neither break nor bend is the thrust of his personal and political philosophy. He realised that consensus is the key to economic reform, considering that he ran a smorgasbord of a government, populated by colleagues with divergent opinions. Coalition dharma was his mantra. “We are not the initiators of reform. We are carrying forward a process that was started by the Narasimha Rao government, and continued by two United Front governments. But we do take the credit for having broadened, depended and accelerated the reform process,” he told me in an interview. Three senior politicians who became Prime Ministers-Narasimha Rao, Chandrashekhar and Vajpayee used to confabulate often on national issues, exchanging views and advices. The spirit of democracy and gentlemanly conduct was one of Vajpayee’s traits.
One morning, sometime in mid-July 1998, I had gone to 7, Race Course Road to meet him. Vajpayee was with four of his ministers, who were forcefully advocating action against Sonia Gandhi. He sat silently like a contemplative Buddha, his chin sunk on his chest and his eyes partially closed. When they finished, he raised his head and looked at me, ignoring his companions. “Editorji,” he addressed me by the nickname he used for me. “Aise karenge toh phir Congress aur BJP mein farak kya hoga (If we do this, what is the difference between the Congress and the BJP)?” It provided a window to Vajpayee’s thinking: no vindictiveness, but adhere to the letter of the law.
The five qualities of Vajpayee can form the manifesto of today’s political conduct-one who inspires, delegates but also takes charge, accommodates, gives respect where it is due, and has a great vision. Even if he had strong reservations on any issue of policy or politics, Vajpayee was a magnanimous leader, never insecure about his position, always refraining from personal attacks on his adversaries. These are marks of a true visionary.
Vajpayee was as comfortable with foreign policy nuances as he was with domes-tic political challenges. When the post of the Indian ambassador to the WTO fell vacant in 1999, foreign minister Jaswant Singh pushed Hardeep Singh Puri’s name, little knowing that the decision rested with the Commerce ministry. When commerce minister Murasoli Maran protested. Vajpayee did not take a moment to withdraw the decision and allow Maran to appoint K.M. Chandrasekhar instead. His respect for women power is evident in a different instance. In 2001, Lalit Mansingh was to retire as foreign secretary and Kanwal Sibal, then India’s ambassador to France, was one of the front-runners for the post and Jaswant Singh’s first choice.
Singh got his appointment cleared by Vajpayee, although it meant superseding over half-a-dozen others senior to Sibal. An officer from Vajpayee’s trusted circle pointed out that the Chokila Iyer’s claim for the job in New Delhi had been ignored. Vajpayee called for her file to study her profile. Iyer got the posting, and India its first woman foreign secretary.
A dramatic defeat but a moral victory
Vajpayee is perhaps the first South Asian leader to create a patent ideology of his own Vajpayeeism. While Marx and Mao may have provoked the masses to start bloody revolutions, Vajpayee could work wonders by steering a government comprising 25 parties which had hardly anything in common barring a noun: NDA.
The correct use, instead of its misuse, of power was ingrained in Vajpayee. When his government fell in 1996 after 13 days in power, Vajpayee told his political foes in Parliament, “We bow down to the strength of majority. We assure you that till the time the work that we started in national interest is not completed, we shall not rest. Respected Speaker, I am going to the President to tender my resignation.” It was a democratic defeat, but a moral victory. And Vajpayee was vindicated when the BJP formed the government after winning the next elections in less than two years. In May 1998, the Vajpayee government pulled off nuclear tests in Pokhran, named Operation Shakti, catching the big powers by surprise.
An uncompromising patriot, he declared India a full-fledged nuclear state, emphasising that there is “no compromise on national security; we will exercise all options, including nuclear, to protect security and sovereignty”. He took Lal Bahadur Shastri’s slogan ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’ forward by adding ‘Jai Vigyan’.
As with all Indian prime ministers, Vajpayee’s dream was also to leave behind everlasting peace with Pakistan as part of his legacy. Between July 14 and 16, 2001, he met Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf in Agra to resolve long-standing issues between the two countries. On the last day, the general told assembled editors that no accord was possible without including Kashmir: “Kashmir pehla mudda uthaayenge (the first issue we will raise will be Kashmir),” he said.
When I informed Vajpayee, he sound-ed incredulous. “Aise bola usne (Did he say that)?” he asked. When I replied in the affirmative, he refused to issue the joint statement planned at the end of the summit. This was after he had initiated the historic Lahore bus journey in 1999, meeting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and urging an end to Pakistan’s covert activities. “Friends can be changed but not neighbours. We either live as friends or we keep fighting, making ourselves the butt of ridicule before the world,” he said.
The nationalist message of Vajpayee is that a powerful neighbour should act with restraint even in the face of blatant aggression. He would always send out the message that India has the power to crush its enemy but was mature enough to wait and diplomatically push Pakistan towards a pariah status on the global stage.
On the morning of December 13, 2001, five terrorists stormed Parliament and killed nine people before being shot by security forces. Parliament was sacrosanct for Vajpayee – he was the only Prime Minister since the 1980s who had never missed a single day of session. Vajpayee’s kindred spirit, L.K. Advani and Army Chief General S. Padmanabhan were for decisive action. It almost brought the two countries to the edge of war. Vajpayee’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” policy paid off globally, with international leaders condemning Pakistan’s hospitality towards terrorists.
In April 2003, during a visit to Kashmir, he mooted friendship with Pakistan. A cease-fire agreement along the LoC and Siachen was signed in November the same year, but Vajpayee was firm that Pakistan should stop sponsoring terrorism and violence before dialogue could proceed. He responded to sceptical Indian diplomats by saying, “Plane to khada hi hai (The airplane is ready).”
Kashmir held its first free and fair elections in decades when Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, changing the narrative of the debate.
Vajpayee has often been called “the Prime Minister the Congress never had” and “the right man in the wrong party”. His gift of the gab was always self-deprecatory, but it won the day. During the BJP’s 1992 session in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, asked whether he was being marginalised in the party, Vajpayee replied, “No, but usually corrections are done in the margin.” As the BJP grew in stature during the 1990s, its leadership fell on the shoulders of two old comrades in arms, Advani and Vajpayee. They complemented each other-the warrior and the poet-philosopher. Ayodhya was a defining point in the life of the BJP, and of both the leaders. The Rath Yatra made Advani the new Ram. The pluralist in Vajpayee was not for aggressive Hindutva, although he remained a loyal member of the party. Yet, on December 6, 2000, the eighth anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Vajpayee told the Lok Sabha that the Ram Mandir issue was a “nationalist movement”, and “kaam adhura reh gaya hai (the mission is unfinished).”
The Opposition exploded. The next day, at an iftaar hosted by minister Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, Vajpayee explained that what he meant was not that no temple construction would begin but that the dispute continues. Vajpayee chose to stay enigmatic over the demolition. After the 2002 Gujarat riots, which lowered the BJP’s ratings as a modern Hindutva party, Vajpayee was unsure whether Narendra Modi should stay on as chief minister.
After the riots were brought under control, various meetings were held in Delhi between George Fernandez, Nitish Kumar and senior Opposition leaders, who felt that Modi should quit arguing that it affected the NDA’s image. At a meeting at 7-RCR, attended by Advani, Venkaiah Naidu and allies, the non-BJP leaders urged Vajpayee to sack Modi. He conveyed to the RSS leadership that Modi had to go, or else he wouldn’t go to Gujarat to campaign for the party. Eventually, the RSS persuaded Vajpayee to change his views in the party’s interests-for he was the Prime Minister, not just any politician, and moreover it would send out the message that the PM was protesting against the riots because Muslims were killed.
As long as Vajpayee was in power, however, the extreme right gunned for him, using the deadly troika of RSS boss V. Sudarshan, VHP’s Ashok Singhal and the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh’s leader Dattopant Thengadi. They even roped in ABVP to attack Vajpayee-who had dropped out of school to edit an RSS magazine-for what they said were his faulty educational policies. They were so upset that an RSS leader even told a cabinet minister that they would not mind if the government fell. He also candidly admitted that Vajpayee became PM not because of the RSS, but in spite of it. Vajpayee, however, never abandoned any of the lessons he learnt as an RSS pracharak. He remains an open book, which, if read between the lines, can guide leaders present and in future to learn the art of keeping the gigantic entity that is India together.
Magical, magnetic, large-hearted In January 2004, I met Vajpayee to interview him for the third and final time, when he was the Prime Minister, for India Today, an honour not given to any other Indian journalist. Rumours about midterm polls were flying thick and fast. Advani had already announced the slogan ‘India Shining’. Jaswant Singh was on a publicity binge even though the elections were due only later in the year. I asked Vajpayee whether the BJP would go for early elections. “Prashan hi nahin uthta. Chunav samay per honge (The question doesn’t arise. The elections will be held on schedule),” he answered. But later on, BJP leaders such as Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Venkaiah Naidu, Pramod Mahajan and others persuaded the Prime Minister to cash in on the goodwill and feel-good factor they believed the government had generated. Vajpayee agreed, although he knew he was signing off as India’s most magical, magnetic and large-hearted leader. He is known for creating institutions and healthy connections, thus defining the fine contours of India’s political dialogue.
This is the essence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, even in retirement, he remains above any party or organisation. Ultimately he belongs to India. It is Vajpayee Shining. It always will be.
January 12, 2004
The artful navigator
Vajpayee has never been a favourite of Nagpur, the headquarters of the RSS. He is not Hindu enough for the swayamsevaks. The prime minister knows that confrontation is not the way out, but containment is. The grand old man of the saffron parivar is smarter. Madan Das Devi, RSS joint general secretary, at 59, and M. Venkaiah Naidu, the BJP president, at 55, are former ABVP colleagues and get along smoothly. In the early 1970s, Devi was the ABVP organisation secretary and Naidu the general secretary. The Class of 70 is in power in the states as well as the Centre. The rise of Devi and Naidu has provided Vajpayee with a politically useful link between Reshmi Bagh in Nagpur and Race Course Road in Delhi. The patriarch uses the generational shift in the family as a personal source of consolidation-and peace.
by Prabhu Chawla
Prabhu Chawla is editorial director, The New Indian Express and The Sunday Standard