The Idea of Atal is in Danger, and a Bharat Ratna Alone Can't Bring Another Vajpayee
Normally, it is the throne that raises the stature of the ruler. But the capacious connector and counsellor of contradictions, Atal Bihari Vajpayee belongs to that unique pantheon where the ruler raises the prestige of the chair—in his case, of the Prime Minister. Last week, President Pranab Mukherjee, a stickler for protocol, drove to 6A Krishna Menon Marg, where Vajpayee lives, to confer the Bharat Ratna on the 90-year-old ailing doyen of democracy. The President had a solid justification for ignoring the rulebook for he was honouring a personality who kept India politically and socially united during his six-year regime. He proved the Cassandras wrong with his philosophy—chehra, chal, chalan and charitra (visage, walk, comport and character). In spite of his saffron grooming, Vajpayee’s face was acceptable to all. He wasn’t just a leader of leaders; he was the darling of both the classes and masses.
The presence of so many leaders belonging to different parties at his coronation as a Bharat Ratna reflected Vajpayee’s unique place in Indian politics. He never found conviction a matter of convenience. He would only bend in the national interest and rise up like a lion if his integrity or loyalty were ever questioned. Mukherjee was conferring a great honour on not just an individual but on India itself by presenting Vajpayee the beetle-shaped, coveted medallion. Vajpayee is the first PM alive to receive the Bharat Ratna. Inexplicably those who are now singing his paeans of praise had ignored his merit for mercenary reasons for over a decade. They felt he was nurtured in a nursery which was producing experts in dividing India along communal and caste lines. That allegation has never stuck on Vajpayee. As PM not only was he a unique unifier, but also has been contemporary India’s most tolerant and transparent political leader. During one of my numerous interactions with him, I sought his reaction to some BJP leaders’ grouse of not taking any action against Congress leaders, including Sonia Gandhi. Promptly came the retort: “Editorji, agar hum bhi wahi karenge, to hum mein or Congress mein kya faraq hoga? (If we do the same what the Congress did to its opponents, what will be the difference between the two?)”. Many Cabinet colleagues like George Fernandez and others were always pushing him to appoint commissions or file cases against Congress leaders but Vajpayee’s instructions to his investigation agencies were clear—no action against anyone without solid evidence. Vendetta has never been his weakness. He was large-hearted enough to bestow key portfolios on staunch haters and baiters. He placed a premium on merit rather than sycophancy. He ran a coalition of 22 parties but never blamed ‘coalition compulsions’ for unpopular decisions like his successor. Vajpayee had a flexible approach unhindered by ego. For example, a senior IFS officer was able to wrangle an important foreign posting through Jaswant Singh, the then foreign minister. In this case, convention dictated that it was the commerce minister, then Murasoli Maran, who would approve such assignments. When Maran protested, Vajpayee didn’t take a second to reverse his own order and appoint an officer of Maran’s choice, who later went on to become the Cabinet Secretary.
Though his stature was taller than his party’s, Vajpayee always accepted the command of his party structure. Once, a decision was taken to shift a minister to take over some party responsibilities. The RSS top brass wanted to know Vajpayee’s choice since they wanted a cordial relationship between the government and the party. But he told them they had the freedom to choose anyone they liked. He always gave the party chief full respect and accepted his decisions. He never used his authority or the power of his institution to consolidate his personal control or damage anyone. Vajpayee became an institution around which the narrative of Consensus, Continuity and Connectivity was not only written but also put into practice. The three Cs have been his article of faith. He thought only through them can a country as diverse as India not only remain united but also become a world power.
Vajpayee was India’s Captain of Connectivity. If India boasts of over a billion mobile phones, it is due to the telecom policy formulated during his regime. Though the foundation of mobile telephony was laid during Narasimha Rao’s time, it was Vajpayee who nudged ministers and babus to ensure that India’s connectivity grows faster than the world’s. He also felt that connecting cities by air and road would diminish the growing social and economic chasm between the rich and the poor, the communalists and the secularists, and rural and urban India. He provided liberal funds and a sound policy for laying the Golden Quadrangle, which made the journey between India’s four directions faster. During the NDA regime, 11 km of new roads were built daily—an unbeaten record.
If Vajpayee was committed to connecting India, he was equally passionate in his endeavor to connect with the world, but on his terms. Knowing fully well the negative fallout of the 1998 nuclear tests, he went ahead because the rest of the world understood only a nation’s power and not just its wealth. In less than a year, the entire world was vying to do business with India. Vajpayee also practiced continuity in foreign policy by talking to Pakistan even after the Kargil War. Peaceniks and Indo-Pak dialogue hawkers became his worshipers. But Vajpayee never looked for an endorsement for a foreign-sponsored constituency. For instance, when all the English TV channels were pushing for an agreement with Pakistan through motivated and sponsored debates, the silver-haired, ruddy complexioned gentleman PM proved them by wrong by packing Gen. Pervez Musharraf off, empty ended from Agra in 2001. Vajpayee believed any paper signed by two heads of state was better off in the dustbin if it destroyed the credibility of the PM who was entrusted with the nation’s prestige. Vajpayee may still be around but the idea of Vajpayee is in great danger. And a Bharat Ratna alone cannot bring forth another Vajpayee.
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