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RIP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee!

by Satyajit Mohanty

Our former prime minister, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee, died Thursday in Delhi, India, following a long kidney disease at the age of 93.

When Vajpayee had to throw in the towel after only thirteen days with his first coalition attempt in 1996, he declared after the successful vote of no confidence in parliament: “Governments come and go, parties arise and disappear again. It is the nation that must continue to shine, and its democracy must remain immortal!”

It was a speech that got applause from the whole semicircle of the Parliament Chamber. It was not just a testimony to Vajpayee’s rhetorical brilliance and poetic expressiveness. It also took place in a hall where he had excelled for decades as a member of parliament, not least because he had liked the give and take of the parliamentary culture of debate so much as a teacher and lyricist. A published poet, Vajpayee dabbled in law, journalism and rebellion against British colonialism as a young man. It was the great merit of Vajpayee, in a second attempt in 1998 with a broad coalition, to swear his party BJP on the mantra of a pluralistic state. During his successful reign, Vajpayee skillfully used the capacity for dialogue and compromise of the broad spectrum of political parties in parliament and government.

In May 1998, just a few months after his taking office, India lit five nuclear warheads under the Rajasthan desert. It had been 24 years since the country’s only previous test, in 1974, and while its nuclear weapons capability had long been assumed, the 1998 tests impressed on the world that India had joined the circle of declared nuclear powers. “We will not use these weapons against anybody. But to defend ourselves, if the need arises, we will not hesitate,” Vajpayee said in a speech to his supporters at the time. Pakistan responded quickly with its own tests. Some nations invoked sanctions and condemned India for breaking its moratorium, but Vajpayee fearlessly defended the move as vital to Indian security.

But it was classic Vajpayee policy that half a year later he opened a bus route between Amritsar and Lahore. As the first Indian prime minister, he drove across the heavily guarded state border and adopted with his counterpart Nawaz Sharif the Lahore Declaration, which should swear both countries on nuclear disarmament.

On February 1999, trouble broke out in Lahore: the Pakistani generals, according to Pakistani reports, were furious with Sharif for trying to wrest control over their bilateral relations; they would have refused to attend the banquet in the historic Lahore Fort. But then Sharif threatened a public showdown. The generals gave in small and came, but not as planned by the protocol – in civilian clothes, but in the military uniform. Four months later, they took revenge: Without Sharif’s knowledge, General Musharraf’s paratroopers (in the local dress) occupied frontier positions on Indian territory and triggered the Kargil war.

The fact that it did not cause a conflagration was in turn due to Vajpayee’s statesmanship. He limited the military response to the reconquest of the frontier positions and avoided any escalation in collusion with Sharif. Sharif had to pay his price: Three months later, in early October 1999, Musharraf perpetrated a military coup and sent Sharif into exile in Saudi Arabia.

But Vajpayee also had to pay his price. In December of this eventful year, members of the Pakistani Harkat al-Mujaheddin hijacked an Indian Airlines plane carrying 176 passengers. The award: The delivery of two Indian prisoners, hand-delivered by the Indian Foreign Minister to the airfield in Kandahar, Afghanistan. For Vajpayee, this yielding to the threat of terror was an expression of Insaaniyat (humanity), a favourite word in his rich vocabulary. Not everyone saw it that way, least of all the hardliners in his own Hindutva family. For them, it was a capitulation.

And for our current prime minister Narendra Modi, it was a welcome platform when he was appointed Chief Minister of Gujarat a year later. Thirteen years later, he was able to claim the legacy of the great orator Vajpayee.

While he never married, Vajpayee raised as his own child – ‘Namita Kaul Bhattacharya’, the daughter of a longtime friend. Vajpayee wrote a reflective brand of Hindi poetry. He published several volumes, including “Fire Is Immortal” and “Death or Murder.”

“An orator who peppered his speeches with wit and lines from his own poems, Vajpayee was viewed more as a kind of philosopher-king and less as a hard-nosed politician.” – The Washington Post.

The death of our former Prime Minister and a Bharat Ratna recipient, Atal Bihari Vajpayee marks not only the end of a remarkable career but also a hope. Vajpayee was the only outstanding politician of the Hindu nationalist right and one could hope that their ideas were mated with those of a liberal democracy. His death at the age of 93 marks not only the end of a rich political career but also the possibility of a genuinely Indian formation of the secular democracy of the Western model.

Rest in peace, Vajpayeeji. The whole nation is proud to have you for your invaluable service and contribution. You shall always live forever in the hearts and minds of each and every citizen of this proud nation.

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