Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (born 25 December 1924) who died on Thursday (August 16) will be long remembered by an India that is now in deep mourning, for the values and principles that he embodied.
Atal-ji, as he was popularly and affectionately referred to, had the rare and perhaps chequered distinction of being sworn-in as Prime Minister of India on three occasions. The first time was in May 1996 when his minority BJP (Bharatiya Janata party) government lasted all of 17 days.
He was back as PM in March 1998 and this time around his government lasted for just under 19 months. However this was also the period when he took a momentous decision that enabled India to cross the nuclear Rubicon and declare itself a nuclear weapon power.
Calling an early election, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (ABV) was sworn in again as PM in October 1999 and this time around, he completed a five-year term. In his last tenure he imparted his distinctive stamp on Indian politics and grew in stature even as he battled severe health constraints.
There are many significant and definitive contributions associated with the Vajpayee years that have transformed India across the political, economic and security domains but perhaps none more tectonic than his ‘lonely’ decision to conduct the Indian nuclear tests of early May 1998C. Uday Bhaskar
ABV entered national politics in 1957 when he was elected to the Indian Lok Sabha (lower house) for the first time and remained an active parliamentarian until 2007 when his health deteriorated.
Associated with the Hindu right wing in his youth, he witnessed the Nehru years from close quarters and as a novice member of parliament, the young ABV often crossed swords with India’s first PM over issues of governance. To the credit of the legislative ethos at the time, Nehru encouraged the young Atal, praised his opponents oratorical skills and noted that this rising star would one day become the PM of India.
Becoming right wing party leader
It took almost 40 years through the vicissitudes of Indian politics for ABV to emerge as the leader of the Hindu right wing BJP, which in turn drew its core ideological strength from the Nagpur-based RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) that was formed in 1925 as a Hindu socio-cultural organization. ABV was deeply imbued with the Hindu ethos of tolerance and the acceptance of diversity but was uneasy with the more strident and aggressive form of Hindutva politics that was entering the Indian polity in the early 1990’s.
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Yet it was this consolidation of Hindu electoral relevance that enabled ABV (assisted by his trusted deputy LK Advani) to become the political alternative to decades of Congress rule and he was elected as the PM – more than once.
Indian politics in the first 50 years ( 1947 to 1997 ) were nurtured in the Nehruvian template – one that kept religion relatively muted and emphasized the ‘idea of India’; one that rejected the ‘two-nation’ theory and was committed to an inclusive ethos of equitable citizenship and attendant identity.
ABV despite his RSS grooming was more inclined towards the tolerant and accommodating ethos of liberal Hinduism and had deep misgivings about the assertive Hindutva politics associated with the hard-liners in his party. The demolition of the Babri masjid in December 1992 by Hindu right wing elements saw him distancing himself from this orientation and he was consequently isolated within the BJP party. But an element of ambiguity remained – ABV distanced himself from the Babri demolition but did not sever the umbilical linkage with the RSS.
It is testimony to ABV’s political acumen that he was able to navigate the opposition to him within the RSS and the BJP and emerge as the unopposed candidate to be elected the PM of India. This was enabled by his colleague LK Advani in considerable measure. But the fault-line between Hinduism and Hindutva that ABV had to grapple with were sown.
There are many significant and definitive contributions associated with the Vajpayee years that have transformed India across the political, economic and security domains but perhaps none more tectonic than his ‘lonely’ decision to conduct the Indian nuclear tests of early May 1998. This was done in total secrecy barely two months after ABV was sworn in as PM on 19 March 1998. ABV exercised the Indian nuclear option that had been left suspended by PM Indira Gandhi in May 1974, when she authorized the ‘peaceful nuclear explosion’ but did not weaponize this nascent technological demonstration.
Under Vajpayee’s stewardship, India weathered the predictable US outrage and was confronted with a major security challenge – the 1999 Kargil War. Despite reaching out to his Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif and signing a historic Lahore accord that outlined a template for ending the adversarial bi-lateral relationship – ABV received a jolt (similar to Nehru and the 1962 Chinese ‘betrayal’) when the Pakistani army intruded into Indian territory in the summer of 1999 - thereby leading to a limited war.
This was the first war between two nuclear-armed neighbors and the world was legitimately alarmed. There was no precedent to this military challenge with deep strategic implications but to his credit – in his monosyllabic manner – PM Vajpayee demonstrated resolve, restraint and political perspicacity. The Kargil war was concluded under ‘firm’ US advice rendered to Pakistan and the fall-out was an uptick in the long estranged India-US relationship.
Then US President Bill Clinton made a historic visit to India in March 2000 and the foundation for a robust bi-lateral between the world’s older and largest democracies was laid. At the time Vajpayee in his expansive, eloquent manner described India and the USA as ‘natural allies’ and years of estrangement gave way to tentative and cautious engagement.
Terrorism posed complex challenges on the Vajpayee watch. The December 1999 hijacking of an Air India aircraft and an audacious terror attack on the Indian parliament in December 2001 revealed the inadequacies in India’s security response matrix.
Internal security remained an intractable challenge and the Gujarat killings of 2002 saw an ineffective and anguished PM Vajpayee, who could only voice his dismay (the reference to ‘rajdharma’ – the sanctity of governance) to little effect. Hindutva was on the ascendant within the BJP and Vajpayee was clearly in the minority camp.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s contribution to India will remain definitive and distinctive with all the certitudes and ambiguities associated with this brooding poet-politician-statesman. Vajpayee squared the circle on the nettlesome nuclear issue in an adroit manner. India will have to rise to the challenge of squaring the circle on the Hinduism-Hindutva dissonance that troubled ABV until the very end of his life.
Chitrapu Uday Bhaskar, a retired Commodore who served in the Indian Navy, is one of India's leading experts and outspoken critics on security and strategic affairs. Commodore Bhaskar is currently the Director of the Society for Policy Studies (SPS), an independent think-tank based in New Delhi, India. He has the rare distinction of being the head of three think tanks during his career - the earlier two being the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and the National Maritime Foundation (NMF). He is a columnist, editor, and contributor of numerous research-articles on nuclear and international security issues to reputed journals in India and abroad. Bhaskar has an abiding interest in the visual arts, film and theater. He tweets. @theUdayB.