Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a consensus-builder
But he only began to mellow in the 1970s when experience convinced him divisive politics would destroy Indiaanalysis Updated: Aug 17, 2018 11:30 IST
According to legend, Henry Kissinger asked Chou-en-Lai in 1972 what he thought the impact the French Revolution had been on Western civilisation.
Apparently, Chou thought about it for a minute and then turned to Kissinger and said: “It is too soon to tell.”
Something like that could well be said about the legacy of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s first BJP prime minister.
A few things, however, are clear. Judged on most parameters, Vajpayee was a great prime minister. The economy flourished during his reign. Despite the usual betrayals by Pakistan (his historic Lahore trip was followed by Kargil and the Agra summit was a failure), Vajpayee improved India’s relations with America, Russia, China and much of the world.
A great consensus-builder, he worked closely with the opposition, avoided political invective and endeavoured to bring all Indians — not just Hindus — together in harmony.
After the nuclear test and the victory in Kargil, India began to be taken seriously as an emerging Asian power. It was under Vajpayee that the old hyphenation of India-Pakistan ended and a new one (that linked us with China (India-China) entered global usage.
So, on that score, there can be no debate. He was certainly a far greater prime minister than IK Gujral who preceded him or his successor Manmohan Singh whose prime ministership ended in a welter of scandals, delivering a death blow to the Congress.
But Vajpayee’s legacy remains in doubt. People forget now that for all his charisma, he started out as a hard-core Jan Sanghi, was a staunch RSS-man and made his reputation in the great Hindi debates of the Sixties, demanding that all of India should embrace his mother tongue.
Vajpayee only began to mellow in the Seventies when experience convinced him that divisive politics would destroy India. He lost interest in the Hindi agitation and, more significantly, moved away from the hard Hindus-first politics of the Jan Sangh. In the process, he alienated many of his old colleagues and earned the ire of the RSS.
After the BJP was nearly wiped out during the Rajiv Gandhi landslide of 1984 (Vajpayee lost his own seat), the RSS looked around for alternatives. It found one in Vajpayee’s old lieutenant LK Advani, who abandoned the liberal approach that he too had once favoured, and pushed the concept of a Sangh parivar (a family of RSS-front organisations, many of them fundamentalist in nature). Advani undertook a rath yatra through North India in an effort to whip up communal tensions and weaponise Hinduism.
Vajpayee distanced himself from Advani’s movement. (It was also personal: the protégé had staged a coup against his mentor.) But when the BJP seemed like it had a chance of finally coming to office, the RSS conceded that Vajpayee was the only figure in the party who could attract potential allies.
We think now of Vajpayee as being a strong prime minister but that was only because he rarely let the tensions show. The RSS continued to push its own agenda and was not happy with Vajpayee’s politics. Advani became a rival power centre. And the allies were tough to handle. But somehow, Vajpayee made it all seem easy.
From then on, it should have been straightforward : the BJP should have continued as a centre-right party. Even Advani suddenly turned into a Pakistan-loving liberal and visited Pakistan to sing the praises of MA Jinnah.
But the opposite happened. The BJP went back to the Hindu-centric ideology that Advani had once espoused much to the delight of the RSS. Only, this time around, the shift to a muscular Hindutva was so extreme that Advani began to seem like a lily-livered secularist in comparison.
In BJP-terms, Vajpayee’s greatest achievement was that he took a party that had once been a political pariah, brought it into the mainstream and made it electable. That legacy endures.
But as for all the other things he stood for: they seem to have been forgotten. In many ways, it is as if the Vajpayee prime ministership with its consensus-building never happened. Sometimes it seems that the BJP moved directly from the destruction of the Babri Masjid to the dominance of the ideology that celebrated the demolition.
So yes, Vajpayee was a great prime minister. But what will we remember as his legacy?
As Chou-en-Lai might have said, it is too soon to tell.
The views expressed are personal
First Published: Aug 17, 2018 08:45 IST