Shakti Sinha: The liberal who found home in Vajpayee’s BJP

Oct 05, 2021 08:10 PM IST

Shakti Sinha lived in proximity to power, but his instinct was to spend time with those on the margins of power — because he wanted to understand all points of view before arriving at his own

Shakti Sinha was a political liberal. He believed that the State must be restrained in its use of power; individuals must be free to choose their life partners, eating habits, political parties, and friends and that social liberalism was an integral part of a civilised society; that markets must be encouraged and the government should largely be a facilitator and regulator and provide a helping hand to those on the margins; and that religion should not be a key determinant of any decision of the State.

Shakti Sinha knew Atal Bihari Vajpayee intimately. His wife was a relative of Vajpayee’s foster family. (HT Photo/File)
Shakti Sinha knew Atal Bihari Vajpayee intimately. His wife was a relative of Vajpayee’s foster family. (HT Photo/File)

Shakti Sinha was also a foreign policy realist. He had a clear-eyed view of Pakistan and China as India’s adversaries — the first because of the very nature of its statehood, the second because of the structural nature of great power competition. But he was also a pragmatist, who believed in the power of engagement. So be it talking to the Nepali Maoists when sections of Indian establishment were reluctant to do so, or engaging with the Taliban when it became clear that Afghanistan would eventually fall into their hands, Sinha believed that the Indian State must do what it had to do to secure India’s national interest — ideology was secondary.

And, perhaps most importantly, Shakti Sinha was a deeply democratic man in his everyday personal interactions. He did not grudge someone for sharply differing with him in political beliefs. He barely expressed resentment even when he felt like he had been dealt an unfair hand. He lived in proximity to power, but his instinct was to spend time with those on the margins of power — because he wanted to understand all points of view before arriving at his own. He understood viewpoints were a result of socialisation, beliefs, and life — and he respected it. He was also deeply humble, and this reflected most deeply in his respect for scholarship — he kept feeling, till he wrote his book, that he was a pretender who did not have a book to his credit and therefore was a bit of a lesser man.

So how was such a man — who grew up in the diverse and plural environment of the Darjeeling hills, who studied in a missionary school in Patna and admired his Christian teachers (he never saw them as Christian, just as his teachers — Father Murphy of St Xaviers’ Patna remained his favourite teacher), who went to Hindu College in Delhi University in the 1970s at a time when young students pushed the boundaries of what was permissible, and who enjoyed both his meat and evening drink (he was partial to whiskey) — sympathetic to the Bharatiya Janata Party?

In his story lies a clue into why a generation of India’s social liberals moved to the Right in the 1980s and 1990s. Sinha detested the Congress, especially the dynastic nature of the party. He grew sympathetic to the identity-based mobilisation of the majority as a natural byproduct of distortions in the politics of secularism. And having been a part of the State, he knew that the only way out for India’s prosperity was not a greater role for the State but reducing its discretionary powers. And in his case — like in the case of so many political individuals, whose choices are often personal and sociological as much as ideological; analysts often underestimate this factor when they seek to understand politics — the link to a leader changed his life and politics.

Sinha knew Atal Bihari Vajpayee intimately. His wife was a relative of Vajpayee’s foster family. He met the man who would become India’s first prime minister from a non-Congress political tradition in the 1970s, and eventually, through a career in the bureaucracy, landed up in Vajpayee’s prime minister’s office, as the first and last man Vajpayee would see in the day through much of the mid 1990s — during his 13-day tenure in 1996, his stint as leader of opposition between 1996 and 1998, and then during the critical 1998-99 years when India went nuclear, embarked on ambitious reforms, and fought and defeated Pakistan in Kargil.

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And this is why Sinha merits understanding, for his understanding and worldview ended up shaping Vajpyayee’s prime ministership. The modest and understated man that he was, Shakti Sinha would never admit it — but in the silent lunches he had with Vajpayee (the two often ate quietly without a word exchanged), in his everyday interactions, in who he allowed Atalji to meet, in how he discussed books and ideas, in how he interacted with other colleagues, Sinha shaped the worldview of one of India’s most consequential prime ministers. And this worldview, rooted in a controversial certain view of Indian civilisation — Sinha always said that New Delhi mistook Vajpayee; there was never any doubt of his commitment to Hindutva — he shaped a world of power.

The specifics of Vajpayee’s prime ministership are best captured in Sinha’s book — and it is such good news that Sinha was able to actually pen his memories. Sinha went on to become a World Bank bureaucrat in Washington DC, a leading bureaucrat in Delhi government as a part of his administrative career, head of Nehru Memorial and Museum Library, an academic heading an important centre at MS University in Baroda, and an intellectual-at-large (including as an occasional columnist with HT). But he never forgot his roots, his liberalism, his commitment to India, and his loyalty to a worldview he had owned.

I cannot but end this on a personal note. Shakti Sinha organised the launch of my book on BJP — in which, on his platform, I criticised what I saw as the party’s bigotry. He called me later that evening and laughed, saying, “Kahan phasa diya yar! Acha tha par. Where did you trap me! But it was good. My aim is to make NMML a truly liberal space.” Or when we went for a drink to Kathmandu’s most hip area, Thamel, when he narrated stories about the intricacies of running a prime minister’s office. There are too many anecdotes to narrate, there are too many secrets to keep, there are too many tales that only Shaktiji had a right to tell, but Indian politics, public life, scholarship is a lot richer because of a man who believed that his most important contribution was being a silent adviser — silent being the operative word — foil to one of India’s most important PMs.

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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