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Any worth­while legacy should have three el­e­ments: the good deeds done; the knowl­edge left be­hind which ben­e­fits peo­ple and the char­ity peo­ple do in the per­son’s name. Former prime min­is­ter Atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee, who passed away last week, would score high on the first two el­e­ments and the third is yet to be seen.

This would ac­count for the mas­sive out­pour­ing of grief across the na­tion for a politi­cian who re­tired 13 years ago and hasn’t ut­tered a word in pub­lic in the past 11 years.

Va­j­payee was prime min­is­ter three times—two short terms and one com­plete term. His cu­mu­la­tive reign of six years, two months and 16 days is laden with good deeds which the na­tion should be grate­ful for.

For Va­j­payee, In­dia’s na­tional in­ter­ests were supreme, be it in the realm of na­tional se­cu­rity, de­fence, diplo­macy or ro­bust eco­nomic growth. He laid the course for a 21st cen­tury In­dia that suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have only con­tin­ued to steer. From the eco­nomic lib­er­al­i­sa­tion be­gun by his pre­de­ces­sor Narasimha Rao, which meant shed­ding loss-mak­ing pub­lic sec­tor un­der­tak­ings, ini­ti­at­ing a pro­gramme to build world­class in­fra­struc­ture, be­gin­ning the tele­com and avi­a­tion revo­lu­tions and over­see­ing a his­toric in­crease in In­dia’s for­eign ex­change re­serves. He ar­tic­u­lated the best line for­ward for Kash­mir, which is now be­ing echoed in the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion af­ter a dis­as­trous fourand-a-half years. It is the pol­icy of in­saniyat, jamhooriya­t and Kash­miriyat, loosely trans­lated to mean hu­man­ity, democ­racy and the state’s age-old so­cio­cul­tural val­ues. All of these gam­bits came even as he bal­anced a frag­ile 22-party coali­tion and bat­tled his ide­o­log­i­cal par­ent, the RSS, that op­posed his vi­sion. Va­j­payee pre­vailed be­cause, at the end of the day, he had the stature and the mag­na­nim­ity to carry ev­ery­one with him.

He re­sponded to a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing re­gional se­cu­rity en­vi­ron­ment with alacrity by bring­ing the Bomb out of the closet. This, at the risk of deal­ing with the fall­out of se­vere in­ter­na­tional op­pro­brium. “In­dia had to be self-re­liant in its de­fence. We just can’t de­pend on oth­ers to come to our res­cue,” he said.

He did not leap aboard the US band­wagon for the in­va­sion of Iraq in 2003, that we now know to be one of this cen­tury’s great­est geopo­lit­i­cal blun­ders, again, be­cause it was not in In­dia’s na­tional in­ter­est. His his­toric bus jour­ney to La­hore demon­strated a will­ing­ness to take big risks for peace even as his de­ci­sive lead­er­ship proved vi­tal for In­dia’s Kargil vic­tory, turn­ing ad­ver­sity into tri­umph. He en­dured Pak­istan’s per­fi­dies—the Kargil War and the De­cem­ber 13, 2001, at­tack on Par­lia­ment—to push for peace, be­cause, as he fa­mously said, you can change friends, but not your neigh­bours. This was also the rea­son why, in 2003, he re­sumed an out­reach to China, which he be­gan as a for­eign min­is­ter in 1977.

The Va­j­payee era is, there­fore, es­sen­tial for un­der­stand­ing the In­dia of the early 21st cen­tury even as it is pro­jected to be­come the world’s third-largest econ­omy by 2030.

As the first non-Congress prime min­is­ter to last his term, he taught this coun­try how to man­age coali­tions with­out com­pro­mis­ing his agenda. He was a true demo­crat, who re­spected his op­po­nents, re­gard­less of their vir­u­lence. He brought into the po­lit­i­cal arena a cer­tain gen­tle­ness and de­cency sorely miss­ing to­day. He also had the knack of siz­ing up com­pli­cated sit­u­a­tions and re­duc­ing them to ba­sic prin­ci­ples. I be­lieve it was this clar­ity of mind that en­abled him to take many bold de­ci­sions. It was be­cause of his calm, con­tem­pla­tive de­meanour, laced with hu­mour, and his po­etic turn of phrase, that he be­came the first non-Congress leader to have na­tional charisma. Our spe­cial com­mem­o­ra­tive is­sue ex­plores Va­j­payee’s era with the sto­ries be­hind his key ini­tia­tives, writ­ten by those who have known him in­ti­mately. Former tele­com min­is­ter Arun Shourie on Va­j­payee’s un­likely turn as an eco­nomic lib­er­aliser, Group Ed­i­to­rial Direc­tor (Pub­lish­ing) Raj Chen­gappa on why he signed off on mak­ing In­dia an overt nu­clear weapons power, former Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Shivshanka­r Menon on Va­j­payee’s neigh­bour­hood out­reach, se­nior diplo­mat Rakesh Sood on why he em­barked on the La­hore bus jour­ney, diplo­mat-politi­cian Pa­van K. Varma on Va­j­payee the poet PM, his former aide Sud­heen­dra Kulkarni on the Va­j­payee-Ad­vani dy­namic, and many more.

In Jan­uary 2004, the last year of his six years as prime min­is­ter, Va­j­payee was in­dia to­day’s Newsmaker, The Great Uni­fier, as we called him. This was be­cause, de­spite lead­ing a right-wing Hindu na­tion­al­ist party, he prac­tised the pol­i­tics of in­clu­sive­ness. At a time when the in­stinct is to di­vide rather than to unite, that legacy of Va­j­payee must never be for­got­ten.

(Aroon Purie)

Aroon Purie with Va­j­payee at the In­dia To­day Con­clave in March 2004

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