Why Vajpayee’s values matter
Returning to his principles will help India navigate the presentUpdated: Dec 25, 2019, 17:48 IST
On Wednesday, the country marked former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 95th birth anniversary. Tributes poured in from across the political spectrum, like they had done when Vajpayee had passed away in August 2018. He was a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader, arguably the tallest and most-respected leader the party has produced, who provided it both political legitimacy and State power. Yet, it is remarkable that Vajpayee is no longer perceived as a partisan figure — but as a statesman who contributed to the nation. In that lies a lesson for all political actors today.
What were Vajpayee’s values? One, he was deeply committed to Indian democracy. This meant that he fought hard for his political beliefs and ideological worldview, as a democracy allows and empowers a citizen to do. But it also meant that he did so within the framework of the Constitution and its institutions, particularly Parliament. Vajpayee’s deep and abiding commitment to his role as a parliamentarian was legendary. This willingness to pursue his goals — yet be accommodative, respect dissent and listen to all points of view, and even step back when required, showed his democratic character. It was visible when he was in the Opposition, and it was even more visible when he was prime minister. The second was Vajpayee’s commitment to Indian pluralism. He believed in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s vision of Hindutva, but he reconciled this with a deep respect for India’s diversity, its multiple faiths, and managed to build trust across communities. He was a moderate by instinct, who believed in healing divisions.
Vajpayee’s third characteristic was his economic pragmatism. In power, he pursued economic reforms, particularly disinvestment, despite many ideological affiliates opposing it; he pushed for infrastructure and deepened India’s engagement with the global economic framework, which laid the foundations for the growth boom of the 2000s. Fourth, he was deeply committed to a stronger, autonomous India, combining hard and soft power. He went ahead with the nuclear tests, but immediately embarked on energetic diplomacy to engage with the world; he reached out to Pakistan in Lahore, but also fought them in Kargil when redlines were crossed; he deepened the nation’s alignment with the US, but also built bridges with China. At a time when there have been questions about India’s democratic functioning, the social fabric is under strain, the economic story is weakening, and the country has come under criticism internationally, Vajpayee’s values provide the perfect playbook for leaders.