Atal Bihari Vajpayee: lessons in life and politics

Politics, by its very nature, is polarising. It is characterised by hard positions, strong likes, perhaps stronger dislikes. In recent years, it has become even more so (on all aspects) around the world. Maybe this is because the stakes are higher now. Maybe this is because politicians are under constant scrutiny, with their words and actions not just being covered by traditional and new media, but also being widely transmitted and amplified through social media. Maybe this is because everything has to happen in real time in 280 characters, with quick comebacks mattering more than nuanced objections. And maybe this is because politics and power have become ends in themselves, not mere means to achieve larger, more meaningful things.

The achievements of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as Prime Minister in a six-year-period between 1998 and 2004 (across two terms) need to be seen in this context. Vajpayee was head of a coalition government with a comfortable majority, so there is no telling how his leadership and management style and politics would have been different had he presided over a government where his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had the numbers required on its own. Still, that’s in the realm of the hypothetical and what we do have to go by is what he did, and how he did it.

Vajpayee was a pragmatist who managed seeming contradictions, encouraged views different from his own, got the big picture (and acted accordingly), maintained the decencies of debate, and respected, even liked, his political opponents. In some eulogies following his death on Thursday, he has been described as the BJP’s Jawaharlal Nehru. In reality, he was something else — he was an alternative to Nehru, someone around whom the party he co-founded could build its image, much like the Congress did around Nehru’s, although it isn’t always evident that even the BJP gets this. Deen Dayal Upadhyay and Shyama Prasad Mookerjee were tall leaders; the latter was a young Vajpayee’s mentor; but, in Chanakya’s opinion, Vajpayee was taller.

It isn’t clear whether Vajpayee and his government would have thrived under the constant scrutiny and review that today’s governments face. To offer just one instance, Vajpayee and his telecom minister were able to effect a change in telecom policy, moving from a licence fee regime to a revenue share one (a move that resulted in a significant loss to the government, according to a draft report by the government’s auditor), and explain this, successfully, as a decision driven by the objective of increasing India’s teledensity — which it was, and which, as history shows, it achieved. But it’s all too easy to image how this would have played out now.

So, what can today’s politicians, who inhabit a very different world, learn from Vajpayee?

The first is an understanding of the big picture, something which is perhaps lost in the hyper-competitive politics of today. Vajpayee put India and its democratic traditions above all else — indeed, saying as much during a no-confidence vote his government lost in 1999. Over the past decade-and-a-half, this is a notion that seems to have lost ground, as is evident from frequent disruptions of Parliament and the fading importance of legislative procedure.

The second is about possessing (or developing) a strength of belief that is so strong that it doesn’t need repetition, reiteration, or demonstration. Contrary to what some analysts claimed soon after his passing, Vajpayee believed strongly in the core tenets of Hindutva; it is just that he didn’t think it was necessary to prove this to anyone.

The third is the ability to tolerate, if not encourage, differences of opinion and dissent. Vajpayee was happy to hear points of view different from his own, and wasn’t above accepting that he, or his ministers, were wrong. This also translated into his approach to resolving impasses. One of his aides told Chanakya during Anna Hazare’s anti-graft protest and fast in New Delhi, during which the then Prime Minister did pretty much nothing to get the Gandhian activist to see reason and stop fasting, that Vajpayee would have done things differently. “He would have landed up at the Ramlila Maidan; put his arm around Anna; maybe offered him a glass of lemonade; and told him that they could talk and sort things out,” the aide said.

The last is the willingness and ability to be civil to one’s opponents — in talk and action. It isn’t as if Vajpayee didn’t have his likes and dislikes; and it isn’t as if he didn’t have strong views; only, he didn’t allow these to influence how he talked to, or of someone. In his case, this perhaps came from his understanding of the big picture, of what really mattered, from his being pro-India and pro-democracy.

Then, this is what it takes to be a nationalist.

First Published: Aug 18, 2018 18:50 IST

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