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INDIAN EXPRESS EDIT-Atal Bihari Vajpayee There may not be many in his mould in his party today. But his playbook will endure

August 17, 2018 06:00 AM

Atal Bihari Vajpayee
There may not be many in his mould in his party today. But his playbook will endure.
In times of either-or, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a reminder that politics in India wasn’t always like that, that it needn’t inexorably be so. He was the BJP leader who helped an ideologically fired-up party make space for itself despite the liberal mainstream, and in it too — the fine balancer of nationalism and Hindutva with liberalism.

He was not just the politician who persuaded voters from across the fence to give him and the BJP a chance. He was also the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full term. In the coalition era of the 1990s, the BJP PM with a pan-India appeal made friends across the aisle — the Vajpayee council of ministers included Nitish Kumar, Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Omar Abdullah.

Till the BJP was led by Vajpayee, it seemed to have the capacity to both shrink and harden to deliver its core message — at Ayodhya in 1992, in Gujarat 2002 — and also, at other times, to soften its edges. The Vajpayee government had put “on the backburner” the contentious issues of Article 370, Ram temple and Uniform Civil Code. The communal-secular divide has had a chequered career since the BJP rose in the 1990s, waxing and waning in its political salience. But it can be said that Vajpayee’s presence in active politics leavened it with moments of nuance and ambiguity. Those moments may seem strategic and cultivated. Yet while they were there, they befitted a nation made up of cross-cutting cleavages and multiple identities.

If Vajpayee’s persona nudged the politics of his party into larger spaces, his stint as PM will be remembered for large transitions. His legacy will endure in a more modern and less hidebound economic and foreign policy, in the daring leaps of imagination in infrastructure policy, and for a new vocabulary on the congealed conflict of Kashmir. Long before the BJP experimented — unsuccessfully — with an alliance with the PDP, Vajpayee had made inroads in the Valley where he will be remembered as the national leader who gave equal value to Insaaniyat, Kashmiriyat and Jamhooriyat.

On the economy as in India’s stance towards the world, he carried forward the crucial departures from the Nehru-Indira era made by Narasimha Rao, another leader who played with silence and nuance (though Vajpayee also had humour, eloquence, poetry). Vajpayee, too, realised that “garibi hatao” needed to be supplemented with a slogan that spoke to the burgeoning middle classes. It is another matter that “India Shining” also became associated with his government’s undoing in 2004. In government, he fought off resistance, from without and within the Sangh Parivar, to lay highways, bring in reform. In foreign policy, he pushed ahead with India’s opening up to the world, on its own terms, as a nuclear power.

For all his large influence, there are no leaders in the BJP in the Vajpayee mould — or they have been relegated and marginalised. Yet, even as Vajpayee goes, his playbook will endure. Going ahead, the BJP may need to take more than a leaf out of it.

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