Devendra Mohan looks back on the achievements of the late A.B. Vajpayee, a three-time prime minister and gifted wordsmith who crossed political divides and showed the world a fresh vision of India
If India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a great liberal and democrat among the Congressmen of his time, he also had an uncanny knack for discovering and encouraging men and women from the Opposition parties who cherished his liberal and democratic outlook and values. Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1924-2018),who was Nehru’s great admirer and strident critic at the same time, was one of them.
In the Nehruvian Era of the 1950s, when the Congress ruled the roost in almost all the states in India, it was generally an uphill task for any non-Congress candidate to win a Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament)seat.Whoever dared to do so was dubbed a ‘joker- politician’ and a daredevil out to destroy himself. Against this backdrop, when the relatively new Bharatiya Jana Sangh decided to field a 32-year-old journalist and fiery orator,Vajpayee, then a greenhorn in electoral politics,from not one but three Lok Sabha constituencies in the 1957 parliamentary elections, most Congressmen took it as an affront and some kind of ‘infantile adventurism’ against Nehru’s monolithic party.
The Bharatiya Jana Sangh was founded in October 1951 by the late Syama Prasad Mukherjee, Nehru’s erstwhile Cabinet colleague turned detractor, and in the 1952 Lok Sabha elections it also gained three seats in the parliament.
Vajpayee was one of the founder-members of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and had made a failed attempt to enter parliament in a previous election. At that time, he was not a completely unknown quantity – mainly because of his journalistic writings and oratoryskills,demonstrated from time to time in large public meetings. Even Nehru had heard of his oratory through his party men and friends in other political parties. He was of the opinion that such young people must join politics and enter parliament.
The 1957 general elections saw Vajpayeevictorious when he won the Balrampur seat in the backward Eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP), though alongside hehad contested two other seats – Lucknow and Mathura– which placed him second in the Lucknow contest, and forfeitedhis deposit in Mathura. In Balrampur Vajpayee bested a veteran Congressman,garnering 52 per cent of the vote.
His Balrampur win became an acrimonious matter in the Congress because Nehru,either by design or due to his disdain for the nominated Congress candidate,did not campaign in that constituency. So in an indirect way Vajpayee’s win was attributed to Nehru, who said, ‘Let some fine young people also win even if they are not big names or I don’t know anything about them. Fresh young faces must enter parliament. Eventually, their performance on the floor of the House will decide how good or bad they are.’
As a backbencher, Vajpayee staged walkouts on several occasions.When he didn’t get an opportunity to speak, he complained to Nehru that newcomers were being ignored and prevented from addressing the floor of the House whenthe prime minister was present. Nehru saw his point and assured him he would always get an opportunity to say things that concerned the nation. Vajpayee didn’t disappoint Nehru.
In his speeches, he was a combination of aggression and propriety, maintaining decorum and respectfulness towards all parliamentary conventions and practices, even as he was combative in his arguments. Nehru was charmed and so were the other parliamentarians and the nation, which prompted the prime minister to say, ‘Someday you should become the prime minister of India. You have everything in the making.’ Some years later, Nehru introduced Vajpayee to President John F. Kennedy in Washington, with these words: ‘Meet this blooming parliamentarian from India…’
After Nehru’s death in 1964, it took Vajpayee 32 years to fulfil his mentor’s vision of himas India’sprime minister, which he became for the first time in 1996 – albeit only for 13 days. His second term as PM, beginning in 1998, lasted a little longer, 13 months, but his third term, which began in 1999, lasted the full five-year term.
In 1977, after the Janata Party victory, he was External Affairs Minister in Morarji Desai’s rickety government for a little over two years, but he had made his mark there too. He had committed himself to a consensus approach to politics.
Former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh recalls that, despite being in the Opposition, Vajpayee had once come to his rescue in parliament. When Dr Singh was presenting his 1992 budget and fertiliser pricing became a major issue, before it could take an ugly turn Vajpayee came to his rescue. Dr Singh was then very new to politics and often faced rough times in Parliament. Vajpayee called him and said, ‘Dr Singh, one ought to have a thick skin (on issues). Even if we don’t support you, you must stay strong on your path.’
One month after he became the PM in 1998, Vajpayee oversaw the Pokharan nuclear test, and then came up with his initiatives for peace with Pakistan and the Lahore Declaration. Unfortunately, his 13-month long government could not cope with the strains of coalition and, following the withdrawal of the AIADMK party’s support, it collapsed.
The subsequent 1999 elections saw him back as leader of the National Democratic Alliance and as prime minister until 2004 – the first non-Congress government to hold power in India. Vajpayee immediately took many reform measures to boost the Indian economy and keep it liberalised and thriving, despite the RSS’s vehemence and opposition. Alongside, he started working on a formula for an acceptable template to solve issues related to Kashmir, having kept a steadfast stance on Indo-Pak relations since 1977 when he was the External Affairs Minister. Later too, as a pragmatist and statesman,he maintained that there would be no change in policy towards Pakistan as it was ‘based on more or less national consensus’.
It was this statesman-like stance that prompted Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao in the 1990s to persuade Vajpayee, who was then the Leader of the Opposition, to lead the Indian delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva, where issues related to India and Pakistan were to be discussed. Thiswas a masterstroke which proved to be a great diplomatic victory for both Rao and Vajpayee, even as it came as a shock to Pakistan, for it demonstrated to the international community that India spoke in one voice when it came to issues related to Pakistan.
Subsequently, Vajpayee made two trips to Pakistan as leader of the coalition government: one of them on February 19, 1999 on a bus ride to Lahore, which was soured by the Kargil attack a few months later when Nawaz Sharif led the Pakistani government. The second visit took place in January 2004 when Vajpayee went to Pakistan to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit.
During this Summit, President Pervez Musharraf assured Vajpayee that he would not allow terrorism against India from any part of Pakistani soil, or in its name. India accepted this as an important Pakistani commitment, despite the Kargil misadventure by Pakistan some years ago. Vajpayee resolved to improve relations between the two countries after the Kargil war and failed Agra Summit in July 2001,when he invited Pervez Musharraf to India. It is also important to note, as one former diplomat has observed, that nine of India’s 14 prime ministers never visited Pakistan and several of them had a full majority in the Lok Sabha. The only exceptions, apart from Vajpayee,are Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Lal Bahadur Shastri, who met Ayub Khan in Karachi en route Tashkent in 1966. Vajpayee, as head of the coalition government, visited Pakistan twice.
He was a man who believed that winning friends was more important in public and private life than winning arguments, and even wars. He initiated the move to promote Indo-US relations which culminated in the Jaswant Singh-Strobe Talbott dialogue.
On the domestic front he mainstreamed economic policies and reforms. His government also moved the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Bill that sought to commit governments to a roadmap for controlling deficits and preventing their borrowing from the central bank –the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) – the exception being unusual circumstances. There were so many new elements his government introduced:generating FDI, boosting highway projects, telecoms and technology, Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (the construction of rural roads programme), Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), whichaimed at theuniversalisation of elementary education in a time bound manner by the86th amendment of the Constitution, inserting Article 21A, making free education for all children aged 6-14 a fundamental right. This amendment further strengthened with the UPA government’s Right to Education Act of 2009. In 2017, SSA covered 192 million children.
For all his political nous, Vajpayee was a poet at heart who only used an iron fist to implement what he thought was the right thing for the nation. He knew he was the only ajaatshatru –one with no enemies – in the political firmament of India, and would often quote from one of his own poems:
Haar nahin manoonga
Raar nahin thaanoonga
Kaal ke kapaal par likhta hoon, mitaata hoon
Geet naya gaata hoon
(I shall not accept defeat.
I shall take up new battles head on,
On time’s forehead I write and erase,
I sing a new song.)