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ET EDIT-Vajpayee: Herald of Stability Sans the Congress

August 17, 2018 06:37 AM


Vajpayee: Herald of Stability Sans the Congress
As prime minister, he drew in diverse allies and ended BJP’s political untouchability
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the first non-Congress prime minister to hold office for more than five years. He was also the first to lead a diverse coalition at the Centre to provide a stable government. Vajpayee, BJP’s founding president, had risen from the ranks of the Rashtriya Sawayamsevak Sangh to president of the Jan Sangh after Deendayal Upadhyaya. His NDA government ended BJP’s political untouchability, paving the way for its subsequent rise to absolute majority under Narendra Modi in 2014.

L K Advani was the leader of the blood-stained Ram Janmabhoomi agitation that transformed BJP into an electoral force. However, the party needed a liberal face — a mukhota, a mask, in the words of RSS ideologue Govindacharya — to attract and retain allies. Vajpayee fit the bill. He was affable, eloquent, the opposite of straightjacketed in manners and tastes. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao chose Vajpayee, leader of the Opposition, to lead the Indian resistance to a Pak move to condemn India at the UN Human Rights Commission. India prevailed.

Vajpayee was a big-picture man, who left the details to others. His principal secretary Brajesh Mishra enjoyed his unqualified trust. His choice of finance ministers, Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Sinha, left India with a legacy of lasting tax reform. Sinha compressed India’s wide range of indirect taxes, created consensus on value added tax through an empowered committee of state finance ministers, headed by Communist Asim Dasgupta. Jaswant Singh appointed the Kelkar panels on direct and indirect taxes, whose recommendations guided subsequent reform under the UPA.

To shift from trudge to trot along the same path is management. To change tack calls for leadership. Vajpayee thought outside the box on Kashmir and Pakistan. His offer to settle Kashmir’s outstanding problems in the light of humanity, democracy and the Kashmiri spirit remains to be bettered. That Vajpayee could pursue friendship with Pakistan after the Kargil stab-in-the-back showed his confidence in his big picture.

His poetry and charm hid hard-headedness on some subjects. Narasimha Rao had prepared the ground for a second round of nuclear tests, to follow up on the 1974 one. But he pulled back, presumably under American pressure. Vajpayee had them conducted in a manner that prevented detection till after the fact. Vajpayee then moved to damage control, initiating a dialogue with the US that survived the Vajpayee and Clinton administrations and culminated in the path-breaking Indo-US nuclear deal. It is a different matter that BJP then chose to oppose the deal.

The Vajpayee government implemented gradual decontrol of petroleum fuel retailing. It made pragmatic changes to telecom policy and was the only government to actually privatise public sector units, instead of selling tiny stakes in them. It reformed the pension system, moving from defined benefit to defined contribution for new recruits to the civil service.

The Vajpayee government witnessed and fought back several terror attacks, including the one on Parliament. Incidents of communal violence were rare, until the Gujarat riots broke out in 2002 and led to divisions within BJP. Vajpayee’s plea for Rajdharma had few takers. Many blame that defeat for the UPA’s victory in 2004, in spite of India shining. That he fought for Rajdharma and lost could well serve as Vajpayee’s epitaph.

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