15 - 12 - 2018

The death of a statesman

IN the passing away of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the country has lost not only the BJP’s first Prime Minister, but also a national leader who, over the decades, had emerged as a statesman with a national appeal. 

Whatever his political affiliation, Vajpayee came to believe that a national consensus had to be evolved, surpassing the traditional faultlines of India’s diverse society such as caste, religion, region and language. He believed in democracy, freedom of the Press, right to dissent and respect for constitutional institution and tolerance. 

He began his amazing parliamentary tenure in the earlier years of the Republic, lost elections often and came back again to make scintillating speeches that stunned even Jawaharlal Nehru who told Vajpayee once that he could become Prime Minister one day. His opponents liked him because he aimed high for India and its future and worked for his ideals, always rising above the petty pursuits of politicians.

Even Muslims who were generally distrustful of the BJP and its earlier avatar, the Jana Sangh, began believing in him and his sincerity. This was not a mean achievement for a leader who had grown up with the Sangh Parivar’s ingrained distrust of the minority community.

As a Prime Minister he wanted India to be counted, but his focus was to improve relations with Pakistan, China and the United States. Despite odds, he went to Lahore by bus to seek peace with Pakistan. He even visited Nishan-e-Pakistan to declare that India believed in the identity of Pakistan, differing sharply from the party’s traditional stand for  “Akhand Bharat”. The BJP and the RSS swallowed this as they realised that the party could not remain in power without Vajpayee at the helm.

His statesmanship earned him world recognition when, despite the bitter memories of the Kargil war, he chose to pursue talks with Gen Pervez Musharraf. He sought peace with Pakistan but did not give into Musharraf’s extravagant demands. His desire for peace with the western  neighbour was genuine. He said he would travel the extra mile to seek it.

In a personal conversation, I once asked Vajpayee why he was making serious efforts to seek peace with Pakistan when his party had other views. “I am doing this because no one in my party would be able to seek peace with Pakistan after me,” he said. 

In the same spirit, he was keen for talks with the people of Kashmir to end the continuing violence and bloodshed in the Valley. 

Farooq Abdullah had organised a press conference after the Prime Minister’s visit to Pahalgam, where killings had taken place a day earlier. “What question will be asked from me?” the Prime Minister asked me before the press conference. “All questions would be simple, but a tricky query is likely to be ‘Will the talks with the Hurriyat and other sections you have promised be within the framework of the Constitution or outside of it?’” I said.

We went over a few formulations on how to parry the question but none was fully satisfactory. Inevitably the question came up at the press conference I was anchoring. “Mr Prime Minister, will the talks you had promised be within the framework of the Constitution or outside?” asked a newsman.

“Talks insaaniyat ke daire mein hongi,” the Prime Minister remarked promptly. 

The answer came straight from his heart and with no contribution from me, his media adviser. He is still remembered in the Valley for his answer.

Essentially, Vajpayee was a liberal in his beliefs and grew up in the Jana Sangh, which later he turned into the BJP. His own constituency and popularity turned out to be larger than that of the BJP or the Jana Sangh.

To create the right atmosphere for talks and to stop killings, Vajpayee chose to unilaterally declare ceasefire in Kashmir on the eve of Ramzan. He did not consult many people in his own government and the RSS. They were surprised at the move Vajpayee had made with the hope that peace will be needed to stop the senseless violence in the Valley and create the right atmosphere. He only consulted his powerful Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra. Together, they asked me to issue a bland ceasefire statement which had immediate impact in the Valley. The ceasefire lasted for several months beyond Ramzan.

In foreign relations, there was tremendous progress in the Indo-US relations during Vajpayee’s time, when President Bill Clinton was in power. Clinton flew down to New Delhi and had talks with Vajpayee at Hyderabad House to discuss a gamut of issues for the improvement of relations in the political, economic and defence areas. Vajpayee made a return visit to the US to have talks with Clinton at White House.

Vajpayee’s worst moment was during his tenure as Prime Minister, when an Indian Airlines plane IC 814 was hijacked to Kabul via Pakistan and Dubai, soon after he came to power in 1999. It was a humiliating moment for India to succumb to the hijackers when India sent Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh to Kandhar to exchange a terrorist leader for India’s 160 passengers on board. Vajpayee, essentially a humane ruler at heart, did not want to risk the lives of 160 Indians trapped in the aircraft at Kandhar. 

On two other occasions he found himself helpless. His heart and mind were not in the Ayodhya movement. He was looking for a compromise on Ayodhya through different channels. One was through Chandra Shekhar, former Prime Minister, who had good relations with Vajpayee, and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Rajasthan’s outstanding Chief Minister whom Vajpayee later made the Vice-President of India. Vajpayee did not ride the rath yatra, unlike his friend Lal Krishan Advani, which ultimately led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.

Much before he became the Prime Minister I asked him: “You  were not with the Ayodhya movement, but you did not do much to stop the Parivar from demolishing it either.”

“I could not do so,” he admitted candidly. “Somehow over the years, some of us have become the victims of anushasan (discipline).” 

Apparently, he knew the RSS would overrule him.

 Much later, he found himself powerless to make Narendra Modi resign from Chief Ministership for his failure to stop the riots which led to large-scale killings in Gujarat. Advani and other members of the party and the RSS en bloc sided with Narendra Modi and overruled Vajpayee at the Goa meeting of the BJP’s national executive.

I later asked him why he did not force the issue of Gujarat riots when he did not approve of it. He simply said: “Party nahin maani (party did not agree with me)”. 

On the economic front, he really gave full freedom to his Cabinet colleagues to go ahead with the reforms initiated by Dr Manmohan Singh under Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao in 1991. During Vajpayee’s time, the GDP growth rate had over 9 per cent, an amazing achievement in the world which was to see a global recession in a few years. 

There was a dominant feeling in the party leadership that the country should hold early elections in 2004. Pramod Mahajan, the BJP’s campaign manager, coined the slogan “India is Shining”. Vajpayee was reluctant but agreed to cut short his term by a few months to accommodate the party wishes. Despite the economic reforms, it was found India was still far away from shining. Vajpayee lost the election, partly because of the misleading slogan, and partly because of  the collateral damage done by the Gujarat riots.

For several years Vajpayee was distancing himself from the RSS and trying to chalk out his own policies and place in Indian politics. While he got along with Rajju Bhaiyya, he could not develop a workable equation with now RSS chief Sudarshan. For months he would not meet the RSS chief. Once a mediator organised a dinner between Prime Minister Vajpayee and Sudarshan at the Prime Minister’s residence at 7, Race Course Road. They had a meal together but Vajpayee found the RSS chief was on fast that day!

 

HK Dua

Former  media adviser to ex-PM AB Vajpayee