On a day when one of the most powerful and enigmatic politicians of the country is rewarded with the Bharat Ratna, one is compelled to remember his selfless contribution to the service of his motherland, his idiosyncrasies, his follies. Former Prime Minister of India and one of the most-respected politicians of the country, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, will be conferred the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest civilian award, today. The announcement of the award for Vajpayee came a day before his birthday on December 24, last year.
Vajpayee “the right man in the wrong party”, as he was popularly known, was respected across parties. Even those who detested the Bharatiya Janata Party for its communal tendencies and its Hindu nationalist agenda, looked up to Vajpayee as a moderate voice trapped in the cacophony of hard line politics.
Few words of praise can do justice to the phenomenon that Atal Bihari Vajpayee was. He, along with LK Advani, took Bharatiya Janata Party from being a negligible voice that struggled to be heard in Indian politics, to being the only party in the country that could effectively challenge the juggernaut of the Gandhi family (even as their means remain questionable).
He served as the member of Parliament for over five decades, is the only parliamentarian to have been elected from four different states, the first non-Congress Indian Prime Minister to have completed the five-year term in office; and yet one of the humblest of the political lot.
His greatness, however, lay not in the number of years of his political journey, but the remarkable feats he achieved in the course of this splendid journey. In a country where politics is synonymous with power, here was a politician who was anything but power-hungry. In 1996, amidst the many controversies that were doing the rounds, was one allegation that had left the 13-day old Prime Minister grimly hurt. The allegation was that he had gotten addicted to power. So deeply hurt was Vajpayee that he resigned as the Prime Minister of the country immediately. However, his tryst with electoral politics was far from over.
He went on to lead the country as the Prime Minister for six consecutive years from 1999-2004, thus becoming the man behind the first ever stable non-Congress government in the history of India. In his six-year long tenure, he took some significant, often very bold, steps. According to some political scholars, the biggest of all his achievements was making India a nuclear weapon state. His character as a politician was always considered ambiguous, for at one level he was an ardent votary of peace, and on the other, he remained uncompromising viz a viz the country’s national security. This ambiguity, if one chooses to call it so, reflected in his relationship with Pakistan too. On one hand, he was behind the Lahore Summit that sought to permanently resolve the Kashmir dispute; on the other he did not refrain from warning the notorious non-state actors of Pakistan of overwhelming ramifications for trying to instigate trouble in India. In his fiery poem addressed to the trouble makers in Pakistan, he said in absolutely unequivocal words, “isse (India’s sovereignty) mitane ki saazish karne waalon se keh do chingaari ka khel bura hota hai.All in all, Vajpayee’s politics had a courage of conviction that was reminiscent of Nehru’s.
A poet of repute, an orator par excellence, a charismatic politician, Atal Bihari Vajpayee truly wore many hats. His career, however, was not a blemish-free one. When the dark hour of Indian secularism dawned in 2002, he was held culpable for not doing enough. The Bharatiya Janata Party was in power both at the centre and at the state level in Gujarat when the worst possible communal riots broke out, massacring thus, thousands of people, mostly Muslims in Narendra Modi’s land. It was established in 2002 that the BJP was not in fact, ready to abandon its Hindu nationalist agenda, and that it was ready to serve whatever lesson it deemed fit to the noncompliant rebels. But, Vajpayee? He was supposedly the moderate, most secular of his partymen. Why did he not do enough to bring those responsible for this dastardliness to justice? Was the moderate voice finally silenced in the cacophony of bigotry? It’s largely speculated that Vajpayee wanted to sack Narendra Modi from the position of Chief Minister of Gujarat. However, history judges persons on the basis of their actions, not intentions. A crude fact that shall continue to be taken into account whenever Vajpayee is discussed, is that he succumbed under pressure, and turned a blind eye to the carnage that continues to be scar on Indian secularism.
Vajpayee’s personal life too was not bereft of controversy. However, one would refrain from delving into that, for that amounts to a kind of character assassination which must be kept at bay.
In the end, it is not too far-fetching to say that the winning spree on which the Bharatiya Janata Party seems to be riding today, is the result of the undying efforts of a 90-year old ailing man who is quietly watching the lotus seed he had once sowed, blossom into a mature, (questionably) beautiful flower. It is safe to say, that there would have been no “Modi-wave” today, had there not once been a “Vajpayee-wave”.