Vajpayee nurtured the middle ground in politics
He said that in a diverse country like India, coalitions appeared to be the natural pattern of governance. A stable polity in the future, he added, may not be a two party system but rather a somewhat right of centre coalition which may be led by the BJP and a left of centre coalition led by the Congress.Updated: Aug 24, 2018 19:24 IST
The passing of Atal Bihari Vajpayee has led to an outpouring of grief and generated a profound sense of loss across the country. This reflects the mix of affection and admiration that he inspired among his fellow citizens. It is also reflective of a pervasive yearning for a political culture of decency and dignity, of restraint and mutual respect, which is fast fading into oblivion and which were hallmarks of Vajpayee’s political career. His statesmanship was evident in his ability to find the middle ground, to fashion, then articulate a broad political consensus and to welcome debate and dissent as indispensable to this endeavour. His sense of humour was infectious, designed to soften and soothe, not to injure and sharpen contention. He understood the reality of the pursuit of power, whether in its domestic or external dimensions, but acknowledged the need to retain an ethical and moral anchor and above all, a sense of humanity.
I had the privilege of spending a few memorable days in his company in 1995 while I was serving in Mauritius and he was visiting as leader of Opposition. He was the keynote speaker at the first conference of the Hindi Speaking Union. The theme of his speech was “Sarvadharma Samman” or respect for all faiths and he spoke with his characteristic eloquence. Mauritius, like India, is a “rainbow nation,” a happy co-existence of different faiths, ethnicities and languages, so his remarks resonated strongly with the audience. I mention this because Mauritius has a large Indian-origin population from Bihar and U.P. among whom there was a strong RSS presence. Vajpayee’s visit was greeted enthusiastically by this constituency and he had several interactions with its leaders. However, he readily accepted my advice to reach out to other constituencies as well and his speech was part of this effort.
When Vajpayee became prime minister, I was serving in Myanmar. Engaging the Myanmarese generals then ruling the country had become important to seek their cooperation in dealing with insurgent groups active in our North-East with havens across the border and to countervail expanding Chinese influence in that country. My efforts to engage them were at times complicated by critical public remarks by George Fernandes, the then defence minister, on the human rights situation in Myanmar. He had also offered shelter in his residence to several young Myanmarese dissidents. During one of my visits to Delhi on consultations, I called on the prime minister and during the course of our conversation, requested his intervention with Fernandes, so that statements which irritated the generals, could be avoided. Vajpayee laughed and remarked that his defence minister had his own strong views and may not heed his advice. He added that Fernandes was more likely to appreciate my dilemma if I could convey this directly to him. Despite my obvious reluctance to undertake this exercise, the prime minister telephoned the defence minister, said that he was sending me to make a report on the situation in Myanmar and they could talk about it later. My subsequent meeting with Fernandes went in an unexpectedly positive direction. After I politely and guardedly explained the challenges we were up against, he smiled and said —or in so many words — “So you are asking me, in national interest, to keep my mouth shut. Ok I will.” He added that he would not, however, deny refuge to the young Myanmar dissidents then staying in his outhouse. As I was leaving, relieved, he asked me to convey the outcome of our meeting to the prime minister. I must add that Fernandes did keep to his promise. I think we both understood that the prime minister had dealt with a controversial issue with delicacy and, to my mind, more effectively than would have been possible through his intervening directly with his senior cabinet colleague. No wonder, he was so effective in running a disparate coalition.
During my early calls, I would sometimes find him uncommunicative and this was unsettling. I very quickly discovered that he paid unwavering attention to my briefing. This was reflected in his searching questions and comments afterwards. His principal secretary, Brajesh Mishra, perhaps understood him best but knew that this was a prime minister who would listen but not always follow the script of his advisors.
I called on Vajpayee when I retired as foreign secretary in September 2006. By then, I had become used to his long silences and brief ruminations on whatever subject I raised. I asked whether coalition governments would now be an abiding feature in Indian politics. He said that in a diverse country like India, coalitions appeared to be the natural pattern of governance. A stable polity in the future, he added, may not be a two-party system but rather a somewhat right-of-centre coalition which may be led by the BJP and a left-of-centre coalition led by the Congress. Both would hew to a moderate, middle ground due to the dynamics of coalition politics and that was critical, he said, to sustaining democracy in India. While majority party rule did make a comeback in 2014, the importance of sustaining a moderate, middle ground in a democracy remains and we must thank Vajpayee for nurturing that space throughout his political career. It is a political legacy we must uphold unwaveringly.
Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and is senior fellow, CPR
The views expressed are personal