- How will history judge him?
After playing a good long political innings, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a former prime minister of India, just failed to hit the century of his life by falling victim to the “nervous nineties.” After Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, he will be the most talked about premier for quite some time, primarily for innovative initiatives in foreign policy.
It was also rumoured that when things heated up in India, he would pop off to the colourful life of New York to do naughty things. With all these inconsistencies, how will history judge Atalji?
There was an intellectual in him who liked to play with “new concepts, ideas and options.” Who, other than Vajpayee, could dare to change the direction of Nehruvian foreign policy from the Soviet tilted Non-alignment to pro-Americanism? Having realised that the US could both be a ‘spoiler’ or ‘enabler’ to India’s objectives, he was the first one to emphasise that America be looked upon as the “natural ally.” Another “new idea” that he single-handedly pursued with full power of persuasion was the establishment of friendly relations with Pakistan because he felt that only he as the prime minister of a hardline Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatya Janata Party (BJP), could risk to befriend Pakistan just as “a hardline Republican president in the US, Richard Nixon, was able to achieve a breakthrough with China.” Many Indian nationalists will continue to praise him for his boldness to conduct the Pokhran II nuclear tests to make their country a declared nuclear weapons state because for them these tests were a “blast of nationalism” or as Vajpayee himself tried to justify in a controversial letter to the American president Bill Clinton as a response to a “deteriorating security environment.” Atalji’s explanation was a lie because there was no security threat to India at that time and for his teeming poor countrymen the “nuclear blast” was irrelevant as 44 percent of them were living on less than a dollar a day. In fact, the “bomb exercise” was conducted in a hurry to save Vajpayee’s tottering prime ministership from threats within the squabbling BJP, especially when we know the 20 March 1998 press statement of his defence minister George Fernandes, who said, “The nuclear option has been put on hold. We did not say we were going for nuclear weapons. We will re-evaluate policy to ensure security…in the light of that we will decide the nuclear option.”
As an opposition leader, Vajpayee was most supportive of Congress Premier Narasimha Rao’s efforts to finalise the Border Peace and Tranquility Agreement with China. Shivshankar Menon, the linchpin to that agreement attests that “one always got the feeling that he thought of a greater good than immediate party political advantage, and that he had a larger sense of India’s destiny.” However, Atalji was not without blemish. The Godhra communal riots under his watch cast a dark shadow over his assiduously built image. Moreover, the attack on the “Outlook” magazine during his premiership blackened his name. When this magazine exposed the meddling of his “foster son-in-law” (Vajpayee remained a bachelor throughout his life) Ranjan Bhattacharya in business deals worth tens of thousands of crores, not only the editorial office of “Outlook” in Bombay was raided but seven hundred officials of the Income Tax department were let loose on 120 business premises of the owner of the magazine in twelve cities. This harassment of the press in the twenty-first century India was reminiscent of the muzzling of the press in the dark days of Emergency under Indira Gandhi. When the owner and the editor agreed to fall in line, the state’s harassment stopped immediately. Furthermore, there is one incident on the record when Vajpayee demanded of an editor to change the beat of a critical reporter by complaining that “I don’t know what has gone wrong with her lately; she is always writing against me.” In addition, he had personal relations with some big business houses and is reported to have “even written an indiscreet note to prime minister Narasimha Rao, seeking his indulgence on their behalf in the Bofors scandal.”
Vajpayee’s admirers also extol his poetic genius. He wasn’t one because when a book of his poems was given to an eminent Hindi writer Nirmal Verma for a review, the latter refused by saying, “The poems are not worth reviewing. They are the work of a well-meaning amateur. If I review it, I’ll have to slam it, which I don’t want to.” As a person, Atalji was neither chirpy nor pompous but that does not mean he was a saint. He drank moderately and despite being a Hindu, consumed non-vegetarian food less moderately. Being a chronic bachelor and a man of influence, he was never in short supply of female company. When he became the prime minister, one of his friends named Mrs Kaul, whose husband had passed away moved with him in the Prime Minister House and no one in the ‘brave’ and ‘fearless’ Indian press had the guts to comment on this unusual arrangement. It was also rumoured that when things heated up in India, he would pop off to the colourful life of New York to do naughty things. With all these inconsistencies, how will history judge Atalji? In the words of Vinod Mehta, who worked as an editor of leading Indian newspapers and magazines in Bombay and Delhi for forty years, history “will remember him with question marks. Was he a liberal conservative, or someone who put his finger up in the air to find out which way the wind was blowing? A politician who aspires to be a statesman needs to have a moral centre. Did Vajpayee have one? That, I am afraid, is a question mark.”