Text of speech delivered at the First Atal Bihari Vajpayee Memorial Lecture in Bengaluru on 16 December 2018, organised by Thinkers’ Forum
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a multi-faceted genius – a committed politician, an outstanding parliamentarian, a successful Prime Minister, a journalist, 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. Whoever came in contact with him would come back an enriched person. 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.
In his passing, a political era marked by conciliatory, not competitive; value-based, not power-centric politics has come to an end. In Bhagwad Gita, Bhagwan Krishna said: ‘Jaatasya hi Dhruvo Mrityuhu’ – those who are born shall die. Yet the mother earth and humanity get poorer by the demise of statesmen like 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 US and India as ‘natural allies’, while the Chinese remembered his meetings with leaders of three generations – Mao Tse Sung, Deng Xiao Ping and Hu Jintao. While Pakistanis remembered ‘Dosti Bus’ that Vajpayee rode to Lahore, 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’, with a sincerity to resolve the Kashmir problem.
Atalji’s demise is an irreparable loss to contemporary India. Atalji practised a version of politics that is rare to find — a politics in which love of the nation took precedence over love of power; in which feelings, sentiments and emotions found a place in the world of cut-throat competitive politicking; in which dignity and respect for everyone big and small, friend and adversary alike were the way, not disrespect and rejection, abuse and name-calling.
Atalji lived a transparent life. He was not a split personality, something from outside and something else from within. Like Gandhi, his life too, both personal and political, had been an open book. Whether it was about the fondness for his family or food, or whether it was about strong political convictions as a quintessential democrat, nothing was hidden from the public eye and scrutiny. At the end, everyone loved him, cared for him and admired him for this very quality of the courage of conviction.
But he never held himself above the party organisation. A true Swayamsevak, he religiously obeyed the decisions of the party as a disciplined Karyakarta even when he was not fully in agreement with those. “Politics and discipline don’t go together. The rare exception is Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” commented Walter Andersen, author and researcher.
Atalji practised his brand of politics without any hesitation or rethink. We have successfully done away with untouchability in social life. Yet, we acquired a new type of scourge called political untouchability. An atmosphere of intense hatred pervades the political arena today. Atalji never accepted such politics.
The Bharatiya Jana Sangh, of which he was one of the tallest leaders, was the arch rival of the Congress and Nehru throughout. But neither Atalji nor Nehru ever allowed this ideological adversity to come in the way of mutual respect and goodwill. Nehru would observe that one day the young parliamentarian will rise to occupy his seat. On his part, Atalji, who made ferocious attacks on Nehru’s policies in Parliament, would speak out from his heart in the same Parliament after Nehru’s funeral, saying: “In spite of a difference of opinion, we have nothing but respect for his great ideals, his integrity, his love for the country and his indomitable courage. I pay my humble homage to that great soul.”
This quality Atalji retained till the end. In his biographical sketch on Atalji, Ullekh NP narrates an incident wherein Atalji called Rajiv Gandhi as his saviour. Ullekh mentions Atal Bihari Vajpayee as saying: “When Rajiv Gandhi was the Prime Minister, he somehow found out I had a kidney problem and need treatment abroad. One day he called me to his office and said he was going to include me in India’s delegation to the UN and hoped I would use the opportunity to get the treatment I needed. I went to New York and that is one reason I am alive today”. According to Ullekh, Rajiv Gandhi, who was Prime Minister of India from 1984 to 1989, reportedly said he had told his officials that Vajpayeeji should return only when his treatment was complete. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was then leader of opposition.
Atalji was compassionate with Karyakartas. Even at the height of his popularity, he never displayed any arrogance. As a 27-year old journalist of a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh magazine, I went to Delhi in 1993 to interview him for a special cover story. Parliament was in session and he was the leader of opposition. Babri structure had fallen just a few months before. I had some awkward questions for him, betraying my inexperience. He didn’t get angry. Instead, he gently guided me through the interview for 15 minutes, giving the right answers to my wrong questions. Kishen Lal Sharma, an elderly MP, peeped in to remind that it was time to go inside the Parliament. ‘Apne Andhra ke Pracharak ko patrakarita sikha raha hun” (“I am teaching journalism to our Pracharak from Andhra), Atalji said.
Review of the Functioning of the Constitution:
Atalji was a committed democrat. He had 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 of the media, calling it Constitution Review Commission and casting motives on the Prime Minister and his government as though they were destroying the Constitution made by Dr Ambedkar. The terms of reference given to the Commission categorically stated that the Commission shall examine, in the light of the experience of the past fifty years, as to how best the Constitution can 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, and to recommend changes, if any, that are required in the provisions of the Constitution without interfering with its ‘basic structure’ or ‘basic features’.
Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar was the prime architect of the Indian Constitution. He put his heart and soul into it and gave to a complex and diverse country like India a comprehensive document in the form of the Constitution on 26 November 1949.
The Constitution that he had strived so hard to put in place was not just about any single issue or community. It is about the entire spectrum of the private and public life of over 450 million citizens at that time, and by extension 1.25 billion citizens now. Dr Ambedkar was concerned about the plight of the downtrodden; but he was also concerned about the larger well-being of the entire nation. He saw in the Constitution a hope for the downtrodden as well as an order in the larger Indian society. He laid all his hopes of success of the Constitution on its true masters, the people of India.
Joseph Story, an eminent jurist and commentator of the Constitution and politics was to America what Nani Palkhivala was to India. Talking about the US Constitution, Joseph Story observed: “The Constitution has been reared for immortality if the work of man may justly aspire to such a title. It may, nevertheless, perish in an hour, by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, the people”.
Dr Ambedkar too expressed the same apprehension about the Indian Constitution and politics. “However good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot”, he once said. Despite the hard work and dedication that has gone into making of the Constitution, Dr Ambedkar knew fully well that it will fail to deliver if its keepers, the good people, turn lethargic and indifferent, and, thinking that politics as a vocation is all scum, stay away from it; and the bad and ugly in the society come to occupy the positions of power.
As the former British diplomat Carne Ross puts it in his book, The Leaderless Revolution, democracies facilitate an honourable agreement between the people – the electors, and the government – the elected. The Constitution is in reality the document of that solemn agreement between the elector and the elected.
Unfortunately, at least in India, people hardly know their Constitution well. Sections of the society, whose interests the Constitution intends to protect, know a little or a lot only about those sections of the Constitution that are intended to safeguard their interests. But the larger intent and import of the Constitution is hardly known to the people.
On 26th November, speaking on the occasion of the Constitution Day, the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, highlighted precisely the same thing. “It is a paradox that our citizens, in whose name the Constitution was adopted, are sometimes not sufficiently informed about what the Constitution means for us. Let the 70th year of its adoption be dedicated to enhancing awareness about the Constitution”, he said in his address to the nation.
The final draft of the Constitution was passed by the Constituent Assembly on 26th November, 1949, and subsequently the same was adopted as the Constitution of India on 26th January, 1950. But no effort was ever made in all these years to inform and educate the people about it. It is a tragedy that we have not even attempted to translate the Constitution into Indian languages. It was only in 2015, 65 years after its adoption, that Prime Minister Modi thought of celebrating the Constitution Day annually with the objective of letting its keepers, the people, know about it well.
Lack of awareness about the Constitution among the larger masses allowed for the intermediate forces, some of whom are the products of that very Constitution itself, to subvert its spirit and thus leading to the violation of that solemn agreement between the voter and the voted. Dr Ambedkar had warned about this possibility in his last address to the Constituent Assembly one day before its ratification, on 25th November, 1949.
In that speech, 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. “On 26th January, 1950, India will be an independent country. What would happen to her independence? Will she maintain her independence or will she lose it again? This is the first thought that comes to my mind. It is not that India was never an independent country. The point is that she once lost the independence she had. Will she lose it a second time? It is this thought which makes me most anxious for the future. What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people”, he said in that address.
Challenges before Constitutional Governance:
The constitutional governance faces challenges from its own limbs like the judiciary, bureaucracy and the political establishment internally. Externally too, it today faces a serious challenge from certain group interests championed by forces that are neither accountable, nor representative of the masses.
Judiciary is an important branch of our Constitution. In a way, it is the only branch that still keeps the hopes of justice for large sections of the masses alive. But of late, the surviving institution of people’s trust too seems to be passing through a tumultuous phase.
One important case in the recent times attracts our attention to this. Justice delayed or justice hurried, both lead to justice denied. The case in question is the Ram Janam Bhumi case, a matter pending before the Supreme Court for last six years. The simple question referred to the Court was, whether the order of the Allahabad High Court trifurcating the main temple compound where once a temple, followed by a mosque had stood and currently a make-shift temple of Ram Lalla stands, is valid or not.
It took five years for the Supreme Court to initiate the proceedings in the matter in the middle of 2017, only to discuss the issue of translating all the relevant documents – some 14,000 pages, which were in Hindi, Urdu and other languages, into English. Who will take responsibility for translation? Finally, the UP Government came forward to do that.
Then the Court suddenly found the issue of relevance and importance of a mosque in Islam as a major question for adjudication. That the said question, may be important in some other context, was completely extraneous to the present case, didn’t find favour with the learned judges. That issue too was finally settled and the previous Chief Justice had announced that the expeditious hearing of the main case would begin on October 29th, 2018. In the first week of October, the Supreme Court got a new Chief Justice. When the matter came up before the bench headed by the new Chief Justice, it took just 3 minutes for him to declare that the Ram Janam Bhumi matter was not a ‘priority’ to the Court. He pushed the matter to later in January 2019.
It should go to their credit that the parties involved, both the protagonists of the temple and their adversaries, have thus far laid their hopes on the Supreme Court. But now, the unintended consequence of the Supreme Court’s declaration was that they had to turn it into a ‘priority’. That is why we see enhanced activity in the country, including massive mobilisations in favour of the temple.
The other challenge comes from the second organ of our constitutional government, the bureaucracy. Speaking at an event recently, former President Dr Pranab Mukherjee called the bureaucracy as the biggest impediment to development. “Bureaucracy is the biggest hurdle of our development and we must rectify it”, he said.
Not that individual bureaucrats are bad. But bureaucracy as a system and an institution has the potential of derailing the efforts of the political establishment and denying justice to the people. We have inherited Westminster system of administration from the British as a legacy of which the civil bureaucracy is an important part. The trouble with this system is that it has been designed to serve not the people, but the British masters. It is powerful in all respects but accountable to none.
Then comes the role of the political parties. Dr Ambedkar, in his last address to the Constituent Assembly, had warned that “If the parties place creed above country, our independence will be put in a jeopardy a second time and probably be lost forever”.
For Vajpayee, ‘country is a temple and we are all its priests. We must sacrifice our lives in the service of the national god’. His famous words in the Parliament after his government lost the vote of confidence in 1996 reverberate in the minds of every nationalist today. “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”, he thundered.
Today, we see a situation where the national parties are increasingly becoming marginalised and a large number of regional and other group-based parties emerging with strong constituencies of their own. Identity politics is at its zenith today in India.
It will be unwise to dismiss the rise of these identity-based groups and parties. It is a global phenomenon today. In a scintillating work titled Political Tribes, well-known author Amy Chua writes: “We tend to view the world in terms of territorial nation-states engaged in great ideological battles – Capitalism versus Communism, Democracy versus Authoritarianism, the ‘Free World’ versus the ‘Axis of Evil’. Blinded by our own ideological prisms, we have repeatedly ignored more primal group identities, which for billions are the most powerful and meaningful, and which drive political upheaval all over the world”.
The fourth challenge comes from causes that largely the Teflon-coated Liberals champion. They pick up certain myopic concepts, and, using the systemic loopholes, attempt to subvert the very spirit of the Constitution itself. In that, they get help from their fellow ideological travellers in various important institutions. Their agendas are narrow and in most cases lofty, but largely unconnected with the reality of the masses. They co-opt political actors or sometimes themselves become one, but not really accountable to any. These groups include certain intellectuals and NGO activists. Their influence is enormous these days because it is fashionable to associate with the causes they champion, despite the fact that they hardly represent any significant section of the population, and in many cases the contemporary reality.
“A growing number of political actors, who are neither politicians nor conventional political parties, nor accountable to anyone but themselves, are wielding enormous influence over policy-making these days”, rues Carne Ross.
One latest example of the influence these groups enjoy is the Sabarimala temple episode. A harmless tradition at a temple of Lord Ayyappa in Kerala was challenged as spurious, on the ground that it is against gender equality. Those who challenged it using certain Constitutional provisions pertaining to Fundamental Rights didn’t include a single devotee. On the contrary, the petitioners claimed that they were non-believers and had nothing to do with the given temple or its traditions. That teaching gender equality to a matriarchal society like Kerala, where women lead the social life in all spheres, including religion, is like carrying coal to Newcastle, or that not a single woman devotee came forward to demand entry into the temple couldn’t stop the Supreme Court from deciding to throw open the doors of the temple to women in the age group of 10 and 50.
It has resulted in a situation where the State Government led by god-less Marxists in Kerala forcing a break in the tradition and compelling women to enter the temple. Tens of thousands of religious women came out on to the streets in all Kerala towns and villages, not to enter the temple, but to demand that the order be withdrawn. Another classic example of what the people want their rulers to do and what the middlemen want to impose on them.
While zealously safeguarding the individual rights we tend to forget that people also enjoy certain ‘group rights’ and they too need safeguarding. In fact, the Indian Constitution recognises this through several of its articles, including articles 25 to 30 that cover a gamut of rights of the religious groups. Articles 25 and 26 grant Hindu religious institutions, which include Sikh, Jain and Buddhist institutions, freedom to manage their customs, traditions and institutions. Similarly, articles 29 and 30 extend same privileges to the minority institutions. Together with Fundamental Rights, these group rights too need protection.
The other example is the recent fiasco over the Rafael deal. A group of eminences found it prudent to knock at the doors of the Supreme Court on this matter to not only defame the government with allegations of corruption and misdemeanour, but also to stall the process of equipping the Indian armed forces with superior technologies. The Supreme Court has summarily dismissed all the charges as baseless, but the fact remains that the group of eminences are neither accountable for the failed attempts at defamation nor guilty of trying to hit at the armed forces’ modernisation program.
It is such forces that pose a challenge to the society and the Constitution. Democracy is described as a government “Of the people, By the people and For the people”. It no doubt continues to be a government ‘of’ and ‘by’ the people. But it increasingly ceases to be ‘for’ the people. Instead, it is becoming a prisoner in the hands of group and narrow political interests. Dr Ambedkar and Joseph Story were both referring to this danger.
Humility in Public Life:
Atalji was a poet and a man of not just head, but heart too. He used to turn to poetry in the face of the rough and tumble of politics. “My poet’s heart gives me strength to face political problems, particularly those that have a bearing on my conscience”, he once said. A man of emotions, he practised humility 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 climb to such heights that the others won’t be able to reach me’.
Atalji respected institutions. As Prime Minister, he trusted and reposed faith in his colleagues in the Cabinet. His colleagues in the Cabinet recall that in several meetings he wouldn’t utter a single word and patiently listen to the views of all colleagues and take decisions after due diligence. Where he needed to give credit to his Cabinet colleague, he wouldn’t hesitate.
Such humility is a rare virtue 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”, Atalji used to say.
Bill Gates had once said – ‘you can evaluate an organisation by how quickly people in it find out about the bad news and respond to it’. “Bad news must travel fast”, insists Bill Gates, adding that a good manager would appreciate the challenge and prepare to respond to it; and a bad leader wants to hear only flattery and in the process loses the opportunity to respond.
But then, it is not easy to be candid in politics. In politics, you can’t tell the truth to people always, for, truth can be bitter, truth can be harsh, and more importantly truth calls for change. Human tendency is to resist change as that challenges the status quo. Change requires that the society admits it lacks in something. Men, especially the wise ones, determinedly refuse to change.
In The Trial of Socrates, Socrates narrates what happened when he confronted many an Athenian who enjoyed the reputation for wisdom. “I tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. . . . This inquisition has led to my having many enemies of the worst and most dangerous kind.”
In the era when Socrates lived, it was quite risky to tell the wise men to change. Socrates believe that he would survive because he had never aspired for any public office or power. “If I had engaged in politics,” said Socrates, “I should have perished long ago. . . . I was really too honest a man to be a politician and live.” In other words, Socrates felt that politics and honesty cannot go together. But here again, Atalji was an exception. It is another matter that in spite of staying away from public life, Socrates didn’t survive and called by the City Council for trial before a jury for his political views and finally executed.
Political accommodation is a virtue that Atalji’s life sets out as an example for politicians. Many, like Vice President of India Sh Venkaiah Naidu called him ‘Ajatshatru’ – ‘one with no enemies’. He enjoyed a great self-image, but never tried to cultivate one. A towering leader, he never believed that ‘I am always right’. He lived a transparent life and was always open to criticism. The belief that ‘My views are always right’ is the starting point for organisations and individuals alike to hate others. Those disagreeing will automatically become not just adversaries, but the enemies. That was how a Mahatma Gandhi or a Martin Luther king was killed.
Let me conclude by quoting the founding father of the United States of America, Benjamin Franklin’s final address at the Constitutional Convention before the US constitution was adopted. He was too old and sick and hence his speech was read.
“[T]he older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men . . . think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. . . .
“I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to [the Constitution], would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility and . . . put his name to this instrument.”
“Obituary should be an exercise in contemporary history; not a funeral oration,” said British journalist Peter Utley. Let us look at it through that prism. True, with the passing of Atalji, an era has come to an end. It is difficult to find another Atalji amidst us. But this ‘end of an era’ statement has become too much of a cliché. Atalji as a person is no more. But it is time we brought back the era of his politics — politics of positivity, compassion, dignity and humility.