Op-Ed: Vajpayee: A Colossus Among Pygmies

It has been a long-standing Indian tradition not to speak ill of the dead, no matter how unsavoury some of the deeds of the person in his lifetime were. So, let us discount all that has been said about Atal Bihari Vajpayee since he breathed his last at AIIMS, New Delhi at 5.05 pm on Thursday (and all that will be said about him in the next few days). Let us try recollecting anything disparaging said about the great man when he was very much in the thick of things, navigating in the cesspool that Indian politics is. The worst such instance that I can recollect was a cover story in Outlook magazine that accused the Vajpyaee PMO – not Vajpayee, one must emphasise – of masterminding the raids on its premises and a typically trenchant critique of the Pokhran nuclear test in May, 1998 by the perennial dissident, Arundhati Roy, in the same magazine.

Even when he was very much in the hurly burly of politics, his political rivals always treated him with a lot of respect, bordering on veneration. The oft-repeated view that he was ‘the right man in the wrong party’ tells us as much about the man as it does about the party. How a man who started his long political career as a shakha-attending RSS cadre and was a member of the Jan Sangh and the BJP, its reincarnation, all his life, came to acquire the liberal, humanist and internationalist worldview that was the very antithesis of all that his alma mater stood for – and earned the respect of the world for it – is one of the abiding mysteries of Indian politics that has not been adequately studied or explained so far. He and Lal Krishna Advani were the closest of buddies for 65 years, steadfast in their friendship through thick and thin. But unlike Vajpayee, Advani could never really shake off his image of a hard-line Hindutva warrior and therefore was never acceptable to other parties like his good friend. He was the rare ‘Ajatashatru’ (one without an enemy) in Indian politics.

Vajpayee was the quintessential liberal and democrat in the Nehruvian mould, always courteous to the opponent, tolerant of dissent and above petty, parochial party considerations that have become the norm these days. Not for nothing was he chosen by Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao to head the Indian delegation to present India’s case on Kashmir at the UN convention on human rights in Geneva in 1994. Much earlier, Nehru had seen the spark in the young Vajpayee in his very stint as a parliamentarian and had prophesied that he would become the Prime Minister of the country some day, a prediction that came true four decades later.

On his part, Vajpayee was equally generous in lavishing praise on his opponents, paying glowing tributes to Nehru in Parliament on his death and describing Indira Gandhi as Goddess Durga after India’s victory in the Bangladesh war in 1971. No other BJP leader could have done that and yet gone on to occupy the Prime Minister’s chair. Nor would anyone else in the party have the courage of conviction to publicly chide the ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ at the height of the Gujarat pogrom. [The sheer irony of it! The incumbent Prime Minister, who blames Nehru for all that is wrong with the country half a century after he died and the man who was all praise for him in Nnehru’s lifetime belonged to the same party!] One just has to recall what happened to Advani after he suddenly discovered his liberal self and described, in a moment of candour, Jinnah as ‘secular’ on a visit to Pakistan. But then, Vajpayee was special. He did not need the crutches of RSS to prosper nor did he shy away from repudiating its economic worldview.

It is painful to see how much the quality of parliamentary debate has deteriorated since Vajpayee went out of the scene. I had the good fortune of listening to him in person and on TV on numerous occasions. But the one that comes to mind immediately is the stirring speech he delivered during the debate on the confidence vote in Parliament in his first, 13-day long stint as Prime Minister in 1998 at the end of which he announced his resignation. Oratory was crucial to Vajpayee’s politics. And the long pauses – often with his eyes closed – that were his trademark were as important to his oratory as the words themselves. Vajpayee had this uncanny knack of coming up with the most appropriate word or expression every time he paused while making a speech. The poetic flourish that was his hallmark lent his speeches a rare aesthetic quality that has not been matched by any other Indian politician, including his idol Nehru.

His achievements as Prime Minister speak for themselves; Pokhran, Indo-US ties, second generation reforms in the economy, efforts to mend ties with Pakistan, the victory in the Kargil War, the Prime Minister’s Gram Sadak Yojana, the Golden Quadrilateral highway, the Antyoday scheme for the poorest of poor .. one could go on and on. Even the one blemish during his reign as Prime Minister – the abject surrender to terrorists during hostage drama at Kandahar – can be attributed to and explained away as his desire to ensure that no Indian lives were lost. It was the humanist in him that goaded him to take the decision he did: of swapping three dreaded terrorists for more than 150 passengers of the IC 814 plane that had been hijacked.

Vajpayee was a colossus surrounded by pigmies and has set the bench mark for his successors. The legacy that he has left is already fraying at the edges. But it will always be the gold standard against which all subsequent political leaders will be judged.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).

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