What happens when true leaders pass away? The masses, the fellow politicians, and the media try to decode the legacy they leave behind; and attach definitions to it in their own multiple ways. We witnessed a similar outburst on August 16, 2018, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former Prime Minister of India succumbed to his prolonged illness at Delhi’s AIIMS. A leader who was among the masses, he symbolized ‘genuineness’ in his duties and various roles that he played in his life as a Parliamentarian, as a poet, as an orator and also among his family. This ordinary but rare quality of being ‘genuine’ defines his entire legacy in its own subtle manner.
Born on December 25, 1924, in a Brahmin middle-class family in Gwalior, with strong literary roots, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had developed a keen interest in reading, writing and debating at an early age. He joined the RSS in 1939 at the age of fourteen. It was his oratory skills and writing prowess that intrigued the RSS, and set the foundation for his entry into the mainstream politics. The Jan Sangh was founded in 1951 by Shyama Prasad Mookherjee and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, became an assistant to him under the recommendation of Deen Dayal Upadhyay. In 1955, he contested his first Lok Sabha seat from Lucknow and came in third. In the 1957 Lok Sabha elections, he was contested from three seats: Lucknow, Balrampur and Mathura. He won from Balrampur and was appointed as the leader of the parliamentary party by the Jan Sangh. In his first stint as a Lok Sabha MP, he was recognized as ‘India’s blooming young parliamentarian’ and a ‘future Prime Minister’ by the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. He was elected to the Lok Sabha for 10 times and twice to the Rajya Sabha. In 1977, the Jan Sangh entered into an alliance with the ruling Janata Government under Morarji Desai and Vajpayee was appointed as the External Affairs minister. However, due to the instability of the government and the alliance collapsed in just two years.
In 1980, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) was founded by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani, with Gandhian Socialism as its credo. The symbol, lotus was chosen by Atal Bihari Vajpayee as his vision of BJP was to be a party of principles, untainted by the dirt in politics. The duo worked to form coalitions and garner support for the party during a time when not many parties were interested in supporting the Sangh Pariwar. The party grew from just 7% of votes in 1984 elections to 11% in 1989 and to 20% in the 1991 elections. It was during this period when the BJP was gradually gaining momentum and popularity with its strong demand for the construction of the Ram temple at Ayodhya and particularly projecting its shadowed RSS background. Post the Babri Masjid demolition and the Hawala scandal, in 1995, L.K. Advani, at the party’s annual meeting in Mumbai, projected Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the BJP Prime Ministerial candidate for 1996 elections. In 1996, BJP emerged as the single largest party with Vajpayee sworn in as the PM, but, the government lasted for 13 days. In 1998, the BJP won with coalition parties formed the National Democratic Alliance but the government lasted for 13 months after it lost the no-confidence motion passed in the Lok Sabha with by a single vote. However, in March 1998, Vajpayee came to power and this time to serve his complete period as a Prime Minister.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as a Prime Minister, first conducted the nuclear tests at Pokhran from 11-13 May 1998, an incomplete task passed on to him by P.V Narasimha Rao. Thereafter, he primarily focused on establishing peace with Pakistan and finding a permanent solution to the Kashmir issue. In his efforts to ease relations Pakistan, whether it was taking a bus to Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif or even inviting President Musharraf to initiate dialogue post Kargil war, Vajpayee never showed restraint. In 2003, India also offered the Confidence Building Measures (CBM) to Pakistan which included restoration of stalled air, rail and sea links, building sporting ties and starting news buses between Delhi and Lahore. On the Kashmir issue, which was personal to him right from the period he started working with Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, Vajpayee wanted bilateral agreements between India and Pakistan without any foreign interference. A number of dialogues initiated ended with no results due to multiple betrayals from Pakistan army specifically. However, Vajpayee was successful in providing hope to the people of Kashmir, including the separatists that a dialogue was possible and was the only feasible option for providing a permanent solution setting a stage for his successors to carry on the process.
In the country, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s pet project, the Golden Quadrilateral Project for connecting Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai completed in 2012; with the network connecting a number of villages and towns spurring the economic activities across the country. He admired the liberal economic policies of his predecessor, P.V Narasimha Rao and continued with the same, which was again met with opposition within the party too. During his tenure the economy grew from a rate of 6.5% in 1998-1999 to 8.5% in 2003-2004, thus providing a better beginning for the UPA-I in 2004. The 2002 Godhra riots proved to be a major blot on his career, which contributed to his loss in the next elections, as he failed to remove Narendra Modi as the Chief Minister of Gujarat and was pressurized by the party hardliners such as L.K. Advani. During the end of his tenure, there was dissatisfaction among the voters with regards to the governance and for a majority, there was no Ram temple constructed, article 370 was not abrogated and there was no uniform civil code, which made the BJP resemble Congress after coming to power. After losing the 2004 elections to the UPA-I, Atal Bihari Vajpayee resigned sportingly saying, “Victory and defeat are a part of life, which have to be viewed with equanimity”. Owing to his ill health and ongoing treatment at AIIMS, he took a final retirement from politics at the party’s meeting in Mumbai at the end of 2005 and participated in an electoral campaign for the last time in 2007 end.
The Jan Sangh stalwarts Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, Deen Dayal Upadhyay and L.K. Advani had tapped the potential in the young Vajpayee, as a budding politician and paved the way for his rise in the Jan Sangh and then in the BJP. His love and respect for RSS as an organization and Hinduism was evident as he openly admitted to it. At the same time, in the BJP, he remained committed to the ideals of positive secularism and Gandhian socialism on which the party was formed. In the mid-1980s, after losing the Lok Sabha elections, he said from Gwalior, “Hindu Tan Man, Hindu Jeevan, Rag Rag Hindu Mera Parichay. I am a Hindu. However, my Hindutva is not constricted, it is not narrow.” He subtly kept the hardliners of the party at bay with the help of his complementary L.K.Advani. In an astute manner, he sustained a kind of ambiguity with regards to his right-wing inclination and liberalism to maintain a balance between the party and the RSS. He was one of the few leaders of India who realized that India cannot be governed by any party of an extreme ideology, right or left, and a midway approach is the essence of Indian politics.
Being a member of parliament for almost 47 years, needless to say, the parliament was a second home to him. He respected the dignity of being a parliamentarian beyond everything. Like a powerhouse of the parliament, his poetry, his remarkable wit and sense of humour would disseminate his enthusiastic energy into the members, creating the most conducive environment for the country’s politicians to engage in a healthy exchange of opinions and debates. He had the spine to speak his mind and stand for the right as was evident when he compared Indira Gandhi to goddess Durga for her leadership in 1971 Bangladesh war and strongly condemned her during the emergency. In the late 1950s, when the entire opposition was busy criticizing Nehru, he stood up and asked whether it was mandatory for the opposition to criticize every move of the government just for the sake of opposition. His parliamentarian qualities were not just confined to the sessions of the house. His vigour was always alive in his public speeches and interviews with journalists were always welcomed without being picky about the questions and the criticism.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who always had a thing for an unconventional approach towards his personal as well as political life, has left us to ponder over a number of lessons that are significant in contemporary as well as future social and political atmosphere of the country. These are the lessons of tolerance towards difference of opinion, pragmatism, humility and spontaneity!
Nag, K. (2016). Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A man for all seasons. New Delhi: Rupa Publications.
Introducing Vajpayee. (2018, August 17). The Indian Express, p.13.
Image credit: NDTV
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