For Vajpayee, ‘Country is a temple and we are all its priests. We must sacrifice our lives at the altar of the national god’. In his famous address to the parliament after his government lost the vote of confidence in 1996, Vajpayee exhorted: “These power games will go on. Governments come and governments go. Parties appear and disappear. But this country should remain and its democracy should remain eternally”
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a multi-faceted genius – an outstanding parliamentarian, a successful prime minister, a poet, an orator par excellence, a true party karyakarta, a disciplined Swayamsevak, and above all, a gentle and lovable human being. He was an institution in himself. Atalji – as he was lovingly called by many, had left an indelible imprint on the lives of thousands, if not millions through his personality and politics.
This 25 December is the first birth anniversary of Vajpayee in his absence. In his passing, a political era marked by conciliatory, not competitive, and value-based, not power-centric politics had come to an end. In the Bhagwad Gita, Bhagwan Krishna said: ‘Jaatasya hi Dhruvo Mrityuhu’ – those who are born shall die. Yet, we are all poorer for the demise of statesmen such as Vajpayee.
‘A father figure’, ‘A statesman’, ‘A true democrat’, ‘Man of peace’, ‘Baapji’, ‘Dadda’ – those who condoled his death had many narratives to share about him. The Americans remembered him describing the US and India as “natural allies”; the Chinese remembered his meetings with leaders of three generations – Mao Tse Sung, Deng Xiaoping and Hu Jintao. While the Pakistanis remembered the ‘Dosti Bus’ that Vajpayee rode to Lahore, the Bangladeshis remembered his contributions during the Liberation War and the subsequent presentation of the highest Bangladesh Liberation War Honour to him. Even the separatist Hurriyat leadership in Kashmir described him as a “rare leader with humanness”, and “with a sincerity to resolve the Kashmir problem’.
Vajpayee held the democratic polity in high esteem. “The power of democracy is a matter of pride for our country, something we must always cherish, preserve and further strengthen. Differences are bound to remain in the country, but the Indian nation cannot afford to be divided in its basic commitment to nationalism and democracy”, he once said.
One of the significant initiatives of Vajpayee as prime minister was to appoint a committee to study the functioning of the Indian Constitution. Instituted in February 2000 as National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, the body got mired in unnecessary controversy due to the wrong portrayal, projecting it as an attempt to tamper with and destroy the one drafted by Dr BR Ambedkar in the name of its review.
The terms of reference given to the commission categorically stated that the commission would examine, in the light of the experience of the past 50 years, as to how best the Constitution could respond to the changing needs of efficient, smooth and effective system of governance and socio-economic development of modern India within the framework of parliamentary democracy.
In his last address to the Constituent Assembly on 25 November 1949, famously known as ‘Three Warnings’, Dr Ambedkar raised the spectre of India losing its independence once again if the Constitution was not adhered to in letter and spirit. “If the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in a jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever”, he warned in that address.
For Vajpayee, “Country is a temple and we are all its priests. We must sacrifice our lives at the altar of the national god”. In his famous address to the parliament after his government lost the vote of confidence in 1996, Vajpayee exhorted: “These power games will go on. Governments come and governments go. Parties appear and disappear. But this country should remain and its democracy should remain eternally”. It was out of this urge to improve country’s democratic institutions that Vajpayee attempted the said review of the functioning of the Constitution.
A man of emotions, Vajpayee practised humility and honesty as his quintessential personal self. In one poem, he prays to god: “Hey Prabhu! Mujhe itna unchai bhi mat dena, ki auron ko chu na sakun” – meaning, ‘Oh God! Please don’t let me attain such heights that I won’t be in the reach of the others’. Such humility is rare in public life. A humble leader accepts failures without any attitude. “Victory and defeat are a part of life, which are to be viewed with equanimity”, Vajpayee used to say.
Political accommodation is a virtue that Vajpayee’s life sets out as an example for politicians. Many called him ‘Ajatshatru’ – ‘one with no enemies’. A towering leader, he never believed that ‘I am always right’. He was open to criticism. The belief that ‘My views are always right’ is the starting point for organisations and individuals alike to hate others.
“The older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others”, said Benjamin Franklin in his last address to the US Constitution Convention in 1776. Vajpayee could successfully run a 23-party coalition for full five years precisely because of this humility.
(The article was originally published in Hindustan Times on December 25, 2018. Views expressed are personal.)