By: John Elliott

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s former prime minister who died Aug. 16, was one of the country’s greatest and most widely respected statesmen and the moderate face of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu nationalism.

Vajpayee’s death brings into sharp focus the contrast with the harsh and strident version of that ideology which the party now exercises with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and party president Amit Shah.

At 93, Vajpayee had suffered ill health for many years and has been in a Delhi hospital since June. He has not been a part of public or political life since his BJP-led coalition government was unexpectedly defeated in a general election in May 2004 by the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi, which led to Manmohan Singh becoming prime minister

Tributes today from all sides of the political spectrum have talked with admiration and sincerity about his ability to handle ideological differences without personal animosities, and how he reached out to opponents as well as difficult coalition partners – all sharp contrasts with the Modi and Shah autocratic style that instils fear but not loyalty.

Notice as Young Parliamentarian

He became an MP in 1957 and was noticed as with potential by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first (Congress) prime minister. To a foreign visitor, Nehru described him as “India’s blooming young Parliamentarian” and said on another occasion that he would one day become prime minister.

Having already emerged as a potential leader, Vajpayee was one of the founders of the BJP in 1980. He failed in 1996 to form a workable government, but became prime minister in 1998 and held power for six years (with a general election in 1999). He successfully managed a disparate coalition of 23 parties, including difficult egotistical regional politicians, displaying a sense of compromise and leadership that generated consensus.

A brilliant orator and a poet, Vajpayee was a slow speaker famous for long silences in conversations. He did not lead in an outgoing or inspirational sense. Instead he ruled with delegated authority, mainly through Brajesh Mishra, his national security adviser and principal secretary, on whom he relied to implement his wishes (Mishra is behind Vajpayee in the photo below). 

Always Aware

Part of Vajpayee’s strength was that he always seemed to know what was happening, I was once told by Arun Shourie, who was a minister in his government. “People heeded him (Mishra) because they knew he was speaking with the full backing of his boss.”

Although he led a coalition, Vajpayee’s government achieved notable advances, especially on economic reforms. He ordered privatization of public sector businesses including metals and telecom corporations – something Modi has not dared, or wanted, to do. He began the debate in 2000 on a General Sales Tax that was introduced last year, and started opening up the government-controlled insurance industry to the private sector.

He also introduced a scheme for free education for children aged six to 14, and ordered the construction of the country’s first highway network, known as the Golden Quadrilateral, linking India’s four biggest cities.

More controversially, his government staged India’s nuclear tests in 1998 that were seen at the time as an example of excessive nationalism and of a desire (which succeeded) to establish India’s status in the world.

Sought to Improve Pak Relations

He tried to improve India’s relationship with neighboring Pakistan, despite criticism from some Hindu hardliners, famously travelling by bus to the Pakistani city of Lahore in February 1999 for a summit with Nawaz Sharif, then Pakistan’s prime minister. Three months later, Pakistani troops triggered a mini-war at Kargil in Kashmir, but withdrew when Sharif failed to garner support from either China or the US.

In December 1999, an Indian airliner was hijacked by Pakistani militants and Vajpayee was criticized for allowing it to fly on to Afghanistan, after landing in the Indian city of Amritsar.

He was also criticized for not dealing firmly in 2002 with Modi, then the Gujarat chief minister, who failed to quell anti-Muslim riots in the town of Godhra, allowing some 2,000 people to be killed.

For the BJP and its hardline president, L.K.Advani, he was the acceptable face of their nationalist creed, which he allowed to percolate out into academia and other areas. Textbooks were rewritten to reflect Hindu nationalists’ views of history and patriotism, and to remove the dominant more leftist narrative of the Congress Party’s Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

Such actions led to major controversies, but they were mild compared with the extreme Hindu nationalism that has built up since Modi came to power.

Modi Projects Moderate Image

The image that Modi tried to portray yesterday was more in the Vajpayee mold when he made his final prime ministerial Independence Day speech from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort .

He mapped out the plans of a socially inclusive government that cares for the poor and brings benefits for everyone ranging from adequate food, education and health services to toilets, housing, electrification and the empowerment of women. India’s great future even included its space programmer sending an Indian into orbit. Inevitably the speech was full of generalizations – and it avoided any mention of Modi’s sudden demonetization of 86 percent of the country’s bank notes in 2015 that caused extensive economic harm and hardship but achieved little.

That contrasts with the growing fear among Muslims and other minorities as an authoritarian Hindu doctrine and culture is spread across India with attacks on people alleged to be eating beef or trading in cows. Freedom of expression is being curtailed and dissenting voices silenced.

Vajpayee knew how to manage such tensions before they became destructive in a way that does not seem to interest the current government and party leadership.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant