What will Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s prime minister from 1998 to 2004, head of India’s first full-term non-Congress coalition at the Centre, be best remembered for?
Some will say it was his great oratory, poetry that tugged at the heart-strings, that set him apart. Others will talk of his easy manners, avuncular personality and ability to appeal to politicians and people across the ideological divide. Strategic affairs experts and nationalists will mention his bold decision to cross the nuclear threshold in 1998, court international condemnation, and yet take India-US relations to new heights as his biggest achievement.
Yet others will highlight his stellar record in terms of economic reforms, with privatisation, the Fiscal Responsibility & Budget Management Act, and the opening up of the coal and electricity sectors as key milestones to applaud. That he left government in 2004 on a high note, with growth spiking significantly and inflation falling, speaks much for the quality of economic management under his leadership. One can contrast this with the mess left behind by United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2014 even after 10 years of managing a coalition.
Each one of these elements played its part in building the Vajpayee mystique and claims to Nehru-esque status, but the one area where one cannot ever diminish his contribution is this simple one: he ended the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) political untouchability, and, in the process, set up the scaffolding for creating the country’s only real alternate node to the Congress in national politics. Had Vajpayee not broken the untouchability of the BJP in 1998-1999, it is unlikely that the BJP could have produced a Narendra Modi as the most towering political personality today. L K Advani built the BJP to become the biggest national party after the Congress with his 1980s Rath Yatra and Hindu mobilisation which ended up with the demolition of the Babri Masjid 1992, but it needed a Vajpayee to end the untouchability of the party after this development. Nobody but Vajpayee – with his hands-off attitude to the Ram Janmabhoomi movement – could have pulled this off. It is not without reason that even today, when his supremacy is established, Modi prefers to paint himself in the colours of Vajpayee.
Another thing that separated Vajpayee from some of his contemporaries was his true centre-right position on economics, when almost every other prime minister, barring possibly P V Narasimha Rao, has been to the Left or Centre-Left. Even Narendra Modi, despite his solid record as a reformer, prefers to bill himself as a messiah of the poor, and not as an economic liberaliser. In its earlier avatar, the Jana Sangh was certainly Right-wing or Centre-Right, but after 1980, when the BJP re-emerged from the womb of the Janata Party, it adopted a vague term, Gandhian Socialism, as its defining ideology. It was left to Vajpayee’s 1998-2004 government to espouse economic reforms and privatisation as a core priority for the party. In this, Vajpayee was at odds with his Sanghi ideology.
The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) parivar’s economic ideology is a fuzzy mix of anti-consumerist socialism combined with Swadeshi ideas. As the promoter of the country’s largest trade union, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Sangh can hardly be accused of favouring free markets and laissez faire. While Vajpayee did not formulate any clear set of economic ideas for the party, post-1999 and the Pokhran nuclear blasts of 1998, Vajpayee used the global economic sanctions as a goad to embrace economic reforms, including privatisation.
In a sense, he was the man of the hour in 1998 just as Narasimha Rao was in 1991, when the country was close to external bankruptcy. Rao used that crisis as an opportunity to reform the economy, just as Vajpayee did in 1998, and in this both were cut from the same cloth. Neither was noted for being pro-market, but both accepted that as a reality when the situation so demanded. Vajpayee was a pragmatic man.
It was often said that Vajpayee was the right man in the wrong party, but this would only be a half-truth. Many ideologues in his own party might have seen him as the wrong man in the right party, with some of his internal critics calling him the party’s mask (mukhauta), not the real thing. While he was certainly a moderate, and some segments of the Sangh doubted his commitment to the Hindutva cause, Vajpayee was a nationalist to the core, as proved repeatedly from the Pokhran blasts to his leadership of the Kargil War, when India scored a clear diplomatic victory over Pakistan.
As a moderate man in a party with strong ideological instincts, he could compromise more with his rivals than anyone else in his party. This was why Advani saw him as the man to lead the party to power as head of a coalition despite his own larger contributions to building the BJP’s power in the 1980s.
In part, Vajpayee’s moderate image was an extension of the easy way he carried himself. Unlike the stern personalities of Advani and even Modi today, Vajpayee always came across as intensely human, with his endearing faults and weaknesses (a little tipple here, a nibble at forbidden fried stuff there), and an even more endearing sense of self-deprecation. His political adversaries were never his enemies, just people with different viewpoints. He was incapable of vendetta politics. He was not the kind to drive even his opponents to the wall. He could thus allow a Sonia Gandhi and the Congress party to escape the clutches of the Bofors scandal, for he could let bygones be bygones.
In 1999, he took the bus to Lahore in the hope of bringing peace between India and Pakistan, but this was followed by the Kargil War and the Indian Airlines aircraft hijack. Even so, he agreed to hold a summit with Pervez Musharraf in Agra in 2001, and almost agreed to many giveaways in order to buy peace. Luckily, Advani put his foot down, and the summit did not end with one-sided benevolence. In fact, by the end of the year, the Indian Parliament itself was attacked, forcing Vajpayee to abandon his soft approach to Pakistan. Modi has followed the Vajpayee line by holding out an olive branch, and then getting it slapped away, courtesy the Pakistani Army.
In the Kargil War, even though India had the moral right to take the war into Pakistani territory, Vajpayee ordered his armed forces not to cross the line of control. In the Kandahar airline hijack, he allowed the release of dreaded terrorists in order to obtain the safe return of Indian citizens from Afghanistan. One must admit that the Indian crisis management group botched the hijack by allowing the plane to fly out of India to hostile Afghanistan, then ruled by the Taliban, but that is another story.
In many ways, one should say, Vajpayee let his emotions rule hard logic. But one can’t hold him alone guilty of this weakness. It has been part and parcel of India’s DNA from Nehru down to Modi.
If one were to step back and look at Vajpayee over his more than seven-decades-long political career, first as the boldest voice against Nehruvian sentimentalism in strategic affairs in the initial years after Independence, and then as the new Nehru in the BJP camp, one can come to this conclusion: he was a nationalist, but not an extreme one. His stance was about a rooted Bharatiyata, a middle ground between deracinated and empty secularism and aggressive Hindutva. He was a formidable politician, but not one with a killer instinct. He could stoop to conquer.
However, one has to pay a tribute to his lifelong political companion too. Without the grassroots work of Advani to build the party, it would be difficult to imagine a Vajpayee soaring above the rest. The contrast between a hard ideologue and a soft moderate made it easier for Vajpayee to be more acceptable across the political aisles. It was the existence of an Advani by his side that made Vajpayee the man to choose.
We should not forget this when lauding Vajpayee as the man at the heart of India’s civilisational and economic resurgence in the 21st century.