Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A titan of Indian politics

He moulded the modern Indian right and served as one of the country's most consequential prime ministers

Politicians are thick upon the ground in India. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a rarer breed: a statesman. It was a stature he acquired despite himself at times. In a political life that spanned seven decades, he rose to become one of India’s most consequential prime ministers and a colossus of the Indian Right.

His political life had four distinct stages. In the 1930s, K. B. Hedgewar’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was still in many respects a fledgeling organization, digesting diverse influences—from Bal Gangadhar Tilak and the Hindu Mahasabha to, most importantly, V. D. Savarkar. Vajpayee joined the organization towards the end of the decade. Under Hedgewar’s successor, M. S. Gowalkar, the RSS made a tactical choice to stay aloof from the mass movement for independence. Vajpayee had other ideas. In 1942, he jumped into the Quit India movement and was briefly arrested for it. This ability to step over the line when it came to party orthodoxy would come to be one of his greatest political strengths.

When the Bharatiya Jana Sangh was formed in 1951, Vajpayee, along with Deendayal Upadhyaya and L. K. Advani, was sent by the RSS to build the party’s organizational strength. Over the next two decades, he would repeatedly display the other qualities that would elevate him: a canny political instinct and ruthless pragmatism. The former saw him progress from standing at power’s right hand—with both Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Upadhyaya—to the leadership of the Jana Sangh over two decades, picking up his first electoral victory in 1957 along the way. The latter was on display in his internecine struggle with Balraj Madhok for control of the party.

Vajpayee’s victory was a defining fork in the road for the Indian Right, just after the high noon of Nehruvianism. Madhok was steeped in ideological orthodoxy. Vajpayee, in this second stage of his political career, was far less doctrinaire while managing to retain RSS support. Would the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) exist as it does today if the Madhok faction had won? It is debatable. Vajpayee, on the other hand, was able to broaden the Jana Sangh’s appeal, in tandem with the change brought about in the RSS by Madhukar Dattatreya Deoras. Vajpayee was helped by Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, during which he did jail time, and the RSS successfully entered the political mainstream.

Vajpayee has been called the liberal mask over the hardline faction of the BJP. This is to give him too much and too little credit. His incendiary speech in Assam in 1983 during the state polls and his 1992 speech the day before the Babri Masjid’s demolition showed a politician willing to appeal to the public’s worst instincts. But equally, it is facile to call his retreat into the background during the 1980s and the early 1990s—the third stage of his career—while the BJP tacked hard to the right under Advani, or his public dismay after the demolition, a long con. Like much about him, these two aspects of his political personality present a complicated picture.

The fourth stage—three stints as prime minister, with the last, which ended in 2004, making him the first non-Congress prime minister to serve a full term—owed much to that reputation of ideological unorthodoxy, even leading to a spat with RSS chief K. Sudarshan. No other BJP leader at the time had the cross-party appeal to lead a ruling coalition as he did. Part of that appeal also came from his willingness to reach across party lines; he had been prominent among the opposition politicians who supported the P.V. Narasimha Rao government’s liberalization reforms behind the scenes, an act of great sagacity in the national interest.

He also had the knack of engineering situations, or stumbling into them, where the opposition was left with little choice but to back him to the hilt. The Pokhran nuclear tests were an instance of the former; it didn’t hurt that his administration’s diplomatic efforts in its wake were masterful. Kargil and the attack on Parliament were the latter; legitimate and important questions about intelligence and military shortcomings were left unasked because of the political optics of the situations.

When it came to economic policy, Vajpayee was a big picture man with the perspicacity to pick the right men to see to the details, and the wisdom to back them. He continued the economic reforms begun under Rao, pushing disinvestment, making the first moves towards the goods and services tax (GST), blessing the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act, opening up the insurance sector and much more. And with his National Telecom Policy and focus on the country’s road and highway infrastructure, he laid the foundations for two critical elements of India’s growth since. Equally important was his administration’s success in building institutional strength; the rapport between the finance ministry and the Reserve Bank of India has rarely been stronger than it was during his time.

As prime minister, he stands with Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and now, Narendra Modi, in his ability to seize and shape the political discourse. In his ability to win allies and disarm rivals, he keeps company with just the first name on that list. No doubt about it: A giant has left the national stage.

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