Omar Abdullah is right. The UPA should have risen above politics and conferred the Bharat Ratna on former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee — as the Narendra Modi government is reportedly proposing to do. It is a befitting honour for a distinguished life that featured many parts: As a feisty younger contemporary of Jawaharlal Nehru, a brilliant parliamentarian, an astute foreign affairs thinker and a moderniser within the BJP who went on to be a highly influential prime minister.
Mr Vajpayee has many legacies to be proud of. The one that stands out is his decorum and civility which is sadly in short supply today. As opposed to the genteel politics espoused by Mr Vajpayee, today’s public discourse has become shrill and antagonistic where no one really seems to listen to each other or indeed come up with reasoned arguments. He is in many ways a true coalition politician who understood the value of working with opponents. He is an exemplar for parties across the spectrum though they seem to have forgotten that brand of politics. By being, unusually, a moderate conservative with liberal inklings, Mr Vajpayee helped mainstream right-of-centre politics in ways that were unimaginable in the early 1990s. Mr Vajpayee’s tenure as prime minister and his handling of the NDA coalition recast India and moved the BJP beyond its problematic post-Babri Masjid identity. His foreign affairs initiatives were truly outstanding. He conducted nuclear tests which transformed India’s status in the world. His Pakistan policy was notable for its sagacity. He signed the landmark Lahore Declaration in 1999, recovered the heights of Kargil through war and diplomacy but did not let Indian troops cross the Line of Control; he ordered a massive troop build-up after the 2001 terrorist attack on Parliament and surprisingly negotiated a LoC ceasefire with Pakistan which held for more than a decade. Mr Vajpayee’s approach to Kashmir was unprecedented too; his remark “hum in sab ke saath insaniyat ke daayre mein baat karenge”— that his government will speak to all political formations “within the ambit of humanity” is still the promise that Kashmiris hope that New Delhi will abide by.
The maturity he displayed, his rhetorical flourishes and elliptical phrases to counter opponents and entertain crowds are rarely seen anymore. Mr Vajpayee’s mode of leadership ushered in a form of federal politics, marked by an assertion of regional parties and interests while retaining the authority of the prime minister. There were failures too — such as not acting to stop the 2002 Gujarat riots — but there’s little doubt that Mr Vajpayee is a genuinely historic figure who shaped a period in modern India. His style and tenor of politics is a template for BJP politicians to aspire to.