When Atal Bihari Vajpayee was finally elected for a full tenure in 1999, his detractors began to acknowledge his virtues (liberal, poet, orator, consensus builder) and denigrate his party and parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Yet the slogan, ‘right man in the wrong party’, was inaccurate as Vajpayee founded the Bharatiya Janata Party with L.K. Advani in 1980, after the Janata Party regime fell on the pretext of the Jan Sangh members’ affiliation with the RSS. From a nadir of two seats in 1984, the duo took the BJP to the top of the political pyramid in little over a decade; Modi led India’s first full majority government after 1984.
Vajpayee never wavered in his allegiance to the RSS. Handpicked by Deendayal Upadhyaya, Vajpayee’s potential as a non-Congress prime minister was recognised by Jawaharlal Nehru and he was nurtured by the Parivar, despite differences of perception (not substance) on some issues. Vajpayee may not have relished the forceful reclamation of the Ram Janmabhumi, but he didn’t want Ayodhya to be relinquished either.
After his demise, some critics alluded to grave failings; many praised him while snidely demeaning Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This writer believes that in the broad contours of their leadership, there is far more continuity than difference between Atalji and Modi. We need to nail the canard that Vajpayee failed by letting Modi continue after the Gujarat riots.
On January 26, 2001 a powerful earthquake struck Kutch district, flattening the town of Bhuj. Seeing Keshubhai Patel’s poor leadership, Narendra Modi was asked to takeover in October and focus on rehabilitation and reconstruction. The Godhra carnage of February 28, 2002 came out of the blue; the subsequent riots could hardly be called state-sponsored. Vajpayee would have had the sagacity to realise this and the wisdom to be silent through the orchestrated hysteria that has not subsided to this day. The fact that Parliament was attacked in December 2001 also needs to be factored into this equation.
Then, there is the allegation that the RSS worldview excludes Muslims. One writer has claimed that Vajpayee told Indira Gandhi that the RSS wanted Muslims to “join the mainstream”, and wondered what that means. The reply has been given by Narendra Modi: not pandering to false emotions by wearing a skullcap; encouraging modern education; protecting personal dignity by tackling triple talaq, nikah halala, and female genital mutilation; and respecting Rifleman Aurangzeb’s murder by quitting the debilitating coalition in Jammu and Kashmir.
Many admire Vajpayee’s leadership during the Kargil intrusion, especially his decision to confine the conflict to the Line of Control. Yet Vajpayee stood by the Air Force’s shooting down Pakistan’s surveillance aircraft, Atlantique, over the Rann of Kutch, on August 10, 1999 soon after the War. Congress president Sonia Gandhi had scoffed that Kargil was not a victory of the leadership (of BJP, Vajpayee). Time has made her more circumspect; the leader who did not allow the body of former prime minister P.V. Narasimha Rao into the party headquarters for public darshan came to pay respects to Atalji; Rahul Gandhi attended the funeral.
Post-Kargil, despite anger with Gen. Pervez Musharraf for the Kargil conflict, the October 1999 coup, continued sponsorship of cross-border terrorism and patronage of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that humiliated India in the episode of the IC 814 hijacking (December 24-31, 1999), Vajpayee made a grand gesture for peace by hosting Gen. Musharraf at Agra in July 2001. One reason was that in 1998, Vajpayee had undertaken a series of nuclear tests, to which Islamabad responded with copycat tests; hence there was need to lower temperatures. Indeed, this likely influenced Vajpayee’s decision to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at Lahore in 1999, the potential of which was undone by Gen. Musharraf. Anyway, the Agra summit ended in failure and in December, when Parliament was attacked, Vajpayee found the world far more responsive to the grim reality of cross-border terrorism against India.
Modi, too, has made grand gestures for peace, beginning his innings with an invitation to all heads of SAARC countries, plus Maldives, to attend his swearing-in ceremony, and attending Prime Minister Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding. But the military establishment did not allow any initiative to succeed. Oddly, Atalji and Modi have some mistakes in common, viz., the unreciprocated Ramzan ceasefire of November 2000 and 2018, in Kashmir. Both men strove for an understanding with Beijing despite hiccups; China invaded Vietnam when Vajpayee made his maiden visit as foreign minister; however as Prime Minister he established the Special Representative mechanism to cool border tensions.
Vajpayee got the diaspora to support the economy in the wake of American sanctions after the nuclear explosions; Modi has made the diaspora a pillar of his foreign policy. Both men have invested in relations with Washington, Moscow, and the neighbourhood. Atalji reached out to the military regime in Myanmar and also Bangladesh, and got insurgent camps shut down in both countries. Our ‘Neighbourhood First’ and ‘Act East’ policies are an extension of the ‘Look East’ policy. Above all, Atalji upgraded diplomatic ties with Israel, which have blossomed under Modi.
Surprisingly, even critics acknowledge that Atalji’s economic initiatives paved the way for India to experience 8 per cent growth; the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act 2003 laid the basis for macroeconomic responsibility; disinvestment happened in redundant or losing enterprises; the mobile revolution took off; and the 3-tier VAT that replaced excise duties was the precursor of the current GST regime. Moreover, the Modi government is continuing Vajpayee’s highly successful program of road connectivity, port connectivity, and all weather rural roads. Despite sincere efforts, both regimes have failed to assuage the plight of farmers, largely due to reliance on urban ‘experts’ with little connection to village India and traditional farming methods.
Atalji overcame a humble background (his father was a school teacher) and became a popular leader on the strength of an organisation that has been vilified for decades by the Lutyens elite. Serving stalwarts like Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Deendayal Upadhyaya, he rose through the ranks, ultimately leading India from the turn of the century into the 21st century. Modi’s origins are humbler (his father sold tea on a railway platform); his caste miniscule and virtually unknown. Rising without godfathers, he needed more grit and tenacity than charm and grace.
The Pioneer, 21 August 2018