With the passing of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India has perhaps lost its last statesman from its midst. Along with Lal Krishna Advani, Vajpayee is credited with the rise and rise of the BJP from a mere 2 seats in 1984 to 85 seats in 1989, to the single largest party in 1996, to the ruling party till 2004. Vajpayee was indeed the most acceptable face for a party that was often seen as majoritarian and anti-minority. His moderate approach to vexing problems, scholarly image, incorruptible and statesman-like façade earned Bharatiya Janata Party – its first shot at power at the Centre in 1996.
Vajpayee was inclusive. Whether in ruling party or in the Opposition benches, he was acceptable to most parties across the political spectrum. Even while in Opposition, the ruling party trusted him to lead an Indian delegation to the UN for a discussion on the Kashmir issue. Even in the Ayodhya issue, he never took a strident or a hostile one. During his tenure as the Prime Minister, speaking on the eighth anniversary – he made a veiled remark – “kaam adhura rah gaya hai” (the work remains unfinished). As the Opposition and even his own allies went up in protest, he clarified the next day saying he meant that the issue is still to be resolved, and was not referring to the temple construction. Such were his disarming ways that he earned respect from all parties, irrespective of their political hue.
Vajpayee was a peacenik at heart. As the External Affairs Minister, and later as the Prime Minister of the country, he tried to take India’s neighbours along. He signed the historic Lahore Declaration with Nawaz Sharif that in effect, mitigated a nuclear standoff between the two neighbours. His Agra summit with the then President of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, embarrassingly resulted in nothing. Before Agra summit, Vajpayee’s Lahore bus trip was followed by the Kargil conflict, where Pakistani infiltrators were successfully beaten back by the Indian troops.
While he believed in peace, he lost no opportunity to assert nationalist credentials. He conducted nuclear tests in Pokhran, which riled up Pakistan so much they retaliated by conducting nuclear tests on their own. He successfully managed to package the Kargil conflict as a betrayal by Pakistan, and celebrated the victory by declaring it as Vijay Diwas (Victory Day).
It is certainly not a fact that his tenure as the Prime Minister was smooth and free of controversies. But such was the persona of the man that none of them left a taint on his image. His biggest challenge came during the 2002 communal riots of Gujarat, where he was reportedly mulling action against the state government, and eventually did not take any action – allegedly due to pressures from within the party and the RSS.
Vajpayee always gave the other parties their due when required. After Indira Gandhi won the 1971 war liberating Bangladesh, he reportedly equated Indira Gandhi to the Hindu Goddess Durga. In one of his iconic speeches as the Prime Minister, he lauded the country’s progress in its first fifty years – refusing to deny credit to the prior Congress regimes the credit of having led India’s development.
In 1996, Vajpayee’s BJP became the single largest party with 161 seats. But such was BJP’s untouchability factor that he could not seek the numbers from anywhere. Principled man that he was, he stepped down after 13 days paving the way for the disastrous experiment of two successive United Front governments, propped up by the Congress. The failure of the UF governments brought Vajpayee back to power, this time for 13 months before he was undone by the withdrawal of support by AIADMK.
In Vajpayee’s death, the country has lost its last statesman – a man who rose above party politics in the larger interests of the nation, the poet-politician with his heart in the right place, a man with an unique and unmatched ability to draw respect, acceptance, even admiration from his political adversaries, a man who many think took charge of the country – a tad late in his life.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee will sorely be missed. As they say, they don’t make politicians like him anymore. Rest in peace, sir.