Vajpayee: A Great Statesman In The ‘Right’ Party

by Aravindan Neelakandan - Aug 16, 2018 07:08 PM +05:30 IST
Vajpayee: A Great Statesman In The ‘Right’ PartyAtal Bihari Vajpayee 
Snapshot
  • Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the ‘Pradhan Swayamsevak’ Indians looked up to, and are proud of.

It is a day no one who saw it on their TV sets would forget. The man slowly walked up to a podium in the garden at the back of his house. He was dressed in white dhoti-kurta and a blue jacket. The Indian prime minister stood before the press and said, in English, “I have to make a brief announcement.”

He put on his spectacles and read calmly, and casually, that on the day, at 15:45 hours, India had conducted three nuclear tests.

In 1995, with American satellites keeping a vigilant eye on India, the then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao could not conduct nuclear tests. What Rao hoped to do but could not was accomplished by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The satellites were deceived by the ingenuity of Indian experts, and the tests were conducted.

Trade sanctions followed, and so did international outrage. But Vajpayee had shown that India could withstand it all and grow despite the sanctions.

One quality that struck anyone who saw and heard Vajpayee speak was the child-like nature he exuded. His oration was sublime, and simply an art in itself. When in the middle of a sentence he paused, with those closed eyes, the audience knew something wonderful was going to be expressed. You did not have to know Hindi. Somehow, Vajpayee's words transcended linguistic barriers and spoke to the heart.

In the Nehruvian polity, where dynastic stranglehold on democracy had mutilated it, the rise of Vajpayee to become the prime minister of India, and the first non-Congress prime minister to govern for six straight years, was like a shot in the arm for Indian democracy.

Even before becoming the prime minister, Vajpayee as leader of opposition had contributed to one of the finest diplomatic victories of India, resulting in a great personal achievement for then-prime minister Rao.

In 1993, Rao made Vajpayee the leader of the official Indian delegation to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) session conducted in Geneva, where India faced trouble from Pakistan – our neighbour was determined to internationalise the Kashmir issue. The victory that Vajpayee and team, set up by Rao, secured for India was phenomenal. It was the moment when the statesman in Vajpayee was presented to the world at large.

Looking back, one sees that the attacks made on Vajpayee during his term of six years and 13 days are not qualitatively different from the visceral attacks made on Modi today. Of course, there was no social media back then. I remember anti-Vajpayee posters with ‘Kollywood’-worthy mugshots put up across certain towns in Tamil Nadu that read: “Even Hitler promised stable government.”

That was seen during the election campaign which would install the first government of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA-I).

Then, there were regular columns in newspapers and magazines attacking the government for nearly everything they did. When the unfortunate Dara Singh-Graham Staines incident occurred, the media, both national and international, unleashed a media war against Vajpayee. Some of those videos targeting Vajpayee, quoting him out of context and trying to show that he, too, was in the know of the demolition plan for the disputed structure in Ayodhya, are available even today in the media.

A typical strategy of the establishment media – plucking a word out of an interview with the person and then using it as a recurring label (like Modi’s “56-inch chest”) – was even more in play during Vajpayee’s time. Thus, he became the mukhauta or the mask. Every one who knew Vajpayee, including journalists who used the term, knew he could never be someone else’s mask. He had put his foot down wherever he felt the principles he adhered to were challenged. Yet, the term was repeatedly used in newspaper columns and TV debates – even cartoons were drawn to this effect – to make people feel like Vajpayee’s persona was just a mask he wore and nothing else.

Persuasive speakers often turn into terrible administrators when they come to power. And those who perform, so to speak, seldom have the ability to connect with the masses and mesmerise them. Vajpayee was a rare blend of both a master orator and master administrator. He could visualise the needs of the nation and then get to work so that the vision would materialise.

A case in point is the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY). Though it never received the same attention as the Golden Quadrilateral project, it triggered economic growth and welfare for rural India significantly. Vajpayee rightly picked Nitin Gadkari, who was then the public works department minister in Maharashtra, as the chairman of the National Rural Road Development Committee. As a minister, he had convinced the government to allocate Rs 700 crore for a rural road connectivity project and worked to connect 13,736 villages by road.

Vajpayee came from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) school of thought. The way he looked at the country’s neighbours, particularly Pakistan, was an example of his deeply ingrained RSS ideology. While many outsiders influenced by old media think that the RSS call for Akhand Bharat is a militaristic expansionist fantasy, only the insiders know that the approach is mostly a pacifist one. The idea is, without compromising on India’s interests, we need to reach out to the Indicness in the hearts of the people of Pakistan, whom the Sangh considers as suffering from an artificial partition. One may or may not agree with this view. But from the ‘bus diplomacy’ of Vajpayee to the ‘satellite diplomacy’ of Modi, the underlying philosophy is that of the RSS. Which is why even in the much-lauded confidence-building measures he took with Pakistan, Vajpayee was primarily a swayamsevak.

The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence and army realised the dangers of an uncompromising Indian leader reaching out, in a heartfelt way, to Pakistanis. Hence, Kargil. But when the conflict took place, Vajpayee showed that while India seeks peace, it could also become fierce and uncompromisingly tough. Even as the main opposition under Sonia Gandhi was flying balloons in the streets of Delhi deriding Vajpayee, he kept his eyes on winning the war, both military and diplomatic. Soon, Vajpayee was able to corner Pakistan diplomatically while the army went on to oust Pakistan’s army from its territory, unfurling the tricolour peak after peak.

At the height of the conflict, United States (US) President Bill Clinton kept Vajpayee briefed on US-Pakistan talks over the crisis. When he invited Vajpayee to Washington to be party to an American mediation, Vajpayee rejected the offer and withstood US pressure. The limited conflict with the use of the air force in difficult altitudes went on till 26 July 1999 when India officially declared the restoration of the Line of Control.

As a Reuters journalist and an observer of Pakistan put it, “For all its bravado, Pakistan had failed to secure even one inch of land.”

Vajpayee was the quintessential lover of life. Puritans and gossip-mongers used to spread all kinds of rumours about him, but people and even the supposedly prudish RSS simply ignored these rumours and allegations. In fact, the colour and vibrancy of his personal life made him a complete human being in the eyes of the people. It is also to the credit of the RSS that the organisation which works fundamentally based on ideals and not personalities nurtured the evolution of Vajpayee, ultimately making him the first swayamsevak to head the Indian state.

Let us also recall clearly (as many try to claim credit for it) that it was Vajpayee who was behind the reopening of Kailash Manasarovar to Hindus, though the former prime minister never himself claimed credit. The brief and aborted (because of Chinese intrusion into Vietnam) official visit in 1979 that Vajpayee made as the foreign affairs minister in then Morarji Desai government opened several fronts for Sino-Indian cooperation. At that time in his talks with his Chinese counterpart Huang Hua, Vajpayee “made a fresh suggestion that if the Chinese authorities would extend adequate facilities to Indian pilgrims to visit Kailash and Manasarovar, it would be regarded as a symbol of China's desire to improve relations with India.”

And today, we remember that Atal Bihari Vajpayee who, as a teenage student in class 10, wrote the lines: “Hindu Tan Man, Hindu Jeevan, Rag Rag Hindu Mera Parichay”; that pracharak who slept away the cold nights of the Hindi heartland in the railway stations of north India; as a prime minister who led India into the nuclear power club; as someone who got the Chinese government to open the Kailash-Manasarovar for Hindu pilgrimage; as an individual who took special interest in the Indian space programme, reaching out for the moon and clearing all hurdles to get there; as someone who launched India’s most exhaustive cost-effective schooling programme; and as one who dreamed of connecting Indian villages through quality roads to prosperity, thus transforming rural India forever.

He is the Pradhan Swayamsevak we are all proud of.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.

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