In 2001, on a chilly evening in Lutyens' Delhi, I visited a prominent Muslim leader, a cabinet minister in the coalition government headed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP. There were several prominent people sitting in the dining hall, including an influential Christian leader and a well known human rights activist - both were staunch critics of the BJP. After we'd had our wine and cheese, I was amused to see the minister enthusiastically requesting an aide to take some chicken curry to the Prime Minister's house - he'd prepared it himself. In the dinner that followed, the guests - secular, liberal and western-educated socialites who usually spared no occasion to lampoon the saffron ideology and its torchbearers - praised Atal Bihari Vajpayee in unison. It was clear to me then that Vajpayeeji was equally popular among his friends and foes as a man who enjoyed life, loved people and nurtured a poetic, romantic and open heart.
"Ataljiwas never as vocal as Mr Modi about his vision for India but... one can easily see that he achieved a revolution of sorts with his easygoing and humorous style."
Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a legendary character in the history of India. Often compared with Nehru, he was frequently described as the right man in the wrong party by Congress leaders. Even when I talk to my friends from Pakistan, they often express their genuine love and praise for Atalji. What endeared him to many was his sense of humour, his heart and his boldness (he was famously declared that he was a bachelor and not a Brahmachari), which was particularly striking considering he was mired in the strict Hindu nationalist ideology of the Sangh and Jan Sangh. When he was awarded the Bharat Ratna a few months ago, it became a matter of pride for everyone. Even the acerbic Mamata Banerjee expressed her happiness and said "we all love and respect him".
I was driven by two instincts while writing this article. The first one, closer to my heart, takes me to my schools days when I'd read Nehru's autobiography and felt myself to be a part of world history. Atalji has always given us a glimpse of Nehru in him, with his vices, poetry and vision (even the vices of a politician can connect him or her with the hearts of the people!).
My second instinct compels me to venture beyond the aforementioned personality traits of Atalji and explore his leadership style. As someone who has held a soft corner for the BJP, I feel compelled to comparatively analyse Modiji and Atalji. I feel this urge because Mr Modi has shown us a whole new dreamland of promises and a fresh vision for India. He has also conveyed a genuine desire to execute his plan but having seen him work for the past one-and-a-half years, there is a sense that something is wrong, if not in his intentions then in his execution of his vision. Ataljiwas never as vocal as Mr Modi about his vision for India but today when one looks back, one can easily see that he achieved a revolution of sorts with his easygoing and humorous style.
For Atalji, one expression not very often used for politicians, truly sums up his leadership style: he was a "smooth player". He could steer India in the direction of rapid economic growth with a coalition that was marked by innumerable frictions ranging from ideologies to vested political inter. India made huge strides in the telecom sector, liberalisation, defence, diplomacy and infrastructure under Atalji's leadership. Under his towering personality, leaders such as Advani, Pramod Mahajan, Arun Shourie, Jaswant Singh and Suresh Prabhu were allowed to shine and exercise their freedom. A whole new chapter of Indian diplomacy with the US was authored in Atalji's reign.
Additionally, to a large extent he was able to keep Hindutva extremists at bay and did not hesitate in reminding Modi of his "Raj Dharma" around the time of the Godhra riots. With such an exemplary performance in governance, he was not expected to lose the elections, and though that is what happened he definitely gave an impression of an institution-builder in his short tenure.
"If [Mr Modi] wants to make a real difference then he has to rise above the narrow confines of ideology and show his mettle as a true statesman and administrator..."
In the present dispensation, any lay observer would agree that Mr Modi must take a cue from Atalji, especially when it comes to his management of his ministers. Much commentary has centred on the fact that he keeps his ministers on a very short leash, ensuring that they are always under watch and monitored closely. One feels that there is only one real ministry i.e. PMO and the rest are all honorary positions. One hardly feels any presence other than that of Mr Modi, with the exception of perhaps Arun Jaitley and Manohar Parrikar - even they are known more on account of their past credentials rather than their performance in their current portfolios.
The government seems to be high on words and announcements but low on the follow-up. Abbreviations, slogans, photo-ops, catchwords and loud declarations abound but concrete action plans are not yet visible for schemes like Swachh Bharat, major reforms in civil services, infrastructure etc.
The essential difference between the two lies in the fact that Mr Modi is at his best a crusader, and Atalji a philosopher, a Zen monk. As a crusader, Mr Modi has single-handedly fought against a nation-wide ostracisation campaign led by the media, intellectuals and politicians for almost a decade, for still-debatable, uncomfortable and hard-to-gloss-over reasons. But finally he rose like a phoenix, riding on the wave of development/Hindutva and made his way to 7 Race Course Road. But, the problem is that he is still in the crusader mode. He is still fighting and post his victory in 2014, he appears compelled to fight in the electoral battleground again and again. His past still haunts his sub-consciousness. The personality conditioned by the circumstances of battle has its own complexities marked by fear, inability to trust, a dictatorial attitude and, yes, some ruthlessness. But these complexities can never make a successful administrator. The times of elections are gone and now there is not even an opposition. Hence the obsession with elections and electoral victories must be left behind. If he wants to make a real difference then he has to rise above the narrow confines of ideology and show his mettle as a true statesman and administrator, like Atalji.
"If nothing else, [Mr Modi] must adopt one aspect of Atalji's model with immediate effect: a non-polarising approach and image."
It is high time that Mr Modi took a lesson from Atalji, the Bhishma of BJP. He must become a bit more democratic, soft , trusting and liberal in his leadership and work on a long-term vision based on wise statecraft and a sound understanding of the nation's needs. If nothing else, he must adopt one aspect of Atalji's model with immediate effect: a non-polarising approach and image. Thus far, Mr Modi has not been able to alter his image as a polarising leader who is unable to come out of the unrealistic and self-imposed confines of his RSS background (rather than Hindutva ideology); his apparent failure to rein in Hindu extremists is not going unnoticed either. He needs to snip the wings of Hindu extremists with immediate effect, if he genuinely wants to have "sabka sath" and see "sabka vikas".
The crusader must seek blessings and wisdom from the ailing Zen master.
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