Why Atal Bihari Vajpayee remains Pakistan’s best-loved Indian Prime Minister

Sagarika Ghose, author of a celebrated biography of Indira Gandhi, has done it again — this time with Indira’s rival and successor at several removes: Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Her writing technique is very similar to that of a first-class cine camera. She zooms in and out of her narrative, now highlighting the intimate and personal, now panoramicly surveying the larger picture. The reader thus ends with a vivid portrait of the personality painted against the background of his times.

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Ghose’s Vajpayee is a large-hearted chameleon, ensuring that his colors change synchronically with changes in the political environment. But the story also emphasizes that chameleon he may be, but he is a “large-hearted” one. He wanted power and could sing any tune or present any face that would get him that power, but, once ensconced on the throne, another Vajpayee would surface: generous; abounding in good humour; kind to his friends but, more importantly, also to his rivals (with the sole exception of his party challenger, Balraj Madhok); faithful to his origins as a swayamsevak but absorbing like a sponge the nuances of a parliamentary democracy, abandoning along the way the fascist tendencies of his parent organisation; paying lip service to the likes of VD Savarkar, MS Golwalkar and Deen Dayal Upadhayaya (whose wooly philosophy of “integral humanism” he genuinely admired) but, after entering Parliament in 1957 when he was not quite 32, remaining through his life in thrall to Jawaharlal Nehru’s idea of ​​India; profound in his understanding of unity in diversity and unprejudiced in his dealings with minority communities and the neighboring Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

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Hindutva rhetoric was reserved for public meetings when his party was climbing out of a hole; Once in office, his tone became dulcet and it is difficult to recall any act of discrimination in thought or deed attributable to Vajpayee. The one great and unforgivable exception was his volte face over the pogrom in Gujarat on Narendra Modi’s watch. So divided was the sangh parivar over the happenings there that it took Vajpayee well over a month to visit Ahmedabad. There, he publicly thundered, “My one message to the Chief Minister is that he should follow Raj Dharma… A ruler should not practice any discrimination between his subjects on the basis of birth, caste or religion.” Modi feebly butted in, “I am also doing that, sir”. Vajpayee, says Ghose, “after one of his long pauses, said, ‘I am sure Narendrabhai is doing this'”. Having said this, Vajpayee continued, in at least six private political confabulations, to press for Modi’s resignation, but could not have his way. The die had been cast: it was now Modi v/s Vajpayee and Moditva was clearly prevailing, with Vajpayee “risking the volcanic wrath of Hindutva cadres”. At this, Vajpayee promptly changed his tune, trying to turn the tide against their “implacably anti-Vajpayee mood”. Returning from his visit to South-east Asia in time for the BJP plenary in Goa in April 13-15, 2002, he tried to rescue his standing in the eyes of the hard-core RSS-BJP element by a grim bout of uncharacteristic Muslim -bashing: “wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in co-existence with others… instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats.” It could have been Goldwalkar speaking. But it did not help Vajpayee the “mukhauta”, as Govindacharya damned him. The communal tiger had been unleashed: “the rise of Narendra Modi spelled the fall of Atal Bihari Vajpayee”.

More true to the real Vajpayee was his “reach-out to Muslims, to Pakistan and to Jammu and Kashmir”. While Ghose has decided to describe Vajpayee, somewhat doubtfully as “India’s best-loved Prime Minister”, there can be no doubt that in Pakistan he has certainly remained Pakistan’s best-loved Indian Prime Minister! I confess to having been deeply upset at Morarji Desai naming him Foreign Minister because I imagined he would make Pakistan-bashing the theme of his foreign policy. Instead, whether as PM or EAM, he consistently remained determined to work out a viable modus vivendi with Pakistan despite more than one setback. Some of the setbacks he faced — the terrorist attack on Parliament, Kargil — would have made most others run for cover. He remained convinced and consistent, grimly determined and untiringly persistent, laying the foundations for the huge progress made on the backchannel in his successor, Dr Manmohan Singh’s time, with none other than the Butcher of Kargil, General Pervez Musharraf.

Vajpayee’s fault was that he thought foreign policy was about grand personal gestures — such as jumping on the first bus to Pakistan — and soaring Urdu rhetoric in place of dull banquet speeches. He never recognised the need for carefully planned Sherpa work to make the final climb to the summit. In consequence, while the Pak PM recited Vajpayee’s, “Jang naa hone denge” (or, at any rate, its opening line), and Vajpayee responded with Ali Sardar Jafri’s, “Phir uske baad yeh poochein ki kaun dushman hain” (the entire stanza), Kargil was being planned with the full knowledge of the Pak PM (as his foreign minister, Sartaj Aziz, has revealed). Mujahideen terrorists were assembling on the heights overlooking the vital Srinagar-Leh highway, backed heavily by Pakistani troops and high-level Pakistani planning and logistical support, even as Vajpayee visited the Minar-e-Pakistan, site of the Lahore resolution that signaled Partition, and wrote in the visitors’ book, “A strong, stable, and prosperous Pakistan is in India’s interest. Let no one in Pakistan be in doubt. India sincerely wishes Pakistan well.” “Akhand Bharat” was buried at the Minar-e-Pakistan. The Pakistanis have never forgotten that.

Vajpayee also clearly understood the connection between Pakistan and Kashmir. “He offered warm-hearted peace to Pakistan at a rally in Srinagar”. It was also in Srinagar that he came up with his famous formula of “insaniyat, “jamhouriyat” and “Kashmiriyat” instead of only the “framework of the Constitution” within which to find the answer to continuing discontent in the Valley. This on the eve of his proceeding to Islamabad in January 2004 to kick off a new and promising round of dialogue with our “distant neighbor”.

(Mani Shankar Aiyar, a former Union minister, is an MP and a social commentator)


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