If Vajpayee’s successors can show his broadness of vision, we will be a better society and country.
In the passing of former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee after a long illness on Thursday, at the age of 93, India has lost a public figure of aura whose admirers were to be found even amongst his critics and opponents. Vajpayee was a frontline leader of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh, forerunner of the BJP, and a well-known parliamentarian from a very early age. This owed as much to his poetry and the great charm of his speeches and memorable oratorical style and flourishes as to the broadness of his politics and mental landscape, although he arose from the restrictive ideology of the Hindu-supremacist RSS.
This great Indian leader’s personal appeal cut across party lines and he was always the archetypical darling of the masses even when he lost an election. In every sense of the word, Vajpayee was seen by all Indians as a statesman of the highest timbre.
This tall politician refused to have anything to do with the RSS-BJP’s protracted agitation to demolish the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. When the medieval structure was pulled down by thousands of frenzied foot soldiers of RSS front outfits, including the BJP, in the name of devotion to Lord Ram, Vajpayee expressed his great sorrow in Parliament.
This was a reason many Indian liberals who abhorred the RSS-BJP, as well as voters among Muslims who are otherwise deeply suspicious of the BJP, voted in Vajpayee’s name when his party emerged for the first time as the biggest party in Parliament in 1996, leading him to become Prime Minister, the first truly non-Congress PM this country had seen.
Vajpayee’s predecessors in the Congress had set the stage for India going nuclear, but it was under his leadership that the country went public with testing the bomb, opening up a new trajectory for India in international diplomacy.
The country’s first BJP PM will also be long remembered as a man of peace. To break the logjam with Pakistan, he went on his famous “bus yatra” to Lahore to great regional and international acclaim. Subsequently, not long after Pakistan forced the Kargil military confrontation on India, he invited President Pervez Musharraf, who as Pakistan Army Chief had initiated the Kargil misadventure, to Agra for summit talks, although this attempt to make peace didn’t succeed.
Vajpayee also infused true hope in the people of Kashmir when he publicly assured them that he would work to sort out the Kashmir issue within the framework of “insaniyat, jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat”. This was as large-hearted and astute a political gesture as can be recorded.
The late PM broke fresh ground in establishing a closer relationship with the United States in a difficult period after the nuclear tests, and in the domestic sphere widened the economic field for ordinary Indians, especially by making mobile telephony commonplace. If Vajpayee’s successors can show his broadness of vision, we will be a better society and country.