As India marks former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 97th birth anniversary on December 25, he ought to be viewed as one of the finest practitioners of India’s enlightened pluralism as embedded in its ancient civilization rather than an obligation as mandated by the constitution of a young nation-state. He died on August 16, 2018.
Vajpayee straddled public life before and after India’s independence since 1942. He was the last of the generation of leaders whose worldview was avowedly Indian and therefore universal.
For someone who as a Class 10 student wrote this about himself, “Hindu body and mind, Hindu life, Every vein carries my Hindu identity (Hindu Tan Man, Hindu Jeevan, Rag Rag Hindu Mera Parichay)”, it was not as if Vajpayee was ambiguous about what informed his sense of identity. However, what set him apart from the rest of the political crowd within his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was his innate sense of moderation and decency. He had been known to attribute that strength to his Hindu grounding.
In a speech soon after he lost the parliamentary election to Madhavrao Scindia in 1984 in Gwalior, Vajpayee referred to that poem and said: “People say that the Vajpayee who wrote that is not the same as the Vajpayee who does politics. There is no truth in it. I am Hindu. How can I forget that? No one should forget that. However, my Hindutva is not constricted, it is not narrow.”
Vajpayee also firmly subscribed to the idea that India is a Hindu nation but a secular state, a distinction between “rashtra” and “rajya” which, he said, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, one of the most controversial pioneers of the Hindu right movement, made. “Buniyadi taur par Bharat ek Hindu rashtra hai is sey koi inkar nahi kar sakta aur asweekar nahi kar sakta” (Fundamentally, Bharat is a Hindu nation. No one can deny that or find it unacceptable), he said during that speech to commemorate Savarkar in Pune.
There was nothing to suggest that until his death that his view had undergone any significant change.
Notwithstanding that Vajpayee, drawing on his soul as a poet and inquisitiveness as a former journalist, developed a decidedly reasonable and moderate approach to public and private life. Having interacted with him frequently throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I can say with some certainty that he imbibed the essence of Jawaharlal Nehru’s humanism more than any other Indian politician who followed him. And yet he retained his distinctly right-of-center political ideology. In fact, he was assertive about it throughout his political career.
It has often been said of Vajpayee that he was the right man in the wrong political party. Once you get past the cleverness of that wishful thinking you realize that he was very much emblematic of the BJP he conceived of in his mind along with Lal Krishna Advani who at 95 is all but a forgotten grandee emeritus of the party.
“Virdohi dalon me mere mitron ko mere bare mei lagta hai ki aadmi to acchha hai lekin ghalat dal mein hai. Unko main kahunga aadmi bhi sahi hai aur dal bhi sahi hai (My friends in the opposition like to think that I am a good man in a bad party. Let me tell them that I am the right man in the right party),” Vajpayee told me in 1990, adding, “I am where I belong with all my heart.”
Contrary to the popular belief, Vajpayee had always been on the side that he genuinely thought was representative of Indian ethos. At the same time, he had been acutely conscious of the extreme tendencies within his party that he thought often crossed the line.
Ironically, the lowest point in his long and illustrious public life was also perhaps his highest at the personal level. Within three days of the demolition of the Babri Mosque pm Dec 6, 1992, he was both self-assured enough and profoundly disturbed to declare the demolition as the BJP’s “worst miscalculation”.
A deeply anguished and aggrieved Vajpayee chose only two journalists, this writer and his colleague Tarun Basu, chief editor of the IANS newswire, to publicly bemoan that moderates like him in the party had been cast aside in the run up to the demolition. During a two-hour conversation at his then Raisina Road residence, Vajpayee spoke with characteristic candor on record and even more strikingly off it. However, even in those terrible times for his party and him personally, he managed to stick to his position that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological parent, considered the action to be against “Hindu ethos”.
Vajpayee was a unique political figure in India’s history since its independence in the sense that he stood for almost everything that the so-called hard-right Hindu political philosophy would require. Yet, because of the way he constructed his ideas and, equally importantly, the way he articulated them he managed to remain a broadly centrist and reasonable voice. He was a great example of soft, poetic enunciation of hard ideas. He used to be amused by the image of a cuddly nationalist that many outside the BJP had come to harbor about him.
“It is almost as if they are trying to mitigate their guilt about liking me personally even while not approving of my party,” (Aisa lagta hai ki jaise mujhe pasand karne se un mei paida ho rahe dosh ko kum kar rahen hain kyunki unko meri party pasand nahi hai),” is how he put it once.
He was someone who passionately pursued that rare right-of-center ideology at a time when the country was in the grip of left leaning socialistic thinking. His economic philosophy was that of a pragmatist liberalizer who had faith in India’s entrepreneurial impulses. His foreign policy was in line with the national consensus at play since the time of Nehru, which was one of non-alignment driven by national self-interest. His cultural outlook has very much been in keeping with his deep grounding in the Hindu worldview.
At one point or another, Vajpayee had spoken about some of the same subjects which have come to the fore of the national discourse again. For instance, in his Pune speech over 30 years ago he also spoke about how “dharmantaran” (converting to another religion) had also become “rashtrantaran” (switching national loyalties). In that context, he cited the examples of countries like Indonesia which, despite being Islamic, continued to maintain its cultural underpinnings. He said they may have changed their form of worship but not their culture. Notwithstanding all such assertions, even his worst detractors would happily grant him consistent cultural moderation, political reasonableness and high parliamentary behavior.
Born in Gwalior in 1924, Vajpayee came of age in the midst of a tumultuous campaign for India’s independence. He spent his formative years contrasted against a national upheaval that eventually created one of the world’s greatest freedom movements. In many ways, Vajpayee was profoundly influenced by the national sense of purpose that he saw and was very much a part of during the freedom movement even though he may have come to it from a position of someone like Savarkar.
During his tenure as prime minister, he did manage to follow the philosophy of the state being nonpartisan. While some of it may have to do with the compulsions of coalition politics, it was mainly because of the way Vajpayee had always approached the idea of India, “Raj Dharma” as he called it. One can always get into the specifics of his accomplishments as prime minister, such as turning India into a full-fledged nuclear power by ordering nuclear tests almost as the first order of business after taking over in 1998. However, Vajpayee’s greater contribution to India’s national life generally and politics specifically has been to steadfastly offer a competing but moral and righteous vision of the country as well as maintain very high standards of public discourse in service of true democracy.