The death of a statesman Vajpayee’s belief in insaaniyat set him apart and lent him a national appeal

By H K Dua, former Editor-in-chief of The Tribune
and media adviser to ex-PM AB Vajpayee

Publised in The Tribune, On August 17, 2018

IN the passing away of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the country has lost not only the BJP’s first Prime Minister, but also a national leader who, over the decades, had emerged as a statesman with a national appeal.
Whatever his political affiliation, Vajpayee came to believe that a national consensus had to be evolved, surpassing the traditional faultlines of India’s diverse society such as caste, religion, region and language. He believed in democracy, freedom of the Press, right to dissent and respect for constitutional institutions and tolerance.
He began his amazing parliamentary tenure in the earlier years of the Republic, lost elections often and came back again to make scintillating speeches that stunned even Jawaharlal Nehru who told Vajpayee once that he could become Prime Minister one day. His opponents liked him because he aimed high for India and its future and worked for his ideals, always rising above the petty pursuits of politicians.
Even Muslims who were generally distrustful of the BJP and its earlier avatar, the Jana Sangh, began believing in him and his sincerity. This was not a mean achievement for a leader who had grown up with the Sangh Parivar’s ingrained distrust of the minority community.
As a Prime Minister he wanted India to be counted, but his focus was to improve relations with Pakistan, China and the United States. Despite odds, he went to Lahore by bus to seek peace with Pakistan. He even visited Nishan-e-Pakistan to declare that India believed in the identity of Pakistan, differing sharply from the party’s traditional stand for  “Akhand Bharat”. The BJP and the RSS swallowed this as they realised that the party could not remain in power without Vajpayee at the helm.
His statesmanship earned him world recognition when, despite the bitter memories of the Kargil war, he chose to pursue talks with Gen Pervez Musharraf. He sought peace with Pakistan but did not give into Musharraf’s extravagant demands. His desire for peace with the western  neighbour was genuine. He said he would travel the extra mile to seek it.
In a personal conversation, I once asked Vajpayee why he was making serious efforts to seek peace with Pakistan when his party had other views. “I am doing this because no one in my party would be able to seek peace with Pakistan after me,” he said.
In the same spirit, he was keen for talks with the people of Kashmir to end the continuing violence and bloodshed in the Valley.
Farooq Abdullah had organised a press conference after the Prime Minister’s visit to Pahalgam, where killings had taken place a day earlier. “What question will be asked from me?” the Prime Minister asked me before the press conference. “All questions would be simple, but a tricky query is likely to be ‘Will the talks with the Hurriyat and other sections you have promised be within the framework of the Constitution or outside of it?’” I said.
We went over a few formulations on how to parry the question but none was fully satisfactory. Inevitably the question came up at the press conference I was anchoring. “Mr Prime Minister, will the talks you had promised be within the framework of the Constitution or outside?” asked a newsman.
“Talks insaaniyat ke daire mein hongi,” the Prime Minister remarked promptly.
The answer came straight from his heart and with no contribution from me, his media adviser. He is still remembered in the Valley for his answer.
Essentially, Vajpayee was a liberal in his beliefs and grew up in the Jana Sangh, which later he turned into the BJP. His own constituency and popularity turned out to be larger than that of the BJP or the Jana Sangh.
To create the right atmosphere for talks and to stop killings, Vajpayee chose to unilaterally declare ceasefire in Kashmir on the eve of Ramzan. He did not consult many people in his own government and the RSS. They were surprised at the move Vajpayee had made with the hope that peace will be needed to stop the senseless violence in the Valley and create the right atmosphere. He only consulted his powerful Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra. Together, they asked me to issue a bland ceasefire statement which had immediate impact in the Valley. The ceasefire lasted for several months beyond Ramzan.
In foreign relations, there was tremendous progress in the Indo-US relations during Vajpayee’s time, when President Bill Clinton was in power. Clinton flew down to New Delhi and had talks with Vajpayee at Hyderabad House to discuss a gamut of issues for the improvement of relations in the political, economic and defence areas. Vajpayee made a return visit to the US to have talks with Clinton at White House.
Vajpayee’s worst moment was during his tenure as Prime Minister, when an Indian Airlines plane IC 814 was hijacked to Kabul via Pakistan and Dubai, soon after he came to power in 1999. It was a humiliating moment for India to succumb to the hijackers when India sent Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh to Kandhar to exchange a terrorist leader for India’s 160 passengers on board. Vajpayee, essentially a humane ruler at heart, did not want to risk the lives of 160 Indians trapped in the aircraft at Kandhar.
On two other occasions he found himself helpless. His heart and mind were not in the Ayodhya movement. He was looking for a compromise on Ayodhya through different channels. One was through Chandra Shekhar, former Prime Minister, who had good relations with Vajpayee, and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Rajasthan’s outstanding Chief Minister whom Vajpayee later made the Vice-President of India. Vajpayee did not ride the rath yatra, unlike his friend Lal Krishan Advani, which ultimately led to demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992.
Much before he became the Prime Minister I asked him: “You  were not with the Ayodhya movement, but you did not do much to stop the Parivar from demolishing it either.”
“I could not do so,” he admitted candidly. “Somehow over the years, some of us have become the victims of anushasan (discipline).”
Apparently, he knew the RSS would overrule him.
Much later, he found himself powerless to make Narendra Modi resign from Chief Ministership for his failure to stop the riots which led to large-scale killings in Gujarat. Advani and other members of the party and the RSS en bloc sided with Narendra Modi and overruled Vajpayee at the Goa meeting of the BJP’s national executive.
I later asked him why he did not force the issue of Gujarat riots when he did not approve of it. He simply said: “Party nahin maani (party did not agree with me)”.
On  economic front, he really gave full freedom to his Cabinet colleagues to go ahead with the reforms initiated by Dr Manmohan Singh under Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao in 1991. During Vajpayee’s time, the GDP growth rate had over 9 per cent, an amazing achievement in the world which was to see a global recession in a few years.
There was a dominant feeling in the party leadership that the country should hold early elections in 2004. Pramod Mahajan, the BJP’s campaign manager, coined the slogan “India is Shining”. Vajpayee was reluctant but agreed to cut short his term by a few months to accommodate party wishes. Despite economic reforms, it was found India was still far away from shining. Vajpayee lost the election, partly because of the misleading slogan, and partly because of  the collateral damage done by the Gujarat riots.
For several years Vajpayee was distancing himself from the RSS and trying to chalk out his own policies and place in Indian politics. While he got along with Rajju Bhaiyya, he could not develop a workable equation with new RSS chief Sudarshan. For months he would not meet the RSS chief. Once a mediator organised a dinner between Prime Minister Vajpayee and Sudarshan at the Prime Minister’s residence at 7, Race Course Road. They had a meal together but Vajpayee found the RSS chief was on fast that day!

Future of Hope Importance of being an optimist By H K Dua

HK Dua“The 21st Century: Geo-politics, Democracy and Peace” by Balmiki Prasad Singh

Published by Routledge India, New Delhi, pages 345

A little before the last century ended, Samuel P. Huntington came out with his grim book “Clash of Civilizations”. It generated a great deal of debate over how the world would shape its future after what the earlier century has left behind. . A new year, or a new century, always starts with good intentions and the hope that better days are ahead. Sanguine resolutions and intentions, however, don’t change the nature of man or the ways of the nation states or the institutions they control, or their geo-political dispositions.

Competing interests continue to clash, realpolitik still prevails. The world cannot shrug off the old baggage, merely because the calendar page has changed.  Nor can   change the ways of men and women who control the nation states or global institutions, or geopolitics of the world.

What influenced Huntington’s thinking were the two world wars, the rise of competing ideologies, capitalism versus  communism, the piling up of nuclear weapons, the vast inequalities, hunger poverty and the failure of the nation states to tackle the sharp  divides they have  created across the  world. Before it closed, the 20th century saw the rise of religious fundamentalism and terrorism. The 21st century has inherited an explosive package of tension and conflicts so far no one knows how to handle it.

B P Singh is one of those civil servants who think beyond the call of his key assignments he has handled. He has come out with a thought-provoking book reflecting about  the future of the world.

Huntington did not throw up hopeful signs for the future.

B P Singh doesn’t underestimate these challenges; but all said and done, he is not given to taking a dismal view of the man’s capacity to learn from the past, think afresh and evolve ways to tackle   the tensions, conflicts and wars left behind by the previous century. Singh seems to be an incorrigible optimist and despite the present scenario, he continues to believe that ultimately good will prevail over much that is evil.

Will it?

While harmony and peace are necessary for human progress, the forces that generate hatred, conflicts and wars have not given up their designs or destructive predilections.  For instance, the world has yet to find ways to effectively fight the rise of religious fundamentalism and terrorism.  Combating these requires a collaborative international drive that is unlikely to be launched soon because of geopolitical factors that are blocking a consensus among the nations.

At the same time there are those elements of international society which are making efforts to promote peace and harmony, tolerance coupled with an inclusive democratic culture. These attempts at having harmony and peace are spreading across the continents but these are thinly-spread and weak against the disruptive forces.

There cannot be peace in the world unless the underlying causes like inequality within a country or among the nations are ended.   Money is easily available for making lethal weapons by the powerful lobbies nurtured by the military-industrial complex, but most countries are not spending enough on fighting malnutrition and hunger, on education and   jobs or shelter.

The world is divided sharply between the Have’s and Have-nots that cannot ensure a harmony and peace B P Singh is seeking.

Even international discourse on world issues has sadly degenerated as also in domestic politics of even democratic countries, including India.  The tone of recent rhetorical exchanges between the US and North Korea is not the way for finding a solution of their nuclear stalemate. Statesmanship requires different language and approach.

Sober voices across the world are damned as peaceniks or  bleeding-heart liberals.  Peace at home and abroad is considered the concern of  “these stupid NGOs”. These are not the times for peace-makers but of loud-mouth hate mongers.

The future of democracy and the Rule of Law wherever these prevail are being sacrificed in the name of powerful nation-states and their leaders. B P Singh agrees that there is no one in the world like Gandhi who would sacrifice his life to serve the humanity. Often a great man appears on the scene the world badly needs, but it happens only once in a while in the long stretches of history.

The writer clutches at the hope that those who are fighting for basic human rights, education, health and poverty, jobs and shelter will succeed during the next few decades. He believes that the world is now becoming aware of the dangers of global warming. That the pious resolutions emerging from seminars and conferences in different parts of the world, will lead to the end of global warming is unrealistic. Recurring failure of pollution control in the capital of India alone and around defies such a conclusion.

B P Singh thinks that the world is becoming increasingly conscious of Twenty First century challenges. The most of them, he thinks, can be fought with “Bahuda” approach which he translates from Rig Veda as pluralism encompassing democracy, the Rule of Law, tolerance and more inclusive polity.  Looking at the situation in most of the world, including India, the situation is not very promising for pluralism.  The good is taking long time to triumph.

It is not, however, a crime or sin to be an optimist who believes truth and goodness will ultimately prevail even in an age of post-truth. Optimism and good intentions are not enough.  However, they do create hope for a better future.

In any case, being hopeful does anyone no harm.

A former Editor-in-Chief of The Indian Express and Rajya Sabha member. At present he is Adviser in Observer Research Foundation, (ORF).