Atal: a Nehruvian statesman

The silence of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s last five years contrasted sharply with the mastery of the word that shone through many decades of his life. It is as if the pregnant silences between the words and sentences in his great oratorical essays slowly grew into a wordless world that shut him in, and then enveloped him. But it is not just the contrast between word and silence that made Vajpayee. He had too many other contradictions and being the “right man in the wrong party” was only a partial description. He was happy to be a Hindu but was not limited by it, he was provincial and cosmopolitan, nationalist and internationalist, a calculating politician and a spontaneous individual, a very public leader and an intensely private person. He never lost the child in him even when he grew up and was ever simple but was also very complex. 

Vajpayee was prime minister three times, first for 13 days in 1996, then for 13 months in 1998 and for a full five-year term from 1999 to 2004. Each time, he led a coalition government and his last government was the first coalition government to complete a full term. It was his ability to reach across personal and political boundaries to individuals and parties that marked him out and gave stability to his politics and government. One major achievement was to make the BJP acceptable as a partner to many parties. If that was good politics, his efforts to resolve the Kashmir problem and reach out to Pakistan showed a rare statesmanship. He failed but the failure showed there was a possibility of success, and Vajpayee’s greatness lay in imagining it. 

Vajpayee was a swayamsevak and sometimes said he was proud of having been one, but his was a much larger persona than that. The Hindutva leadership was not comfortable with him, but he did not care. He was once called the party’s mask, which hid its hard profile, but as long as he was in charge, the mask became the face. His roots lay not only in the Hindu religion but also in the liberal world and times in which he grew up. Vajpayee’s ideals were universal and his vision Nehruvian. He had an appeal and charisma that went beyond his party and that made him great. India is a tougher and more difficult place now, and the politics is vicious and confrontationist. So, the memory of a man who straddled many worlds without prejudice and anger, and with a smile and grace, has a relevance beyond the sense of immediate loss the nation feels. 

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Atal: a Nehruvian statesman

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