It is customary to say good things about well-known personalities in public life on their birthdays or birth anniversaries. However, in the case of some, that’s not a mere formality but a reflection of genuine respect and affection. In the case of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, whose 91st birthday we celebrate today, it is also an occasion to remind ourselves of some precious qualities that are, sadly, in short supply today.
One of the greatest qualities that Atalji possessed – not only when he was prime minister, but all through his long public life spanning over six decades – was his deep-rooted belief in democracy, secularism and diversity of India. He did not simply believe in these ideals, he also did his utmost to make them the guiding principle of his politics.
A Leader With a Pan-India Appeal
This was not easy, given that he was a leader of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and that, later in 1980, became the founder of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The ideological and organisational umbilical cord that ties the Jana Sangh/BJP to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), known for its restrictive understanding of the idea of India on account of its espousal of Hindu Rashtra and Hindutva, is indisputable. Atalji neither challenged nor tried defiantly to cut it.
Yet, he attempted, with a great degree of success, to create an autonomous space for himself in which he embraced the social and geographic diversity of India. In turn, India’s diversity embraced Atalji, insofar as he won the trust of even a large section of Indian Muslims. In this sense, he became a Nehruvian in the BJP, a leader with a pan-India appeal.
Interest of Nation, A Priority
Compared to Atalji in 1996, 1998 and 1999, Prime Minister Narendra Modi won a much larger parliamentary mandate in 2014, when the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. But Modi is yet to be seen as a leader who has either embraced India’s diversity or been embraced by it.
Atalji was a Nehruvian in another crucial sense. He genuinely believed and spiritedly practised the virtue of tolerance and mutual respect and cooperation in the competitive arena of multi-party democracy. He used to insist that political organisations and functionaries should never cross the ‘Lakshman Rekha’ – the ethical line beyond which lies the ‘no-go’ territory – in their bid to get, retain or exercise power.
For him, the Parliament was a sacred institution for debate and discussion where varying points of view can be expressed. By functioning properly and as per its Constitutional mandate, Parliament would set the standard for constructive dialogue and cooperation, based on the protection of freedom of expression. Atalji never fell for the easy temptation of opposing the government of the day only for the sake of opposition. In his long career as an opposition leader, he never hesitated to support the ruling party, when such support was in the interest of the nation.
When he became the prime minister, he frequently reached out to the opposition, and also to state governments run by non-BJP parties, to expand the area of all-party consensus and to harmonise Centre-state relations, essential for development and good governance.
One of Atalji’s abiding prime ministerial legacies is the honest attempt he made to normalise India-Pakistan relations, improve relations with China, and strengthen ties with other neighbouring countries. He was convinced that bringing normalcy to Jammu & Kashmir was inseparably linked to building tension-free and trust-based relations with Pakistan. He achieved a high degree of success in winning the trust of the alienated Kashmiri population with his pledge to deal with their concerns within the framework of ‘insaaniyat’ (humanism), and not merely within the framework of the Indian Constitution.
Later, he also added ‘Kashmiriyat’ (the unique syncretic ethos of Kashmir) and ‘Jamhooriyat’ (democracy) to this pledge. Such was the emotional connect he forged with diverse and often mutually quarreling sections of Kashmiri opinion, that some Hurriyat leaders asked him to contest the 2004 Lok Sabha elections from Kashmir.
Harmonising Relations with Pakistan
In case of Pakistan, he pursued his peacemaking efforts with conviction and courage, despite severe setbacks and provocation. In this undertaking too, he won the trust of a large spectrum of Pakistani public opinion. I hope that Modi continues with sincerity and consistency Atalji’s policy of forging a new history of good-neighbourly relations with Pakistan.
Whenever this policy succeeds, and it is bound to succeed, it will surely change the destiny of South Asia. In his pursuit of peace and Asian resurgence, too, Atalji was a Nehruvian.
This essential Nehruvian continuity is important to remember at a time when the BJP and the rest of the Sangh Parivar are busy denigrating India’s first prime minister, who admired the young Vajpayee and who in turn was always admired by Vajpayee.
(The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the PMO between 1998 and 2004.)
You can listen to some famous speeches of former Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee here.