Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee, three-time Prime Minister of India and one of the country’s most respected politicians, has died on August 16. He was 93.
Given the gold standard of leadership in the ruling BJP, Vajpayee became the first politician to truly challenge the legacy of the Congress, the grand old party, as he was the first non-Congress prime minister to last a full term.
Good work speaks for itself. Vajpayee, who rose to spectacular heights, was no stranger to rock-bottom in his political journey. His words and deeds were praised by all, even by his political rivals, not only in life, but in death too.
Unlike the present incumbent, he was never heard of bragging about his own achievements, rather people saw for themselves his skills, talents, gifts, strengths and successes, and one need not to point it out to them.
On his death, world leaders, politicians, sports personalities, industrialists and people from every walk of life have lavished praises on the great statesman for his noble nature and secular personality. He was very popular for his non-partisan politics.
Although considered a pragmatist, Vajpayee assumed a defiant posture in the face of Western criticism of India’s testing of several nuclear weapons in 1998. He had earlier been praised for his conciliatory gestures toward India’s Muslim minority.
In 2000 his government began an extensive programme of divestment of public funds from several key state-run industries. In 2002, Vajpayee’s government was criticised for its slowness in reacting to riots in Gujarat, which left thousands of people (primarily Muslims) dead.
Nevertheless, in 2003, Vajpayee made a concerted effort to resolve India’s long-running feud with Pakistan over the Kashmir region.
World leaders mourn Vajpayee’s death
President Ram Nath Kovind: President Ram Nath Kovind says: Extremely sad to hear of the passing of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, our former Prime Minister and a true Indian statesman. His leadership, foresight, maturity & eloquence put him in a league of his own. Atal ji, the Gentle Giant, will be missed by one & all.
Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina: In a condolence message sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said, “Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of the most famous sons of India, will be remembered for contributing towards good governance and for highlighting issues affecting the common people of India as well as for regional peace and prosperity. He was our great friend and highly respected in Bangladesh. As a token of recognition for his invaluable contribution to our Liberation War in 1971, Bangladesh Government conferred on him the Bangladesh Liberation War Honour. Today is certainly a day of great sadness for all of us in Bangladesh. On behalf of the Government and the people of Bangladesh and on my own behalf, I express our heartfelt sympathy and condolences to the Government and the mourning people of India, and to the members of the bereaved family.”
Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli: Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli sent his message of condolence to Prime Minister Narendra Modi stating that Vajpayee “was a visionary statesman with impeccable integrity and dedication, who will be remembered for his sagacity and exemplary selfless service to the people of India. In the demise of Vajpayee India and the world has lost a towering political figure and Nepal a true friend and well-wisher.”
Sri Lankan President Mathripala Sirisena: Sri Lankan leadership took to twitter to put out their first reactions. President Mathripala Sirisena said, “Today, we have lost a great humanist and a true friend of Sri Lanka. Former Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a visionary leader and an ardent defender of democracy.
My condolences to his family and millions of his admirers around the world.” Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe remembered his association with the tall leader. “I have had the privilege of knowing AB Vajpayee since 1975. Furthermore, we had a close working relationship during my tenure are Prime Minister from 2001 to 2004. He played a vital role inensuring stability in Sri Lanka,” he said in a statement.
US envoy Kenneth Juster: US envoy Kenneth Juster in a statement said, “The United States grieves with India on the loss of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He will be remembered for his immense contribution in bolstering US-India relations. During his tenure, Prime Minister Vajpayee advocated for a robust partnership with the United States, referring to us as natural allies. The US Mission in India extends our deepest condolences to the family of former Prime Minister Vajpayee and the citizens of India.” Juster said, “He was a critical partner in the transformation of India-US relations. He played a central role first working with then President Clinton and later with President George W Bush during my time. So much of what we are celebrating today in terms of the relations really began with Prime Minister Vajpayee.”
UK High Commission in India: UK High Commission in India tweeted, “We are saddened by the passing of former Prime Minister of India Atal Bihari Vajpayee. We will remember him as one of India’s greatest leaders. Vajpayee was much respected in the UK as a statesman par excellence – High Commissioner to India Dominic Asquith.”
Former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai: Former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai who worked very closely with Vajpayee during the toughest years in Afghanistan’s history said India has lost “a great son of India, a respected world statesman, a friend of Afghanistan. I respected him deeply for his humility, for his wisdom, for his courteous behaviour to me and all those who visited India. The greatest element in him was his desire for peace and stability in the region for which he worked with dedication and selflessness. We mourn his loss.”
Pak Foreign Ministry: A spokesperson of the Pakistan Foreign Ministry said “We have learnt with sadness the passing away of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former Prime Minister of India. Vajpayee was a renowned statesman who contributed to bringing a change in India-Pakistan relations and remained a key supporter of SAARC and regional cooperation for development. The Government and people of Pakistan extend their heartfelt condolences to his family and to the Government and people of India.”
A true friend of Russia: Russia Ambassador Nikolay Kudashev said, “We mourn the death of H.E. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a great statesman. His name became an integral part of a whole era in Indian politics. His devoted service to the nation can hardly be overestimated. Vajpayee enjoyed due respect in India and globally. We knew him also as a poet, a man of knowledge and a true friend of our country, where he is well-known as one of the architects of our long-lasting and time-tested privileged strategic partnership.”
Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu: He was a real ‘Ajatha Shatruvu’ (One who has no enemies) who got along with people from all sections. He was the first non-congress PM, an able leader and provided a stable government. He practiced politics of principles and infused values into politics.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi: It was due to the perseverance and struggles of Atal Ji that the BJP was built brick by brick. He travelled across the length and breadth of India to spread the BJP’s message, which led to the BJP becoming a strong force in our national polity and in several states. Atal Ji’s passing away is a personal and irreplaceable loss for me. I have countless fond memories with him. He was an inspiration to Karyakartas like me. I will particularly remember his sharp intellect and outstanding wit.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh: I have learnt with profound sorrow about the sad demise of Bharat Ratna Atal Bihari Vajpayee ji. An excellent orator, an impressive poet, an exceptional Public Servant, an outstanding Parliamentarian and a great Prime Minister, Vajpayee ji stood among the tallest leaders of modern India, who spent his whole life serving our great country. His services to our nation will be remembered for a long time to come.
Former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda: Former Prime Minister HD Deve Gowda mourned the death of Vajpayee, saying a vacuum has been created in the country’s politics with his passing away. In his condolence message, Gowda said in the death of Vajpayee, the country has lost a statesman and politician who believed in the country’s diverse culture. “He was a true parliamentarian. With his death, a vacuum has been created in polity and end of an era of politics in this country. He was a great orator who refused to attack his opponent personally. He did not allow the House to be disturbed during my tenure as the Prime Minister for the 11 months,” Gowda said.
Lal Krishna Advani: “I am at a loss of words to express my deep grief and sadness today as we all mourn the passing away of one of India’s tallest statesmen, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To me, Atalji was more than a senior colleague; in fact, he was my closest friend for over 65 years. I cherish the memories of my long association with him, right from our days as Pracharaks of the RSS, to the inception of Bharatiya Jana Singh, the struggle of the dark months during the Emergency leading to the formation of the Janata Party and later the emergence of the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980. His captivating leadership qualities, mesmerising oratory, soaring patriotism and above all, his sterling humane qualities like compassion, humility and his remarkable ability to win over adversaries despite ideological differences have all had a profound effect on me in all my years in public life.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi: “Today India lost a great son. Former PM, Atal Bihari Vajpayee ji, was loved and respected by millions. My condolences to his family & all his admirers. We will miss him.”
Sharad Yadav: Janata Dal leader Sharad Yadav, who had served in the Vajpayee Cabinet, described the former Prime Minister as a statesman and one of the greatest leaders India has produced. “He was a great human being, poet, leader and above all a statesman. Such people are rarely born,” he said.
Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee: Very very saddened that the great statesman and former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee ji is no more with us. His passing away is a very big loss to our nation. I will always cherish the many fond memories. Condolences to his family and his many admirers.
Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar: Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar said “Deeply pained by the passing away of our beloved Atal ji. India has lost a great leader, a leader of masses and a visionary who dedicated his entire life in service of the nation and its people.”
Life and work of Atal ji
Born in Gwalior on December 25, 1924, Vajpayee joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in 1939, and in 1951, was seconded to its political wing, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. He steadily rose in its hierarchy and became its national president in 1968.
His debut speech in Parliament as a first-timer in 1957 was so impressed then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that he predicted, while introducing the young politician to a foreign dignitary, “This young man will one day become prime minister.”
He debuted in parliament in 1962 through the Rajya Sabha. It was only nine years later that he won an election. He was elected to the Lok Sabha seven times.
Imprisoned along with other opposition leaders during the Emergency (1975-77), he merged the Jana Sangh into the newly-formed Janata Party to fashion a common front against the Congress in the 1977 elections. He subsequently served as Minister of External Affairs in the Morarji Desai government
In his 47 years in parliament, the former prime minister captivated the nation with his dry wit and oratory, proving that no one could work the room quite like he could. Poetry was his most preferred expression and telegraphed his message in a few well-chosen words more effectively than a one-hour speech.
In 1984, after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the BJP that he set up with his long-time friend and colleague LK Advani managed to win just two seats in the 545-member parliament. Vajpayee also lost in Gwalior, his birthplace.
In the 1990s, the party captured the nation’s attention with the “Ram Janmabhoomi movement” for a temple at the site of the 16th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya that many Hindus believe was built on the birthplace of Lord Ram. Vajpayee was the only voice in his party who called it the “worst miscalculation” when ‘Karsewaks’ razed the mosque in 1992.
He ruled the country for 13 days in 1996, 13 months in 1998 and for five years from 1999. “The game of power will go on. Governments will come and go. Parties will be made and unmade. This country should survive, its democracy should survive,” Vajpayee said in a speech before his government faced a trust vote in May 1996.
A parliamentarian for over four decades, he was conferred the Bharat Ratna in 2015.
Inaction on Gujarat riots a great mistake by Vajpayee
Every human being makes mistakes. And the former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has also done the same during his full term in governance from 1999 to 2004. The Gujarat pogrom against Muslims took place in 2002.
During the communal riots in Gujarat, Vajpayee told then chief minister Narendra Modi that he must follow his ‘Raj Dharma’ of ensuring no discrimination on the basis of caste, creed or religion. Modi, who was sitting beside Vajpayee on the dais, retorted “Sir, That’s what I am doing.”
Vajpayee did call it ‘failure of governance’ (Raj Dharma Ka Khandan Hua Hai), and wanted to sack Modi for it, but didn’t do it.
His gentle advice to follow Raj Dharma was not enough. He should have taken a strong action in his capacity as a Prime Minister of the country. May be he wanted to but could not do so on the recommendation of LK Advani. Vajpayee made a huge mistake there. And that has emboldened communal forces in India tremendously.
Now even Advani looks at it as his own mistake probably, but it is already too late.
The Kargil war
There were many mistakes before the Kargil war that allowed the Pakistani army to get strategic and positional advantage. Throughout the war, Indian soldiers had to fight from exposed positions because of this and it cost the lives of 100s of brave soldiers. It wasn’t Vajpayee’s mistake personally. But it happened under his watch and is his responsibility.
The Lahore Summit
During the Lahore Summit and peace initiatives with Pakistan, the GOI, as a sign of goodwill measure, had lowered the guard. When our forces vacated the heights during winter, Pakistan forces occupied it, right when Pakistan PM Nawaz Shariff was in Delhi for Lahore summit. (With inputs from agencies).
**(The writer is Executive Editor of Mitaan Express. Views expressed are his own)**