Politics is considered a dirty game in India and is often marked by the scandalous and nefarious rise to power. Atal Bihari Vajpayee however, as he proclaimed, was a lotus in a muddy pond. A country which had not seen a non-Congress Prime Minister at the centre even after 32 years of Independence, Mr Vajpayee vowed to create bipolar polity in India. An iconic leader, he shaped India’s political landscape as we know it today. Poise, elegance, and lucidity were characteristics of his persona throughout his political journey. A true statesman-who was far less orthodox than his contemporaries yet appealed to the RSS and Jan Sangh parivaar; he was an ace practitioner of realpolitik. Being a gifted orator, he would often use witty remarks to defuse tough political situations and win the hearts of his opponents in the process.
Born in 1924 to the family of a humble schoolteacher in Gwalior, Vajpayee finished his schooling in Gwalior and Ujjain. Following this, he completed his Bachelors in Arts in Gwalior’s Victoria College in three languages – Hindi, English, and Sanskrit. He then gained his postgraduation degree – M.A in Political Science from D.A.V College in Kanpur. In a classroom that he shared with his father – who decided to pursue higher education after thirty years of service as a teacher – Atal Bihari Vajpayee had to leave his law course midway.
The former Prime Minister’s activism began in his early days in school. Influenced by Balasaheb Apte, he joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1939 and was an active member of the Sangh by the age of sixteen. He joined the Quit India Movement of 1942 and was arrested with his brother. In 1947, Vajpayee was a full-time member of the RSS – an RSS pracharak.
The BJP’s roots lie in 1951 when the Bhartiya Jana Sangh was formed. Three of RSS’s frontline leaders Vajpayee, Advani and Deendayal Upadhyay were tasked with strengthening the organisation’s stand in the changing political dynamics of the country. Vajpayee would ultimately go on to broaden the party’s horizon as it shaped into modern-day BJP and become the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full term in office. He completed three stints as Prime Minister, the first one hardly lasting for 13 days, however creating sufficient chatter in Delhi’s lanes of political power. Vajpayee’s win brought India’s Right to the mainstream political circles of the country as India was now ready to witness a significant shift in power. Many believe that the infamous emergency imposed under Indira Gandhi’s regime during which Vajpayee served 19 months in prison was a defining moment for his political career.
Titled the “Ajaat Shatru” – a man with no enemies in the Indian political discourse, Vajpayee’s pragmatism won him friends across the political spectrum. An eloquent orator, he would soften his party’s towering and stoic nationalistic approach with Hindi poetry. The former prime minister, with his old-world gentlemanly ways, won the hearts of all who met him – from the common man to world leaders.
One of the most striking and mesmerising features of Vajpayee’s memory is his fierce and captivating oratory, speeches that sounded like poetry. His long pauses while speaking in public, and still managing the keep the audience engaged added grandeur and gravitas to his stature. One could go on about his impeccable one-liners or the landmark speech delivered in Hindi in the UNGA back in 1977. However, the address to the parliament when his government failed the floor test by one vote in 1996 shall forever remain iconic in India’s political history. He tore into the opposition, calling them out on their sinister means of seizing power while arguing for BJP’s deep-seated base and it being the party with the largest number of Dalit MPs. Despite his fearless and ferocious demeanour, his remarks would often employ humour as he would go on to trump the questioners.
While it was Manmohan Singh who opened up the economy as finance minister, Vajpayee’s policies drove India’s growth until 2008. NDA-1 will go down in history as probably the most reformist and economically right of centre government the country has seen. Real estate boomed – thanks to the lower interest plans and a sudden surge of real estate businessmen and homebuyers. This, coupled with ambitious highway and infrastructure projects, caused an increase in employment and gave a significant boost to the then slowing down the construction industry. He also set up a department of disinvestment – and began selling the stakes of state-owned non-strategic companies like VSNL.
His biggest achievement so far, however, was his contribution and approach to foreign policy – one that continues to be used by the current Modi2.0 government, albeit more aggressive. A pragmatic realist, Vajpayee was a natural strategist who instinctively knew when to pace things up and slow processes down. He played a significant role in India’s quest for higher power and recognition in world forums. This balance of idealism, coupled with a touch of his personal charm tipped the scales in India’s favour in three events in his term as PM – India’s decision to become a nuclear state in 1998, the Kargil war of 1999 and the outreach to Pakistan and China in his term for better relationships with our neighbours. Resolve and restraint best described Vajpayee’s approach to Indian foreign policy. Under his leadership, India was finally reckoned as a geopolitical power.
Vajpayee will forever be remembered as the gentle giant of Indian politics – a man who lived life according to his lofty ideals, gaining friends across party lines and changed the world’s image of India. A man, without whom, the existence of a clear alternative to the Congress approach would’ve been absent. The survival of the Bharatiya Janata Party and its rise to prominence is because of the herculean efforts of Vajpayee and LK Advani. His contribution to the Indian polity, her governance & policies, and most importantly, her democracy cannot be measured. In a time where politics lowers its standards every day, Vajpayee and his era of politics remind us to keep marching forward for the republic and her people.
“Political games will continue. Governments will form and fall; parties will be made and destroyed. But this country must remain, and its democracy must remain.”
Written by Abhishek Mishra and Siri Rajanahally for MTTN
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