Much is being spoken about the former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, and rightly so. Today is the day to remember the great son of India. If we glance through his life and work, for me these ten things below stand out glowingly as lessons from his life and work for the nation.
First and foremost, Vajpayee had been a gentleman politician, and a poet politician. As several channels today are showing clips of his speeches in the Parliament, both as the Prime Minister and as the Leader of the Opposition, we can see that whenever he stood to speak in the Parliament, no one disturbed and people listened to him with rapt attention, enjoying the way he would blend poetry into politics seamlessly. PM Nehru respected young Vajpayee as a leader in the Opposition, and sent him to represent India in UN General Assembly. Vajpayee respected the right to dissent or disagree, as a part of polemics, and yet engaged with the dissenter, within and beyond his own party, which is so important in current times.
Second, that Vajpayee is a loved leader is proven by the fact that between 1957 to 2009, he was continuously a Parliamentarian, being elected ten times to the Lok Sabha. He believed in the seriousness of a lawmaker’s job, proposed training for newbie Legislators, and proposed National Agenda of Governance including role of Parliamentarians. The purposefulness of the Parliament was writ large in his work while in the Opposition or in power. And, while in power, unlike several other PMs before and after him, he was indeed the ‘first among equals’ in the cabinet, in the true spirit of Parliamentary democracy.
Third, Vajpayee surely was a value oriented leader. He lost his first government of 13 days in 1996 for lack of numbers in LS, and also his next government in 13 months, in 1998, again for lack of support of just one more MP. But he did not compromise on ethics. Contrast this with the times today. He was optimist that if your politics is right, people will back you up. His writing, ‘Andhiara fir hatega, ek naya savera ayega’ and poem, ‘Geet Naya Gata Hoon’, bear testimony to his spirit against adversity and acceptance of the same to win another day. People rewarded him with full majority in 1999 and he ruled full term as the first non-Congress PM to have finished a full term.
Fourth, Vajpayee had been thoroughly a nationalist, but one who advocated and practiced positive nationalism. He proudly took Hindi to the UN first time, and spoke in it in the General Assembly. He represented the best of Indian ethos and culture.
Fifth, this nationalism of Vajpayee made him perhaps the only Right Wing leader of India ever who represented the Ganga-Jamuni culture of India to the hilt, and is loved by Hindus and Muslims alike in Lucknow. He was elected with record margin as MP from Lucknow which has a large percentage of Muslim votes. Vajpayee bitterly criticised the failure of Raj Dharma during Gujarat riots, which was an indictment of the government of the day in the state. His philosophy of being a Hindu, so aptly described in his poem, ‘Hindu tan man, Hindu jeevan’, stands in sharp contrast to the aggressive no-holds barred version of Hindutva today.
Sixth, Vajpayee was the man who ushered in an infrastructural revolution in India. His model of development was inclusive, for the common man on the street. He initiated the Delhi Metro rail as a mass transit system, and encouraged Sheila Dixit of Congress to take it forward. He brought in National Highway Development Project leading to East West North South Corridor or the Golden Quadrilateral, and put his confidante B C Khanduri to lead the project to success which has surely revolutionized road transport in India. He envisaged and executed the first round of Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana which connected rural India greatly. The New Telecom Policy of 1999 brought in by him was also a crucial part of Indian telecom revolution. And, indeed he managed the economy quite well with an average of 8% year on year GDP growth on the earlier parameters during his tenure as PM.
Seventh, Vajpayee was the Messenger of Peace. Against many odds, he himself rode a bus to Lahore in 1999 for Indo-Pak peace, along with many Indian celebrities. Sad that the Pak hawks got the better of the civilian government in Pakistan and did not allow it to go ahead and then Kargil war was imposed. But it is to the credit of PM Vajpayee that he did not allow India to cross the Line of Control during Kargil War to avoid being called the aggressor and due to the Pak Nuclear status. He, even in duress, gave peace a chance.
Eighth, PM Vajpayee gave a great push to science and technology. He conducted Nuclear Test in Pokhran 2 in 1998, and made the hero of this achievement, Dr APJ Kalam as the next President of India, who was later named as the true People’s President. Vajpayee coined the slogan: Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan, Jai Vigyan. He promoted scientific spirit, and not just technology.
Ninth, Vajpayee as a Prime Minister was against rule through ordinances, and while turning POTO into POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance/Act), he took the entire belligerent Opposition into confidence through his now famous tea-party diplomacy. His was a perspective of reconciliation with the Opposition, and respect and consensus for the allies (he ran a government of 24 parties and Akalis and Shiv Sena still calls for the ‘Vajpayee touch’ in current dispensation).
Tenth, as a person and politician, he was not a hypocrite. The famous line of his, “I am a bachelor, but not a brahmachari”, says it all. When he disputed on a serious point of difference, he did not play Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. When the RSS ideologue Govindacharya called him ‘mukhouta’, he ensured that this view does not gain currency. Govindacharya is still in political wilderness.
So, here has been a Right Wing leader (who was briefly into communism as a young adult during Quit India movement), who was truly the leader of a diverse India of many languages and religions, for whom reconciliation and engagement were the key words of politics, and who considered peaceful and mass-oriented transformation as the only to go ahead.
Rest in Peace, honorable former Prime Minister of India, Sri Atal Behari Vajpayee. He lives through his work and leadership. And he famously said, “Mout ki umra kya hai? Do pal bhi nahi. Zindagi ek silsila hai.”
The writer is a media academic and columnist, being the School Head of School of Media, Pearl Academy, Delhi and Mumbai campuses today, and former Media Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities.