Former prime minister of India Atal Behari Vajpayee passed away on Thursday, August 16, after a prolonged illness. He was the 10th Prime Minister of India who assumed responsibility thrice between 1996 and 2004. After serving in the top post for 13 days and 13 months, respectively, in his first two terms, Vajpayee became the first non-Congress prime minister of India to serve a full term of five years between 1999 and 2004. His demise at the age of 93 was mourned throughout the nation and grief-stricken reactions poured in from abroad as well.
Vajpayee was known for his moderate politics even though he led the BJP, a party which has been known for its aggressive and polarising politics. Often accused of being communal and majoritarian, the BJP did not always find friends easy to come by but Vajpayee was a leader in whom both the saffron party’s friends and foes found a compatible face. He ran a government comprising several coalition partners and did well to eclipse the more hardliner Lal Krishna Advani to emerge as a soft face which suited India’s pluralistic identity better.
Much difference between Vajpayee’s and Modi’s leaderships
How much does the BJP’s current leadership resemble Vajpayee? Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expressed a deep sense of grief over the demise of a man who he called “a father like figure”, but in reality, has the current leadership of the BJP really cared to follow the footsteps of its first prime minister? The answer certainly isn’t a straight ‘yes’.
Vajpayee was a man with deep insights. Though he led a party which gained strength in the 1980s, thanks to the then ruling Congress’s suspicious identity politics which was seen more as opportunistic, Vajpayee did not choose to implement a hard project of achieving a Hindu Rastra in India by throwing the minorities into the Bay of Bengal. As a true statesman, he put his focus on the national good and worked on the agenda of development than rather than destructive politics focused on religious polarisation. He saw the Kashmir problem with compassion and tried again and again to settle issues with Pakistan. There was never a sign of hardline politics in whatever Vajpayee did as the prime minister of India.
Today, when we see the problem in Kashmir multiplying and only strong stances being taken to tame the challenges; a hyper-nationalism engulfing the nation and the minorities are made to live in an ambience of fear, one can’t say with confidence that BJP 2.0 under the captaincy of Modi is following the trails of BJP 1.0 as it was during Vajpayee’s days. There is more lip service to India’s pluralism – an essential part of the country’s life and which can’t be undermined at any cost if we wish to see it stable – than actually handling issues with compassion. Vajpayee’s ‘Insaniyat’, ‘Jamhooriyat’ and ‘Kashmiriyat’ model of approaching the problems in the state are though invoked, it is not religiously followed in reality. If we are not caring enough to abide by his legacy, then the tributes do not really matter for a statesman lives through his legacy.
Modi hasn’t cared for BJP’s old guards
The current leadership of the BJP hasn’t cared to take into confidence the party’s old guard who had once served as its government’s eyes and ears under Vajpayee. The veterans, including an ailing Vajpayee, were dropped from the BJP’s parliamentary board – its highest decision-making body. Gradually, the images of the BJP’s two towering patriarchs – Vajpayee and Advani – have vanished from the party’s banners and placards and Modi and his lieutenant Amit Shah have emerged as the saffron party’s biggest faces in current times.
There is a clear gap between how the BJP’s first-generation leaders ran its affairs and how their successors are doing the job. The BJP is now working in a more assertive way by laying the border line between the ‘hyper-national’ and the ‘anti-national’; the ‘majoritarian’ versus the rest; Modi against the others. This creates a narrative of an irreversible polarisation which might see Modi struggling to do just what his predecessor had done so easily – get along with all parties and mindsets.
Vajpayee’s death has made an impact in India almost similar to the demise of its first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964. It is because their deaths haven’t been of mere politicians but of celebrated statesmen. Vajpayee was also one of those old-timers who had brought a touch of elegance and simplicity in his politics. That breed of politicians is becoming increasingly rare nowadays and as the successor of the late prime minister, Modi will have to cover a lot of extra miles to live up to the former’s legacy.