It might shock, even displease, bhakts, bots and trolls, but Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s passing will be mourned not just by BJP supporters but even by the 69% who were hardly inclined towards the Hindi-Hindu-Hindutva party.
For the latter, especially those who have seen Indian politics before Apco Worldwide and Cambridge Analytica began telling our politicians how to do politics, Vajpayee provided a useful point of comparison with Narendra Modi.
51 months later—despite all the speeches, radio addresses, NRI jamborees, election rallies, photo ops, social media push, kidglove media —BJP’s first PM still towers over its second. And always will for all time to come.
Take it or leave it, Vajpayee was a three-term PM. You might quibble over the length of his tenures, but in the record books he will go down as the BJP man who held the reins first for 13 days, then for 13 months, and eventually for a full five years. Narendra Modi should thank Electronic Voting ‘Mata’ if he gets a second shot.
Vajpayee was a democrat. Despite long years in the opposition, anger, animosity and hatred weren’t his calling cards. He got along well with NDA allies, and rivals across the aisle, be it Nehru, Indira, Rajiv or PVN. He could take a joke. His cabinet colleagues from Pramod Mahajan to Arun Shourie were allowed to take credit for their work. Compare this with Modi calling Sonia Gandhi a “Jersey Cow”, or Sunanda Pushkar Shashi Tharoor’s “50 crore girlfriend”.
Despite a massive earthquake, two cyclones, a debilitating drought, an oil crisis and a war with Pakistan, Vajpayee maintained a steady 8 per cent growth rate. Modi has had to fudge the way GDP is calculated, and despite oil prices aiding him, it is still a middling 6-7 per cent. Vajpayee kicked off the Golden Quadrilateral; Modi has reworked the way NHAI calculates construction to spin a good yarn. He has even stopped counting job growth.
Vajpayee didn’t quite preside over paradise. Graham Staines and his sons were burnt alive in the east. Tribals were attacked in the west. Yet, nobody could have accused Vajpayee of letting India burn, as Modi has. He had the guts to speak against RSS for violence in the name of cow protection. And why, he had the courage to remind Modi of ‘Raj Dharma’ after Gujarat 2002. Modi can’t get a rape accused cabinet colleague to resign, and Brazeniya Jan ka Party is a proper full form for BJP.
The ‘Pradhan Pracharak’ has allowed his government to become the front office of RSS, which in turn has outsourced the task of destroying the DNA of India’s democracy to fringe outfits with a nod and a wink. Vajpayee, despite describing himself as “first and last a swayamsevak”, had the temerity to take on the RSS sarsanghchalak K.S. Sudarshan openly and prevailed on the sangh collegium to quarantine him back to Nagpur.
Vajpayee was man enough to enter Pakistan in a bus and deliver one of the more stirring speeches an Indian leader has made. Modi had to gatecrash Nawaz Sharif‘s birthday party to create a PR spectacle. Vajpayee will go down as the man who okayed the nuclear test at Pokhran which, arguably, gave India global standing. Modi will have to be content with just a “Financial Pokhran” which is what S. Gurumurthy calls demonetisation that destroyed the lives of millions.
Modi’s speaking style is one of shrieking, shouting, mocking, insinuating—and lying—but Vajpayee was heads and shoulders the better orator without having to recourse to any of those base skills. He could speak at a moment’s notice, and without having to read “M.R.S.” on the teleprompter. He could pack a punch, or come up with the mot juste. Sometimes, the pauses were long but the silence spoke louder. And he had a read a few books.
Vajpayee had the guts to face the press and sit one-on-one with journalists and answer their questions without having some flunkey in the PMO draft email responses to self-interviews. Sure, organisations like Tehelka and Outlook were made to pay a heavy price when the PMO was questioned. But were owners threatened, editors removed, journalists snooped en masse 24x7x365 to convey only one side of the story?
Vajpayee enjoyed his prime ministership and wore it lightly. He did the things he liked. He ate and drank as he wished. And despite being a proclaimed bachelor, lived-in with his partner without compunction, although his foster son-in-law hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Unlike Modi, who looks and behaves as if he is Atlas carrying the burden of Bharat, and has to periodically tell the world through his toadies that he is God’s gift to India, or Rama reborn or some such.
And finally, when Vajpayee demitted office as prime minister in 2004, there was still a functioning Parliament that wasn’t a branch office; a Judiciary which had a voice; an Executive that wasn’t a one-man show. There was an Election Commission that wasn’t any party’s. There was a Planning Commission that wasn’t a joke called Niti Aayog. There was a Chief Statistician who wasn’t into creative accounting. There was a CBI and an ED and IT department that weren’t homing birds. There still was a JNU we could be proud of. Etc.