Farewell, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the PM Who Brought Poetry to Indian Politics

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Farewell, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the PM Who Brought Poetry to Indian Politics

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

W

hen I hear the words Prime Minister, in my mind I picture Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He certainly looked the part, with his wardrobe of Nehru jackets and kurtas projecting a distinguished statesman’s air, emphasised by his steely grey backswept hair and bristling eyebrows. It’s also partly because he held the highest office during my growing-up years, especially his second and third terms from 1998 to 2004, a time I grew more conscious of the world around me. With his passing at AIIMS, we bid farewell to a leader who, more than anyone who followed him, embodied what the PM’s post stood for.

What set Vajpayee apart from his successors in the BJP was his willingness to engage in bipartisan politics. He was one of the few BJP leaders willing to acknowledge the unfortunate nature of the Babri Masjid demolition and came on record to admit as much. In today’s India, where it takes the Prime Minister and state Chief Ministers days or even weeks to condemn incidents of lynching, his actions seem almost revolutionary.

Vajpayee served three times as PM, in one full term and two truncated ones. However, none of his campaigns were as vitiated by communalism and political mudslinging as the ones his party ran after he stepped down. The present BJP government, not yet having completed its first term, is still busy raking up the Ram Mandir issue and preventing scholars who present an alternate history of Aurangzeb from speaking. The “Ab ki baar Modi sarkar” campaign that got the BJP into the office was based on trashing the previous 10 years of UPA rule. In contrast, even when Vajpayee’s government lost in 2004, the defeat came on the heels of the largely positive “India Shining” campaign – even if it cost them the election.

Even in today’s charged and hostile political environment, the departure of such a titan is sure to bring together people in paying their respects, regardless of their political or ideological differences.

Remarkably, for a politician who held the country’s top elected position three times, his tenures were seldom punctuated by the dreaded scams that have plagued governments since then. His final term was the most eventful, but for events of international import, like the Kargil conflict, the Pokhran-II nuclear tests, and on the brighter side, the inauguration of the Delhi-Lahore bus service. Honestly, watching the PM make headlines for these events, rather than being embroiled in a scam or preening at a global summit, inspired more faith in the nation’s leader.

Vajpayee’s passing represents an end of an era in Indian politics. An era marked by genteel public behaviour, by poetry. An era that has been replaced by an irrevocable kind of coarseness in public life, that Vajpayee would never have stood for.  

It was this image that he fostered, of an apolitical leader focused on serving the nation, which ensured his legacy remained intact even after he retired from active politics in 2005. The fact that his retirement came more than 10 years ago, and he remains such a towering figure in the Indian political arena, is testimony to his importance. Perhaps Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi, with their tenures now associated with corruption and communalism respectively, should have emulated him in this respect. Vajpayee was a model for parties across the aisle, and his absence left a vacuum that was never quite filled.

In a speech in Parliament, Manmohan Singh once referred to Vajpayee as the Bhishma Pitamah of Indian politics, informally acknowledging his role as a wise elder statesman. In the Mahabharata, the passing of Bhishma is a moment of great sadness, which unites the warring Pandavas and Kauravas in their grief. Vajpayee’s death will be no less momentous. Even in today’s charged and hostile political environment, the departure of such a titan is sure to bring together people in paying their respects, regardless of their political or ideological differences. And if in offering their condolences, some of Vajpayee’s poetic charm and philosophy rubs off on the leaders of today, the entire nation will be better off for it.

Rest in peace, poet Prime Minister.

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