Life's ways are mysterious. Sometimes the mystery can appear cruel. For example, how can one explain the fact that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, indisputably one of the greatest orators in independent India, is today, in the late evening of his life, voiceless? He is not even in a position to speak to the big stream of admirers who are coming to his residence at 6A Krishna Menon Marg in New Delhi to greet him on his 90th birthday on December 25 and, especially, to congratulate him on being conferred with Bharat Ratna. He has been unwell for the past nearly five years.
Vajpayee stepped down as India's 11th prime minister eleven years ago. He has been out of sight for quite some time now. Yet, significantly, he has never been out of the nation's collective mind. Every now and then, his name is taken, with admiration frequently bordering on reverence, not only by those belonging to his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, but also by people in the opposition. Weighty phrases such as 'Raj Dharma' and 'Coalition Dharma' which he introduced in the political lexicon of India's democratic system are regularly invoked by pundits and plebians alike.
In the course of his electioneering in the recently concluded assembly elections in Jammu & Kashmir, Prime Minister Narendra Modi surprised many by reassuring the people of Kashmir that he would follow Vajpayee's principles of 'Kashmiriyat, Jamhooriyat, Insaaniyat' for normalising the situation in the strife-torn state. Kashmiriyat stands for Kashmir's age-old tradition of Hindu-Muslim unity. Jamhooriyat means democracy. Insaaniyat means humanism. Such was Vajpayee's sensitive and far-sighted approach to solving national problems.
What makes Atal Bihari Vajpayee mean so much to India? What makes him one of the most beloved political leaders of India in the post-Independence era? What accounts for the fact that politicians across the ideological spectrum have welcomed conferment of Bharat Ratna on him, many of them even saying that the country's highest civilian award ought to have been given to him many years ago?
Above Party Lines
There is little doubt today that the Congress-led UPA Government, which was in office for ten long years, missed an opportunity to earn the nation's goodwill by choosing not to honour Vajpayee with Bharat Ratna. In January 2008, L.K. Advani had written a letter to the then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh proposing that Vajpayee be awarded Bharat Ratna for his statesmanship and his enormous and many-sided contribution to our national life. I would like to mention here that I too had made this suggestion to Dr. Manmohan Singh when I met him at his Race Course Road office last year. Dr. Singh told me that that Vajpayee deserved the Bharat Ratna. "But..." This was not a decision he could take.
Contrast this to Vajpayee's largeness of heart and magnanimity of mind. In matters of national importance, he always placed the interests of the nation above those of his own party. Many examples can be given, but just three will suffice.
Look at the homage he paid to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru when the latter passed away in May 1964. "Soorya ka ast hua hai. Poore Bharat mein andhkaar chhaa gaya hai. Ab hamein sitaaron ke roshni ka sahara lekar hee aage badhanaa hoga." (The sun has set. The entire nation is engulfed by darkness. Now we have to depend on the light of the starry night to move ahead.)
When India, under the decisive leadership of the then Prime Minister Smt Indira Gandhi, defeated Pakistan in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War, Atalji praised Indiraji and likened her to "Durga".
Here is a third example. In 1990, Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, with Dr. Manmohan Singh as his finance minister, started introducing economic reforms. Vajpayee as the leader of the BJP could have chosen to oppose the economic reforms simply because the BJP was then the opposition party. But, no, he supported economic reforms because of his belief that the Indian economy needed to be liberated from the shackles of the license-permit-quota raj.
One of the greatest qualities that I found in my interactions with Atalji is his amazing ability and ready promptness to see the truth of any situation in its multiple dimensions. He was never dogmatic about truth, seeing it in merely black-and-white hues, much less through the lens of party politics. "My party, right or wrong" was never his approach. If the Congress or any other party said or did something right, he would not hesitate to appreciate it.
It is because of this quality that he came to be regarded as 'Ajaatashatru" (a person without foes) in Indian politics. He interacted with opposition leaders with utmost courtesy and honour. When he rose to speak in Parliament, the entire house would listen in rapt attention. This was not just because he was a captivating orator. More importantly, he commanded the moral authority of the entire political establishment.
"For example, Atalji never endorsed the RSS view that India is a Hindu Rashtra."
It was Vajpayee's firm belief that India is a land of immense diversities--religious, linguistic, intellectual and others--and that a narrow, doctrinaire view of uniformity would harm our national interests. This belief did not go well with some people within his own party and the larger Sangh Parivar, who have felt that Vajpayee is not firmly committed to the Hindutva ideology. This struggle between narrow and broad understandings of the BJP's ideology is continuing even now. For example, Atalji never endorsed the RSS view that India is a Hindu Rashtra.
It was Vajpayee's firm conviction that the BJP should not give priority to contentious issues that had the potential to divide Indian society on religious lines. He made good governance and development the guiding principles of the National Democratic Alliance government that he headed between 1998 and 2004. For this reason, the six years of his prime ministership are remembered even today as a period when our country took big strides forward—in both national security and national economy.
The greatest achievement of this period, however, was intangible—it was not the nuclear bomb or the highways or the telecom and IT revolution, but the surge in national pride and self-confidence that Indians (both in India and those living abroad) started to feel. "I can't believe this," a big businessman once told me when I was working in the Prime Minister's Office. "Whenever I went abroad in the past, the Americans and Europeans would behave as if they were doing us a favour by meeting Indian businessmen. Now they request for an appointment to come and see us. And when I meet them, I can now look them in the eye and say, in an unspoken language, 'Well, we are now equal to you and soon we'll be better than you'."
My own belief is that if the BJP under Narendra Modi wants to govern India with stability and success, it must adhere to the inclusive and integrative ideology of Atalji. Even though Modi has won a bigger parliamentary mandate than what the BJP could achieve in 1996, 1998 or 1999, he should adopt Vajpayee as his role model. Like Vajpayee, he should establish a cooperative and harmonious relationship with the entire political establishment. Like Vajpayee, he should follow a consensus-based approach to governance. Like Vajpayee, he should sincerely try to reach out to the community of India's Muslims, creating a sense of assurance in them that he is truly wedded to the implementation of his own slogan: "Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas" (Care for all; Development of all). Like Vajpayee, he should make earnest efforts to normalize relations with India's neighbours, especially Pakistan, without compromising our stand against terrorism. It is heartening that Modi has appealed to Indians to observe Vajpayee's birthday as Good Governance Day.
Vajpayee cannot speak now. Nevertheless, through his quietude, he exerts enormous influence on our national life--with his sage-like wisdom; with his oceanic experience; with his natural humility; with the remembrance of his mesmerizing oratory during the previous decades; and with the haunting lines from his poetry--"Hey Prabhoo, mujhe itni oonchayi kabhi na dena, Apnon se door ho jaun, itni rukhai kabhi na dena!" (Oh Almighty, don't make me so tall and so self-engrossed that I become distant to my own people.)
There are not many statesmen in the world who exhibit such touching humility. I, who had the privilege of working closely with him for six years in the PMO, know that this is one of the many reasons why Vajpayee continues to mean so much to India.
The writer was an aide in the PMO to Atal Bihari Vajpayee between 1998-2004.