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 with Vajpayee at the India Today Conclave in March 2004