Atal Behari Vajpayee receives his Bharat Ratna today. An assessment of the man, his achievements, and his failings.
Barring a few thoughtful voices who have offered a nuanced criticism of his regime for its failings, the level of veneration that Atal Behari Vajpayee enjoys among a large section of mainstream Indian right wing has resulted in mostly uncontested hagiographical accounts about him and his NDA government.
Of course, he was also often unfairly subjected to vicious criticism from a section of hardline Hindutva proponents who blame him for what they saw as ideological compromises he made to stay in power and for the lack of progress in advancing the ‘core Hindu’ agenda. Some of the most virulent attacks Vajpayee had to face also came from the angry, old vanguard of the Sangh. That bitter patriarch of the Hindu Labour movement Dattopant Thengdi had even described Vajpayee as a “petty politician playing into the hands of his policy advisers with doubtful credentials”.
Any balanced appraisal of Vajpayee would have to necessarily acknowledge the man’s failings while celebrating his many triumphs
Vajpayee’s cultivated cultural finesse, his poetical flourishes, his avuncular persona and several instances of nationally televised oratorical brilliance combined to earn him enormous goodwill among the populace and considerable respect across the political spectrum. The Golden Quadrilateral project, envisioned and executed by his government, contributed significantly to solidify his positive legacy. Policy innovations of Vajpayee’s government sparked off India’s telecom revolution. And to his credit, he sagaciously ran the first successful coalition government of India – a onerous task given that the NDA comprised fractious parties with divergent agendas.
By choice and conviction, the Vajpayee-led NDA was perhaps the only time India had a government ideologically committed to right-wing economics. Many distinguished economists credit his government’s economic policies for India’s sustained GDP growth rate of over 8% from 2003-2007. Under the NDA government, companies were privatized via strategic sale, taxation was rationalized, foreign exchange rules were relaxed, capital markets and insurance reforms were executed and the government even proposed to privatize PSU banks and liberalize India’s strangulating labour laws. Plans to privatize Air India and the oil marketing companies could not materialise—had they succeeded, the national exchequer would have saved several trillion rupees.
But it was not that Vajpayee or his government was without blemishes.
Vajpayee had this remarkable ability to usurp entire credit for the various notable achievements of his government while his spinmasters conveniently scapegoated others for the glaring acts of omission and commission. For instance , in the popular narrative, the shameful surrender at Kandahar after the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight came to be identified with Advani, though it was well known that the latter fiercely opposed the release of the militants, which was the hijackers’ demand. Vajpayee enjoyed a great press thanks to his PMO’s self-serving embrace of Delhi media establishmentarians and he did not nothing to challenge the charade enacted by the friendly section of his media machinery—good Vajpayee vs bad BJP
Vajpayee’s greatest failing perhaps was a failure to create an alternative ecosystem that accommodated the forces that drove him to power. As the perspicacious Swapan Dasgupta once observed, “Vajpayee, who many in the BJP regarded as a closet Nehruvian, was anxious to inherit the old establishment rather than forge a counter-establishment. Despite initial fears of a ‘right wing takeover’ that some hardened secularists did their utmost to spread, the genial Vajpayee was neither a Margaret Thatcher nor a Ronald Reagan. The NDA regime’s contribution to nurturing alternative political worldviews was extraordinarily unimpressive.”
The astounding personal popularity that Vajpayee enjoyed also camouflaged BJP’s political eclipse in the Hindi heartland state of UP, revival of which had to wait until the spectacular Modi-Shah campaign in 2014. While facile political punditry continues to superficially attribute a multitude of reasons for the electoral decline of BJP in 2004, the single most significant political blunder that led to the dramatic fall in parliamentary seats was the marginalization and subsequent expulsion of Kalyan Singh—a powerful OBC leader who brilliantly blended social engineering strategies with purposeful governance, albeit for a short period. A battery of electorally irrelevant upper caste leaders, blessed by Vajpayee, staged a revolt against Kalyan Singh, which finally resulted in his exit from the party. A much chastened Kalyan Singh returned later, but he was a pale imitation of his original political personality.
Vajpayee had often displayed exemplary personal courage—for instance during the 1984 Sikh riots. His government was daring in challenging the discriminatory nuclear order by performing the tests at Pokhran and then skilfully navigated through the geopolitical consequences of that decision. But Vajpayee also often resorted to humming rhetorical poetry rather than confront situations which required morally unambiguous positions to be asserted or needed concrete action.
Vajpayee’s PMO turned out of be a den of political intrigue and dubious deal making featuring his foster son-in-law who was often in the eye of several controversies. His key aide Brajesh Mishra later turned out to a huge embarrassment for the BJP. Through his irresponsible sound-bytes, he lent himself well to media in their attempts to tarnish the BJP.
Vajpayee was a tired man by the time he had assumed office, but that was understandable. Along with other stalwarts, he had meticulously built a political formation, traversing the length and breadth of the country, motivating cadres when there was not even a glimmer of hope of capturing political power. That the BJP was the only political force that has survived and flourished, to challenge and eventually uproot the Congress party, is testimony to the blood,sweat and toil of Vajpayee and millions of BJP/Sangh cadres. Vajpayee surely deserves a place under the sun for this achievement alone—of fashioning a viable political alternative.
(With inputs from Rajiv Mantri)
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