The symbolism of Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Ullekh NP | 11 Jan, 2017
SEVERAL REASONS WERE doled out by the BJP as well as political pundits to explain the defeat of the party in the 2004 elections. A section of the RSS derived a strange pleasure from berating Vajpayee, saying his ‘soft’ political stance and reforms-oriented approach that led to the widening of economic inequality and concomitant rural distress were major underlying factors for the rout. The affluence and the upward mobility brandished in the expensive, far-from-reality ‘India Shining’ campaign spearheaded by Pramod Mahajan boomeranged because it had failed to strike a chord with both the aspiring middle classes and the underclass, they argued. Pro-Vajpayee leaders sought to put the blame on bouts of acute drought, nationwide minority consolidation triggered by the Gujarat riots, alienation of fence-sitters, poor performance of the allies, especially in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and so on.
While they were still at it, Vajpayee arrived at the swearing-in of the new prime minister, Manmohan Singh, on 22 May 2004, looking distraught and shattered. The seventy-nine-year-old was clearly unwell and unsteady on his feet. Nobody had any doubt seeing the way he conducted himself there: his best years were over. When a Congress leader went up to him and touched his feet, Sonia Gandhi didn’t seem very pleased. In a sign of veiled rebuke, she apparently told the Congressman that she saw what he did. Her son Rahul also made an unkind remark about the incident. In that ivory-tower world of the privileged, Vajpayee was now an infirm leader facing the sunset of his life.
But history has a strange way of interpreting the present, by way of comparison. In that context, the text of Vajpayee keeps coming back, at times vehemently, as memories, as references, as jolts. For a schoolteacher’s son from a Gwalior suburb, who became an Arya Samaj member, an RSS full-timer, a Jana Sangh leader, a parliamentarian, the founding president of the BJP, the leader of the Opposition and then the first non-Congress prime minister to complete a full term in office, Vajpayee’s best years were the very best, and his ascent, especially the final laps, to the subcontinental centre stage was dizzying. What was indeed remarkable was his transformation from a rabid, fiery fighter for the Hindutva cause to Uncle Atal, an Asiatic statesman and a votary of peace in the region. It took him many decades to go up notch by notch, and he made the occasional preposterous statement, but he remained Teflon Vajpayee at the end of the day—undamaged and unperturbed.
His stint as PM was a turbulent period with nuclear-armed Pakistan engaged in frequent low-intensity wars with India that, at least twice, almost slipped into a full-fledged confrontation between the hostile neighbours. Yet, Vajpayee focused on infrastructure development, his pet scheme being a major road project to make movement of goods and services across the country less cumbersome. For the Golden Quadrilateral programme, he adopted a new formula: of financing projects through a road cess. In hindsight, he is perhaps the first Indian ruler since sixteenth- century Sur emperor Sher Shah Suri, who built the historic Grand Trunk Road, to have kick-started a mammoth road project connecting India’s east and west, south and north. In their 2011 paper titled ‘India’s Decade of Development’, Nirupam Bajpai and Jeffrey D. Sachs list several of Vajpayee’s initiatives—along with some by the government that followed his—as path- breaking for India’s development. ‘Never has [independent] India had a decade-long phase when such relevant, much needed, large-scale public programs in so many critical sectors have come together for the development of India in general and rural India in particular,’ the authors aver, adding, ‘First, in the roads sector, the Golden Quadrilateral project and the Prime Minister’s Village Road Scheme were launched in 2000; second, in the education sector, Education for All campaign was launched in 2001; third, in the field of drinking water, the Swajaldhara scheme was launched in 2002; fourth, in the health sector, the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) was launched in 2005; fifth, in the rural electrification sector, the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana; and sixth, in the rural infrastructure sector, Bharat Nirman was launched in 2005 among others. It is our view that all of these programs coming together as they did over the last decade have the capacity to produce and in some cases have begun producing real results and therefore need to be strengthened with much higher levels of public spending and sectoral reforms so as to improve service delivery.’
Vajpayee as prime minister also streamlined the tax system, and brought in the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act to cut revenue and fiscal deficit to viable levels so as to improve the health of the economy. He initiated various reform moves, including raising FDI cap in sectors such as insurance to meet the growing challenges in Indian industry. He was the one who offered much respite for telecom companies, giving them a great opportunity to expand by introducing the scheme that allowed them to pay a percentage of revenue, instead of a fixed amount, as the fee for using airwaves, a state asset. It was his telecom policy that reduced charges for calls and allowed private players to supply services that were once the monopoly of the government. It was Vajpayee’s vision that led to the rapid growth of the use of mobile phones in the country. By the time he remitted office in 2004, mobile phone connections had overtaken fixed-line ones. If we are now happily flashing smartphones and making long-distance calls from Paradip in Odisha to Reykjavik in Iceland with great ease, it is worth remembering that Vajpayee had a hand in bringing about this revolution. In their stellar book Cell Phone Nation, which traces India’s cell phone revolution from that distant day in 1995 when Sukh Ram, then minister of communications, made the first mobile phone call to then chief minister of West Bengal, Jyoti Basu, to recent years, authors Assa Doron and Robin Jeffrey credit Vajpayee for getting rid of outdated telecom policies. Writes the duo: ‘It took another six years (after 1995) for Prime Minister Vajpayee’s BJP-led government to abandon earlier telecom policies and knock holes in some of the barriers that kept private capital out of the mouth- watering mobile phone business. Once that happened, the figures were spectacular. In 2003, India had 13 million mobile-phone subscribers; by 2008, it had 261 million, a 20-fold increase in five years. By 2013, the figure trebled again to 868 million.’
His reign was also the period that more Indians began to have a sizeable disposable income—or if not, at least aspire to it— leading to a major churning in their political outlook as well. As the wealthy became wealthier, a sense of restlessness and disquiet grew among the have-nots, a desire to overcome their odds and be seen as equal with the rest. The ruling class, which became far more pro-business in its policies than it used to be, left a host of new political problems in its wake.
Vajpayee, however, withstood pressure from the RSS and its feeder groups, which had a penchant for making acerbic attacks on his ministers and sometimes himself for straying from long- held beliefs. He was ready to talk to them, but not yield. He was a democratic PM who listened to each stakeholder before he had the last word. High economic growth during his time as PM also meant that foreign investments multiplied. For someone who embraced swadeshi politics in his youth and agreed with Indira Gandhi on bank nationalization, this was a huge departure. In fact, he let his political priorities as well as economic outlook go through a drill of unlearning. A Nehruvian who squirmed at nuclear stockpiling during the Cold War period, he favoured acquisition of nuclear capability in the new world order where he believed ‘strength respects strength’. For a firebrand who made provocative anti-Muslim speeches in Assam ahead of the Nellie massacre in the 1980s, he was downcast when Gujarat, in the twenty-first century, bred gut-churning politics of communal hatred. For an understudy of the ideologically fanatical S.P. Mookerjee who railed against the special status for Jammu and Kashmir, Vajpayee preached politics of love in the Valley, with the slogan, ‘Insaniyat aur Jamhooriyat (Humanity and Democracy) are keys to the progress of Jammu and Kashmir’. Vajpayee said in an Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, ‘In our search for a lasting solution to the Jammu and Kashmir problem, both in its external and internal dimensions, we shall not traverse solely on the beaten path of the past. Mindsets have to be altered and historic baggage jettisoned.’ He also got Pakistan back on the negotiating table in 2004 and endorsed India’s concerns, which Islamabad had not been ready to acknowledge in 2001, offsetting the failure of the Agra Summit.
But some habits die hard: Vajpayee couldn’t tolerate anyone trying to deftly put him down by calling him a man of progress (vikas purush) and his deputy Advani a man of steel (loh purush). He perceived an element of slight in the descriptor and could not stomach a ‘twin mascot’ perspective. As long as he was there, he was the only mascot. Advani mostly relented to his will and considered himself No. 2, much to the anguish of his camp followers. Perhaps, Advani could not forget—among others—the case of Nanaji Deshmukh, a fellow Sanghi, who despite being one of their most astute organizers, had to bow out of mainstream politics and pursue other interests simply because he and Vajpayee did not get along. Deshmukh, who was otherwise a do-gooder, had to contend with writing long letters to the RSS leadership about his plight.
Vajpayee was as ruthless with his critics and detractors in his youth as he was towards the fag end of his career. While Venkaiah Naidu had to withdraw his loh purush-vikas purush statement, Govindacharya, once celebrated as the BJP’s Chanakya, had to beat a hasty retreat from active politics for stating that Vajpayee was a mask. Indeed, Vajpayee remained ambitious to the core, worsting rivals in intra-party intrigue. All through his career, he remained a Janus-faced schemer to his enemies. He decimated opposition without confrontation. On the other hand, his benevolent presence attracted newer allies into the BJP fold. He used his extraordinary powers of persuasion and goodwill in winning friends to prove that even the BJP could have partners and come to power.
His term was not without its share of controversies. Yashwant Sinha, who had handled two key portfolios, finance and external affairs, in the Vajpayee ministry from 1998–2004, confesses that several unscrupulous corporates had penetrated the PM’s office in his time. ‘Vajpayee was not all that successful [in keeping them at bay] . . . but whenever it came to his notice, he took action. For example, he shifted Pramod Mahajan [known to be close to the Ambanis] out of the telecom ministry,’ Sinha says. But his son- in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya, and friend and national security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, were not to be touched, an ill-advised posturing that strained relations within his Cabinet which often complained of their ‘extraconstitutional’ powers. Being generous, Vajpayee also offered plum posts to his friends and a national honour to the surgeon who replaced his knees.
But towards the end of his six-year term, his influence within the party of which he was the founder-chief began to slide drastically. He couldn’t get his choice of candidate, Krishna Kant, made the President of India, and had to bend to his party’s will. With Advani, once a close ally, gaining in strength, he felt his numero uno position in the party slipping away, once again, as it did in the late 1980s and ’90s. Perhaps the man who had evolved quickly and rose to prominence by virtue of his ability to adapt failed to grasp the new dynamics of politics greatly influenced by the 9/11 terrorist attack in the US, an incident that legitimized various actions— especially toxic Muslim-bashing and xenophobia—that were considered politically incorrect until then.
By 2005, Vajpayee began to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s, the disease that would soon leave him debilitated. He started forgetting things—but then, one could never know whether he did it deliberately. While he was in Bihar in 2005, he was asked to formally declare Nitish Kumar as the chief ministerial candidate. His assistant handed him a piece of paper while he was addressing a rally in the state where he was expected to make the crucial announcement. But he didn’t. Maybe he had a reason not to do so. Maybe he just forgot.
Vajpayee retired from active politics in December 2005 in Shivaji Park, where in 1995, Advani had pitched him as the next PM. Ten years on, he passed the baton back to Advani. He described the Advani–Pramod Mahajan duo as the Ram–Lakshman of the BJP. But the politics within the confines of the party he and others had assiduously built had changed so rapidly that its new set of patrons had preferences of markedly different hues.
Now bedridden, incapacitated by a stroke in 2009, Vajpayee lives at 6A Krishna Menon Marg in Lutyens’ Delhi. His visitors include family members and close friends such as Appa Ghatate, and they insist that he can hear and understand them, even if he cannot speak. In 2015, he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian honour, by President Pranab Mukherjee. Atal’s companion, Rajkumari, passed away in 2014, surrounded by all her family except him—he was already in a semi-vegetative state by then. The politician with the soul of a poet could not bid farewell to the woman of his life—or maybe their bond was too sublime for a minor milestone such as death.
As someone used to making long, well-prepared speeches in Parliament, which he considered his temple, Vajpayee belonged to a generation of politicians who thought it was shameful to inordinately disrupt proceedings in the House and resort to ill-tempered bickering. He would not have made a name for himself as a distinguished statesman if the brute force of the ruling party had no tolerance for accommodating diverse views, and if it was not willing to discuss a wide range of subjects and respect scholarship. He thrived in a Nehruvian milieu and he understood the rigours of building and maintaining institutions. He understood liberal views like nobody else did, for he was one of their beneficiaries: when he and a handful of members of his party met Nehru and demanded a joint session of Parliament to discuss Chinese aggression in 1962, the prime minister of the day readily agreed, knowing fully well that he would be taken to task by the young leader who stood before him. As PM, Vajpayee may not have extended the courtesy his illustrious predecessors had offered him, but he cherished the values of dialogue and did go to any length to ensure the smooth functioning of Parliament as best he could.
Which is why even a ‘secular fundamentalist’ of the stature of Mani Shankar Aiyar misses him, and wrote an open letter to the former prime minister. The Congressman’s letter, published in February 2016 in the Indian Express, was a damning indictment of Vajpayee’s successors who, he thought, destroyed the values the former prime minister had stood for. He wrote:
Although your views were radically different to those of the Congress and shaped in substantial measure by your early association with the RSS, you shared with almost all other Indians the ethical values of the Freedom Movement. That is why you eschewed all extremism—particularly religious extremism—when many decades ago you came to office as foreign minister immediately after the Emergency . . . That is one reason why we need you when another BJP-led government has risen to office, with a larger majority than you ever enjoyed. Instead of seeking to bind the nation together, your successors are complicit in tearing to shreds the very soul of India.
Aiyar also shared an anecdote:
I well recall your fiery exchanges with the Dravidian leader, C.N. Annadurai, when he was elected to the Rajya Sabha in 1962, the same year as you, on a platform of Dravidian separatism. In his maiden speech, he made it unequivocally clear that his party wanted a separate Dravidastan to be carved out of the body of the Indian republic. I do not recall your pulling out a pistol to shoot him. You held your ground, particularly on the vexed question of Hindi as the national language, but neither interrupted him and shut him up, nor demanded that he be arrested under Section 124A [sedition] of the Indian Penal Code. You pitted argument against argument. Eventually, ‘Anna’ [elder brother], as he was and is fondly called in Tamil Nadu, changed his position and proclaimed Tamil Nadu as an integral part of Mother India. It was a conversion that has lasted because it was based on a genuine change of heart.
After the publication of the piece, Aiyar was heartened when Vajpayee’s daughter Namita told him that she was immensely touched by what he wrote on Baapji and that she had read it aloud to her father, hoping that he understood what was written about him and the priorities of his successors.
In the gameof comparison, others who want to be like Vajpayee tend to feel a yawning gap. He wasn’t the archetypal Hindu nationalist leader by any stretch of the imagination. He loved the good life: in his prime, he had enjoyed bhang and opium in moderation; he loved his drinks and dishes considered sinful to many of his compatriots. Certainly, he wouldn’t have approved of anyone sacrificing a tiger for his health, as well-wishers reportedly did for his speedy recovery when he was hospitalized. It is quite impossible to imagine him in the company of a fake godman like Chandraswamy or being part of black-magic rituals meant to rein in his enemies, like his good friend Narasimha Rao often did. Among his contemporaries, Vajpayee was a non-conformist with a resolute streak of irreverence for the conventional, contempt for the superstitious and unrelenting ambition that overshadowed his insecurities. True, Vajpayee made many mistakes, as his hero Nehru did before him, but he was as much a democrat as he was a revolutionary, and Indian politics would have been poorer without the sway of his rich contribution.
Old age should burn and rave at close of day
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
(Excerpted from The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox by Ullekh NP (Viking; Rs 599; 304 pages)