When the news reached that the government is awarding Bharat Ratna to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of the most towering figure of Indian politics, it became a matter of personal jubilation for me. In 2001, on one colorful evening of the chilling Delhi winters, I was visiting a prominent Muslim cabinet minister who was a part of a coalition government headed by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of BJP. There were some prominent people sitting in the dining hall like, an influential Christian rights leader, who was a staunch opponent of BJP and a human rights activist, who was also a bitter critique of BJP. After some niceties of wine and cheese, I saw the minister asking his close aide to carry some nicely cooked chicken curry to Prime Minister’s house. For a moment, I was amused by the childish demeanor of the minister and his innocent enthusiasm to send the chicken curry which he had himself prepared. In the dinner that followed, the motley garb of secular, liberal and western-educated socialites who would not spare a single occasion to lampoon the saffron ideology and its torch-bearers, was praising Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Unison. I could see that Vajpayee ji was equally popular among his friends and foes as a man who enjoyed life, loved people and nurtured a poetic, romantic and innocent heart.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a legendry character in the history of India. He as a human being is liked alike by his friends and foes. Often, compared with Nehru, he was once mentioned as a right man in the wrong party by Congress leaders. Vajpayee ji, in his characteristic humorous style, once declared that he is a bachelor but not a Brahmachari. For any Indian politician, such a statement would be considered very bold and, on top of it, if it comes from a person who is born and brought up in strict Hindu nationalist ideology of Sangh and Jan Sangh , it feels like a cool breeze making one feels that his leader is a man with heart and humor. Even when I talk to my friends from Pakistan, they often express their genuine love and praise for Atal Ji. A few days back when he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, it became a matter of pride for everyone. Even a person like Mamta Banarjee who is famous for her acerbic tongue said that Atal ji is beyond politics and we all respect him.
While writing this article, I feel driven by two instincts. The first one, closer to my heart takes me to my schools days when I used to read Nehru’s autobiography and felt myself a part of world history. Atal ji has always given us a glimpse of Nehru in him, with his vices, poetry and vision. But, nevertheless, a politician must be the one who can connect with the hearts of people and if that takes some vices also, I feel that there is no harm in them. My second instinct compels me to venture beyond the aforementioned personality traits of Atal Ji and explore his leadership style. Someone who has held a soft corner for BJP and who is a keen student of Indian politics must feel the urge to see Modi vis-à-vis Atal Ji. I feel this urge because Modi ji has shown us a whole new dreamland of promises and his vision for India. He has also conveyed a genuine desire to execute his plan but having seen him work for last six months one can easily feel that there is something wrong; if not in the intensions of the man then most certainly in the way he practices his dreams. Atal Ji was never as vocal as Mr. Modi is about his vision for India but today when one looks back, one can easily see that he could achieve almost a revolution of sorts with his easy-going and humorous style.
For Vajpayee Ji, one expression, not very often used for politicians, can be used in order to give a best description of his leadership style and that is, ‘smooth player’. Yes, Vajpayee jee was a ‘smooth player’. He could steer India in the direction of rapid economic growth with a coalition that was marked by innumerable frictions ranging from ideologies to vested political interests. India made huge strides in the field of telecom revolution, liberalization, defense, diplomacy and infrastructure under Vajpayee ji’s leadership. He emerged as a strong leader in creating a brilliant nation-building team that comprised people like Adwani, Pramod Mahajan, Arun Shaurie, Suresh Prabhu and Jaswant Singh. The whole new chapter of Indian diplomacy with US was authored in Atal ji’s reign. One could feel the individual presence, personality and freedom of every minister under the towering personality of Atal ji. Additionally, to a large extent he was able to keep Hindutva extremists at bay and did not hesitate in reprimanding Modi jee to follow the ‘Rajdharma’. With such an exemplary performance in governance, he was least expected to lose the elections. But he lost. I guess, Indian voters were not yet ready for such a big leap, but nevertheless, he definitely gave an impression of an institution-builder in his short reign.
In the present dispensation, any lay observer will feel that the Modi ji must take a cue from Atal ji. He is certainly becoming famous as someone who is giving sleepless nights to the ministers through his highly regimented schedule, spy-machinery and domineering style of administration. One feels that there is only one real ministry i.e. PMO and the rest are all honorary positions. One hardly feels any other presence than that of Mr. Modi, except a few people like Jaitly and Parikkar and, even they are known account of their previous credentials not because of their actions in the existing portfolios.
The government seems to be high on words and announcements but low on the follow-up. Abbreviations, slogans, photo-ops, catchwords and loud declarations are abound but concrete actions plans are not yet visible for schemes like swachcha bharat, major reforms in civil services, infrastructure etc.
The essential difference between the two lies in the fact that Modi jee is at his best a crusader, and Atal ji,a philosopher, a zen monk who looks like a politician or Zorba the Buddha who happens to be a politician. Narendra bhai as a crusade has single-handedly fought against a nation-wide ostracization campaign led by media, intellectuals and politicians for almost a decade, for still-debatable, uncomfortable and hard-to-gloss-over reasons. But finally he rose like a phoenix, riding on the wave of development/Hindutva and made his way to seven race course. But, the problem is that he is still in the ‘crusader-mode’. He is still fighting and having witnessed his enthusiasm for elections, it seems that he still wants to go back in time and fight elections. His past still haunts his sub-consciousness. The personality conditioned by the circumstances of battle has its own complexities marked by fear, inability to trust, dictatorial attitude and little-bit of ruthlessness. But these complexities can never make a successful administrator. The times of elections are gone and now there is not even an opposition. Hence the obsession with elections and electoral victories must be left behind. After all, someone had to win the elections after the vacuum that emanated from Congress’ incompetence and, this time it was BJP under Narendra Bhai. However, that is not all. If he needs to make a real difference then he has to rise above the narrow confines of ideology and show his mettle as a true statesman and administrator, like Atal jee.
It is high time that Modi ji took a lesson from the Bhishma of BJP i.e. Atal ji, become a bit more democratic, soft , trusting and liberal in leadership and, work on a long-term vision based on a wise statecraft and a sound understanding of the nation’s needs. If nothing else, then at least one of the most essential and a much-needed aspect of Vajpayee Jee’s model must be adopted with immediate effect, and i.e. non-polarizing approach and image. His public image still remains that of a polarizing leader who finds it immensely difficult to come out of the unrealistic and self-imposed confines of RSS background (rather than Hindutva ideology) and, is on the verge of failure to control the Hindutva extremists. Narendra Bhai needs to snip the wings of extremists with immediate effect, if he genuinely wants to have “Sabka Sath” and see “Sabka Vikaas”.
The crusader must seek blessings and wisdom from the ailing and dying, Zorba, the Buddha’.