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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The Complicated Statesman

August 23, 2018

 

When Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister passed away in May 1964, a Member of Parliament said India was sad,

 

“as her most beloved prince had gone to sleep.”

 

Of this Parliamentarian, who was otherwise an ideological opponent, Nehru had predicted to be India’s Prime Minister – he was right. He would go on to take the oath of Prime Minister thrice, and become the first Prime Minister of India, not belonging to the Nehru’s Congress Party, to complete a full term in office in 2004.  On August 16, 2018, India lost Atal Bihari Vajpayee. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the words he used to describe Nehru’s passing, can today be used for him.

 

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who held the post for three non-consecutive terms in 1996, 1998-99, and from 1999-2004, passed away on 16th August 2018. He was 93. He held several distinctions to his name. He was the first External Affairs Minister to deliver a speech in Hindi at the UN General Assembly. Mr. Vajpayee was also a rarity in Indian politics, in that he won the trust and respect of even his most staunch opponents. In the early 1990s, his predecessor and then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao, despite being in a pitched political battle against Mr. Vajpayee at home, trusted him enough to send him to the UN Human Rights Council in 1994, which was then discussing India’s record in Kashmir. The move, where a sitting government sent in a political rival to defend its record, raised India’s standing considerably. Mr. Vajpayee too, delivered a diplomatic coup for India.

 

Born on December 25, 1924 in Gwalior, Mr. Vajpayee was elected 10 times to the Lok Sabha from four different States (the first time in 1957 from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh), and was twice a Member of the Rajya Sabha. A Marxist at first, Mr. Vajpayee abandoned that creed for rightwing Hindu politics as a student. It was a visit to a camp run by the RSS that converted him. One of the founding members of the Jan Sangh in 1951, Mr. Vajpayee became its president in 1968 upon the death of Deendayal Upadhyaya. It was not until Indira Gandhi misread the public mood by imposing an Emergency, virtually replacing Democracy with Martial Law for about 2 years, that Vajpayee emerged on to the national stage. When the Emergency was lifted, Gandhi lost power, and Mr. Vajpayee became Minister of External Affairs in 1977. In 1980, he helped found the Bharatiya Janata Party and became the party’s first president.

 

He led a 13-day government in 1996, as the head of the single largest party, but could not get enough numbers to stay in power. Nonetheless, Mr. Vajpayee’s resignation speech on the floor of the Parliament echoes as a standout moment of statesmanship.

 

“Governments come and go, and parties are born and disappear. Above it all, the country must stay shining, its democracy immortal..” said the outgoing Prime Minister in a career-defining speech.

 

In 1999, as the BJP came back to power, 20 parties came together to make Mr. Vajpayee the Prime Minister for the third time. Mr. Vajpayee undertook many reform measures with regard to the economy, keeping it on the liberalisation track despite resistance from the RSS. His coinage, ‘Insaniyat’ (humanity), ‘Jamhooriyat’ (democracy), and Kashmiriyat (Kashmir’s age old legacy of amity) still resonates as the most plausible framework to resolve the Kashmir issue. The launch of the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY), a road building project, completely altered the lives of farmers in India’s remote corners, by connecting them to markets through motor-able roads.

 

Perhaps, his lowest point came in 2002 as he had to grapple with the riots in the state of Gujarat. The state’s then Chief Minister, Mr. Modi – who is now Prime Minister of India – was widely perceived to have committed omissions that led to the deaths of many hundreds of Muslims during communal violence. While initially critical of Mr. Modi, Mr. Vajpayee later told a party rally

 

“...wherever Muslims are living they don’t want to live in harmony. They don’t mix with the society. They are not interested in living in peace.”

 

 

His tragic inaction after the Gujarat riots mars his legacy. While his close advisors at the time, such as then Cabinet Minister Arun Shourie, talk about his intention to sack Mr. Modi being trumped at a party conference by other leaders, Mr. Vajpayee’s handling of the situation continues to be controversial.

 

Then there are the nuclear tests. Soon after taking power, in 1998, Mr. Vajpayee cleared the way for a series of tests that would demonstrate to the world that India was a nuclear power. ‘Pokhran-II’, as the tests were codenamed, successfully evaded America’s surveillance and flew in the face of the global Nuclear Controls Regime. Within the same month, Pakistan carried out two nuclear tests codenamed ‘Chagai-I’ and ‘Chagai-II’, as a direct response to Pokhran-II. Amid an outcry of the world being on the precipice of war between two states ‘illegitimately’ possessing nuclear weapons, sanctions were imposed on both India and Pakistan. It is a matter of debate whether Pokhran-II was a strategic mistake; an unnecessary concession to a hyper-nationalistic constituency. India rode through the sanctions and negotiated a deal with the US in 2008 that is recognized the world over. Despite the tests though, one must not undermine his efforts at peace building. The Delhi-Lahore Bus Service, and the remarkable maturity with which he dealt with the Kargil crisis in 1999—once the peace efforts failed, are both exemplars of his statesmanship. Nawaz Sharif, who had been Prime Minister of Pakistan during the Kargil war, said in an interview

 

“Mr. Vajpayee is justified in feeling let down, we did let him down.”

 

 

It is difficult to predict how future narratives will treat the dignitaries of today. But as far as Mr. Vajpayee goes, there is no doubt that his oratory, statesmanship, and magnanimity will secure him a favorable position in the memories of most. While the entire nation mourns his loss, a couplet of his captures the exuberance of his spirit

 

मैं जी भर जिया, मैं मन से मरूं,
लौटकर आऊंगा, कूच से क्यों डरूं?

(I have lived to the fullest, I will die with all my heart,

I will come back one day, why be afraid of the journey)

 

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

About The Author

 

Parth Maniktala is a student of literature at Hansraj College, Delhi University. He is the current President of the Hansraj College Debating Society. Parth has been recognized as one of Asia’s top 10 speakers at the United Asians Debating Championship held in Cambodia in 2017. He has also been the chief adjudicator of the annual national schools debating championship of Nepal. Apart from debating, he has a keen interest in cinema and literature. He has in the past served as the literary editor of the St. Columbas School's magazine.

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