The ‘Real’ Vajpayee: Shakti Sinha’s Memoir Is About The Man Behind The Politician
Former IAS officer Shakti Sinha had worked closely with Vajpayee, and his memoir discusses the impact this ‘rare’ politician left on India’s politics.
Shakti Sinha is an ex-IAS officer of 1979 batch who is currently involved in setting up two institutions, one a think tank (Atal Bihari Vajpayee Institute of Policy Research and International Studies, at MS University, Vadodara) and another, an academic Institution of Excellence (Delhi School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Delhi). Before this, he served as Director, India Foundation and Nehru Memorial Museum and Library.
Sinha worked closely with former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during 1996-1999. Now, he has written a memoir of that period titled Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India. We spoke to Sinha regarding his understanding of Vajpayee and how he left an impact on India’s politics and policy-making.
Excerpts from the interview
Q. Your book is about Vajpayee the man, his method and his legacy. Let’s talk about ‘Vajpayee the man’ first. Everyone has their own caricature of the man he was. Maybe it’s because (like all good politicians) he was skilled at projecting a different image of himself to different audiences. But who was the real Vajpayee? What constituted the ideological core of his worldview?
A. Vajpayee once said that though Sardar Patel had banned the RSS even though there were no grounds for the ban, he had very high regards for the Sardar as the person who made the Republic whole by the merger of the princely states. The point he was making was that for Vajpayee, loyalty to the motherland was supreme, and one’s political party and ideology were secondary to that.
Vajpayee’s literary tastes reveal this love for India, its people, its traditions and its sensibilities. He felt that there was no literary composition in the world that could rival Tulsi’s Ramcharitmanas. Poets like Jaishankar Prasad (Kamayani), Nirala and Mahadevi Verma moved him.
He found Premchand’s work relevant even 50-60 years after they were written, authors he liked included Jainendra and Ageya. He was inspired by historical fiction of Vrindavanlal Verma and dramas of Jaganath Milind, which portrayed Indian heroes like Maharana Pratap, Shivaji, Lakshmibai, Padmini and Mrignayni.
He deplored the caste system for dividing people, giving the example that there were more audience than fighters at the Battle of Plassey since only the Kshatriyas could fight. And he agreed very strongly with Babasaheb Deoras that if untouchability was not a sin, then there was no sin anywhere.
He was a proud member of the Sangh parivar, he described himself as lifelong swayamsevak. He said that it was wrong to describe him as the ‘right man in the wrong party’. How can you say that the fruit was sweet but the tree was bad, he argued.
Q. Vajpayee was unique in the sense that he had to navigate so many challenges and had to deal with different types of actors — representatives of foreign nations, demanding and irrational coalition partners who could unseat him any day and hardcore Hindutva elements within his own party. No other PM has had to navigate such adverse situations. How did he do it? What was his method?
A. I am not sure that I agree with the sentiment that there were people within his party who wanted to unseat him. But yes, there were different points of view, some reconcilable and some more difficult. His way of dealing with differences was to try and understand where the other point of view was coming from. As he said, you must stand in the shoes of Nawaz Sharif and try and appreciate the Pakistani point of view.
Similarly, I remember once when a number of allies were making life difficult for him and his government, far from criticising them, he publicly said that we must understand that regional parties feel neglected and that it was only natural that they were expressing their pent-up frustrations.
Q. Coming to Vajpayee’s legacy, your book covers only one and a half year period of his premiership from 1998-99. Yet you titled it as ‘years that changed Vajpayee’. What specific policies of his, implemented during that time, would you list that had a lasting positive impact on the country?
A. Five key take-aways why I think these one and a half years were years that changed India. One, he was not only the first genuine non-Congress prime minister that India ever had, but he also led BJP into the pole position of Indian politics. Since 1996, governments at the Centre are either BJP-led or formed to prevent the BJP from coming to power.
Two, India crossed the nuclear threshold, an oft-stated desire but then lacking the courage to do so, even though it was essential to secure India. The 25-year-old China-Pakistan nuclear and missile cooperation threatened India. The Non-Proliferation Treaty and the then recently concluded Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty had more or less closed the nuclear club, permanently disadvantaged India. This had to be undone, which we did.
Three, he extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan, as no other PM had done. This was necessary for three reasons — to demonstrate that India’s nuclear programme was not Pakistan focussed, to have a stable neighbourhood and to show the world that India would go that extra mile to trying for peace now that both countries had gone nuclear. This approach was to really help India.
Four, he reached out to the US, calling both countries as natural allies even as the US had imposed deep sanctions on India. India had to cope with a post-Soviet Union world, and also look to the future. Ultimately, India and the US would have greater convergence of interests and values, and must try and reduce their differences. It did not mean a military ally, but a strategic partner.
Five, during the Kargil War, while on the one hand India conducted a robust but responsible defence, on the other, it successfully resisted all calls for ceasefire till the Pakistani Army withdrew from all intrusions across the Line of Control (LoC) — a marked different picture from the situation in 1965 and 1971.
These five systemic and deep changes were not all obvious then but in retrospect, they changed India very substantially. It changed the way India saw itself and the world, and changed the way the world saw India.
Q. Vajpayee invested a lot of political capital in improving relations with Pakistan. Do you think the results of 2004 election could’ve been different had Vajpayee shifted gears on Pakistan after Parliament attack just like Modi did after Uri? BJP’s seat tally went down a lot in Hindi heartland (chiefly in UP). Maybe a Modi-like image on Pakistan could’ve helped prevent that slide of 42 seats which proved fatal?
A. Very valid point. However, let us also factor in specific states and see the situation. There was a total washout in 2004 in Tamil Nadu. In 1999, going with the DMK-PMK-MDMK, the BJP-led NDA had 25 seats. The BJP-AIADMK got zero in 2004. Similarly, the NDA collapsed in Andhra, going from 36 in 1999 to five in 2004.
Again, it was purely local factors, especially the index of opposition unity in Bihar-Jharkhand in 2004 that reduced the NDA from 41 in 1999 to 12 in 2004. And in UP, the BJP’s tally went down from 29, which was a low, to a much-worse 10 in 2004. A more aggressive posture towards Pakistan could have had effect in north Indian states and possibly Gujarat.
Q. While hawks have always criticised Vajpayee for not allowing IAF to cross LoC during the Kargil War, you argue that this went in India’s favour. How?
A. The world saw you as a responsible nuclear power and Pakistan as a dangerous one. The world therefore bought the Indian case that there would be no ceasefire till Pakistan withdrew. Else, there would have been a UN Security Council resolution on a ceasefire which India would have had to honour.
In 1971, the Soviet veto allowed us time to make the Pakistani Army surrender in Dhaka. In fact, then the UN General Assembly had voted 104-11 for a ceasefire but its resolutions are not binding. During Kargil, the US forced Pakistan to accept that its troops would withdraw at the famous Blair House talks on 4 July.
Even the Chinese were forced to keep quiet in view of Pakistan’s dangerous and reckless moves that could have escalated into a nuclear war. As a result, the war ended months earlier than otherwise, saving many casualties from happening.
Q. How do you view the nostalgia, even within the NDA, about the so-called golden times for ‘coalition dharma’ politics? This is truer today when all past allies of the BJP have left it (SAD, Shiv Sena, JDU left but came back, etc). These ex-partners of the BJP point to how great times were under Vajpayee for allies. But that time was not as rosy as is being made out to be. And everyone, from small to big partner, extracted whatever they could without caring for Vajpayee who they now hail. It was pure political opportunism rather than ideological bhaichara.
A. Such nostalgia is pure day dreaming, the reality was the opposite. Most of them made unreasonable demands and held up governance regularly. It was pure political opportunism.
Q. You write in the end that you disagree with a number of propositions in Vinay Sitapati’s book on Vajpayee-Advani? Can you list any specific disagreements?
A. I have recommended the book and suggested that more people read it, and also follow him in working on this theme. But yes, I cannot agree with all his propositions, some of it arises from his choice of respondents, a few of who had let time cloud their memories. These lead to misleading conclusions.
Q. You highlight a very important aspect about policy-making in India: politics driving policy. And you give example of Jhajjar thermal plant in Haryana (for which coal is coming from Odisha) and Bhatinda refinery (which gets its feedstock from the Persian Gulf). What other examples did you come across in your 40 years plus long career? Also, you took voluntary retirement in 2013 over disagreement with Delhi government’s power policy. How do you see the current Delhi government’s power policy as a keen observer of economic policies?
A. Too many to list here, which is why I celebrated the overdue demise of the Planning Commission. To cite just one, the coal and steel equalisation policy that denied mining states from benefitting from their location. But no, my reasons for quitting were different – I felt unwanted when some of those in power felt that I would be an obstacle in their rent-seeking behaviour. I had many highs working as a civil servant, so I really cannot complain. And so was happy to leave.
Q. “Like most upper middle class English speaking Indians, I too tended to underrate politicians”, you write in this book. This is so true for anyone who has watched politicians from up close. Have you learnt and adopted some good habits from politicians?
A. The ability to move from the ‘high’ to the ‘low’ for one. Another is their ability to connect with the people, at all times of the day and night. And their ability to see through superficial facades and pinpoint on what was the most relevant.
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