The distance between Treasury benches and its “loyal” Opposition in Britain’s House of Commons is, famously, the length of two swords plus one inch. The inference is clear. Politicians might be at daggers drawn, but democracy cannot afford drawn swords.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee would have sniffed at such political architecture. His weapon was the word, not the sword. His wordplay had the flexibility of oratory and the principles of a humanist. His language was as mellifluous as his smile; even when the cut and thrust of debate demanded a touch of verbal stiletto, it was tempered by the goodwill of geniality rather than the bitterness of angst.
Some associates disliked his overt or covert generosity to opponents. He wasn’t bothered. He could be hurt when recipients of his generosity reciprocated with malice. But this did not much bother him either. He did what he did because he believed it was the right thing to do.
Anger was part of neither his personality nor his preference. If memory serves, he was angry in public just once, at a rally in Delhi in January 1977, after 19 months of draconian Emergency during which Mrs Indira Gandhi had imprisoned India and exiled India’s democratic values. India was still numb, and depressed. No one believed that Mrs Gandhi could be defeated in the impending general election. No one knew that India was smouldering beneath a fragile surface.
On that cold January evening, Vajpayee’s speech, heavy with sarcasm, sparkling with promise, and infused with faith in the Indian people, lit the fuse that led to a revolution.
He was angry not merely because he had been sent, in a brazen exercise of injustice, to jail; or because the courts had been impaled; or because the political process had been usurped by Congress. He was angry because democracy had been grievously wounded. He was a democrat because his heart was passionate about liberty; and his head said that India, with its ancient philosophy of pluralism, could only function as a democracy. Dynasties, in contrast, believed in supremacy and exclusion; it was no accident that Mrs Gandhi began to visibly nurture a dynasty only during this obnoxious Emergency. Vajpayee’s main concern was the future of India and Indians. He was a champion of democracy because he was a servant of the people. That is the logic of freedom.
Vajpayee was not weaned on silver spoons; he wrote his own destiny. His father was a school-teacher. He was born into an emerging middle class, the backbone of India. His virtues, inherited from civilisational values, became the foundation on which he could structure his formidable talents. He did not enter politics to become prime minister of India. Even independence seemed psychologically distant when, as a student in 1942, he joined Gandhi’s Quit India movement to, in the words of the Mahatma, “do or die”. When he became a member of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh in 1951, no contemporary believed it would one day lead a national government, albeit in a slightly altered avatar. Power, when it came, was a by-product of commitment.
Any conscientious prime minister wears a crown of thorns during the day and sleeps at night on a bed of nails. But above all, this responsibility tests two qualities: vision, on the strategic balance, and crisis management, on tactical scales. As prime minister, Vajpayee wrote an indelible chapter in India’s history with the detonation of one fusion and two fission bombs on 11 May 1998, and two additional fission devices two days later. Previous PMs had shied away from traversing the last mile of a national vision. Vajpayee’s cool, and silent, steps to this visionary horizon took the world’s breath away. For India, it was a moment of rebirth.
Vajpayee’s leadership was tested by Kargil. Pakistan’s onslaught, thinly veiled by familiar military deceit, had the advantage of surprise. Vajpayee’s resilience, patience and belief gave our armed forces the leadership they needed for victory.
There was much surprise, and even a hint of contradiction, when the leader who went to Lahore for peace, hosted Pervez Musharraf, the architect of Kargil, at the Agra summit. But Vajpayee, who dreamt of resolution, understood a critical fact: peace is possible only when security is achieved. Between a nuclear arsenal and Kargil he had proved to Pakistan the futility of terrorism and war. It was now up to Pakistan to abandon both and build amity between two sovereign nations. Alas, Pakistan never seems to be awake when history beckons.
As is well known, Vajpayee was also a brilliant poet. There have been many writers [and more re-writers] who have done well enough in politics; but the combination of poet and politician is rare. Uniquely, Vajpayee was equally honest to both poetry and politics. That is what lifted him from excellent Prime Minister to a hero of his generation.
The writer is MoS external affairs