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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 37 New Delhi September 1, 2018

Vajpayeeji: A Liberal in a Hardline Party

Sunday 2 September 2018


by Vijay Kumar

The predictable, and yet extremely sad, news of the death of Vajpayeeji is an irretrievable loss for the country.

Atalji was a born leader, gifted statesman, quintessential liberal and classic democrat. No wonder, the epithet “right man in the wrong party” was gaining currency throughout the 1990s, when the period marked the resurgence of the BJP in the national political arena. He was dubbed the “right man” because he was temperamentally a liberal in a party, known for its sectarianism, obscurantism and incapable of conceiving anything beyond the Hindu-Muslim binary. The three legacies left by Vajpayeeji would always stand out.

First, it was his consensus-building quality that resulted in institutionalisation of a stable coalition government in India. He provided stable governments, at times with the support of 22 parties. The earlier experiments of coalition government during the prime ministership of Morarji Desai and Charan Singh in 1977-79, during V.P. Singh and Chandra Shekhar’s time in 1989-90 and Dev Gowda and Gujral in 1996-98 proved to be unmitigated disasters. This was because the ability to carry others associated with Vajpayeeji eluded his predecessors, and the spirit of accommodation, which is so essential to carry the coalition government, was lacking. Thus, the credit for establishing the first stable non-Congress coalition government goes to Vajpayeeji. It was he, who institutionalised it, and even the Congress successfully replicated the experiment in the form of UPA I and II by providing a stable coalition government for full two terms from 2004 to 2014.

Second, Vajpayeeji was a statesman par excellence. Like Pandit Nehru, he epitomised the famous saying by an English statesman that the “politician looks for the next election, while the statesman the next generation” by envisioning the future rather than being fixated on the next election. Since Vajpayeeji was a born statesman, he was much taller than the leader of political party; in his case the erstwhile Jana Sangh and its later avtar, the BJP. Vajpayeeji was so great, tall, indeed a colossus, that his greatness could not be confined to the BJP, and for this reason alone, he should not be allowed to be appropriated by the leader of the current ruling party, particularly when the contradictions between the persona of Vajpayeeji and the present Prime Minister and their styles of functioning are radically pronounced. The present leadership of the BJP has been trying to appropriate Vajpayeeji, but the cynical attempt will backfire, as a comparison would be drawn and that would reflect poorly on the present leadership.

The third great legacy left by Vajpayee was his leadership quality. He gave full freedom and space to his Cabinet colleagues. In complete contrast to the style of functioning of the present Prime Minister, Vajpayeeji never had any trust deficit with his Cabinet colleagues. He reposed full confidence in his Ministers because he was confident, again like Nehru, that he was taller than any of them. Sadly, that trust is completely conspicuous by its absence on the part of the present Prime Minster resulting in his ministerial colleagues being reduced to glorified clerks, paradoxically at a time when there is no challenge to his leadership at the present juncture. Vajpayeeji succeeded in managing the contradiction which was so glaring in respect of his own individual image and the hardline image of his party and the RSS. He has been the only BJP leader who has succeeded in maintaining his own liberal image while going along with the Sangh Parivar. Advani praised Jinnah and the RSS finished him. Similarly, Jaswant Singh, the most liberal and articulate face of the BJP, was finished by the RSS when he emulated Advani in his praise of Jinnah. Therefore, Vajpayeeji was the only BJP leader who struck a delicate balance between his own individuality and the extra-legal dictate of the RSS, and survived despite being at odds with the RSS on some issues. Atalji, throughout his life, was above partisan politics, and three instances instinctively crop up in one’s mind. First, after the 1971 war resulting in Bangladesh becoming separate from Pakistan, Vajpayeeji lost no time in congratulating the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, by showering on her lavish encomiums and comparing her to Goddess Durga. Second, when an organised pogrom took place in Gujarat in 2002, Atalji, as the Prime Minister of the whole nation, representing entire citizens (not a section of them), gave vent to his sense of anguish by making a famous public statement that “Raj Dharma was not followed in Gujarat”, a damning indictment of the then Chief Minister. Third, when the highest civilian honour “Bharat Ratna” was conferred on him, it was endorsed by the entire political spectrum.

When Barack Obama demitted his presidency after completing two full terms, I had the occasion to write an article in Mainstream (28.01.2017) whose title was “Civility in Public Discourse: The Lasting Legacy of Obama”. The title is apt also in the case of Vajpayeeji. The same civility in public utterance and decency in political conduct were the hallmarks of the life of Vajpayeeji, and it is this civility in political speech and decorum in political behaviour that need to be emulated by his own partymen and adversaries alike.

Vajpayeeji has departed at a time when the liberal space has shrunk alarmingly since 2014 and a miasma of fear and sense of insecurity in the wake of regular lynchings have gripped the nation. Vajpayeeji had been in an almost vegetative state for a long time, and had he been conscious, he would have condemned the menacing rise of intolerance resulting in lynchings taking place with frightening regularity.

Vajpayeeji has passed away, but his legacy ought to endure, and to begin with, needs to be imbibed by the present leader of his party.

The author is a Supreme Court Advocate.

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