The outpour of national sorrow on the demise of former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee (1924-2018) on August 16 is reflective of a widespread subliminal awareness within the country that a statesman — rather than a mere politician — an individual who understood the real aspirations and priorities of the people, has passed away. With Indian society being increasingly fractured by a new version of divide and rule which resulted in the partition of the sub-continent in 1947, there’s deep societal regret that an influential and powerful voice of moderation and sanity within Indian politics and the Bharatiya Janata Party which rules at the Centre and in 15 states of the Indian Union, has been stilled forever.
Since he was first elected a member of Parliament in 1957 on the ticket of the Jan Sangh party, which some three decades later morphed into the BJP, Vajpayee represented the acceptable face of this Hindu majoritarian political party.
Unlike most of post-independence India’s prime ministers, Vajpayee, who served two brief and one full term (1999-2004) as prime minister, was well-educated in English, Sanskrit and Hindi and earned a political science postgrad degree from Agra University in an era before universities became degree factories. As such, he understood that the subcontinent had a five millennia history and culture of free enterprise. Therefore, he was strongly opposed to the inorganic Soviet-inspired public sector-led socialist development model imposed upon the country by the Congress party led by prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru and subsequently by his daughter Indira Gandhi and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, who — not to mince words — ruined the Indian economy.
Unsurprisingly, despite his brief tenure as prime minister before the BJP/NDA coalition was unexpectedly ousted in General Election 2004, Vajpayee not only carried forward the economic liberalisation and deregulation policies of his (Congress party) predecessor P.V. Narasimha Rao, but also denationalised/privatised more public sector companies — Balco, Modern Bread, ITDC Hotels etc — than any prime minister in Indian history. Moreover as a formally well-educated individual, he was able to grasp the reality that a secular State at peace with its 150 million-strong Muslim and other minorities, is a precondition of socio-economic development. Hence his repeated even if unsuccessful, attempts to settle the Kashmir imbroglio and conclude a durable peace with the neighbouring Muslim-majority theocratic Pakistan.
While the great honours and encomiums showered upon Vajpayee by prime minister Narendra Modi and the BJP are all very well, the greatest tribute they can pay this Jan Sangh/BJP stalwart, who played a major role in transforming this formerly marginal political party into an acceptable national alternative to the Congress, is to embrace his free markets economic development ideology, and adopt his soft hinduvta line towards harmonising BJP’s relations with the country’s Muslim and other minorities.