The masterclass of politics
Media will remember Vajpayee as a great Parliamentarian
Most politicians, when they die, evoke mixed feelings and despire even when their achievements are supreme. Many times, they are remembered bitterly because they hit so many so hard. The singular exception is Atal Bihari Vajpayee as he will be remembered fondly by all without much variation. Those he fought will remember him, as always, being above board; those he worked with will remember him with nostalgia. When Vajpayee's name is said, who will not remember the broad visage of a man with intense expression, with flowing dhoti, with tousled hair, with typical lisping diction, elaborating on timeless India. A man of multiple dimensions, and never so simple, he was a poet who would convey his ingrained optimism promising to light that eternal flame of inspiration.
But then, during his long association in Indian politics, Vajpayee saw frustrating days when his party was represented in Parliament by himself. He had, in contrast, seen the party's strength surge to unbelievable levels which would send him to the hot seat. But all through in good days as in bad ones, his asset was his point of view. He was always as if saying "Men may come, Men may go but the concept that is India would continue." So however bitter the fight at hand, do not give up that civility. Do not harm the concept that is India. He stood for that unchanging India unflinchingly.
It was in that spirit that he was shocked when historical structures were pulled down or when parliamentary conventions were trampled upon. His observations on those occasions would often bear the mark of his insight into the psyche of the country, the way the Indian polity was evolving and the way we were to go.
I remember it was a small occasion when Vajpayee, as usual, was sitting in the opposition. Rajiv Gandhi was Prime Minister after coming into power with the largest ever majority. It was a few years into that government's life when a delegation of lawmakers from South had come to Delhi to present a memorandum to the Prime Minister. Instead of the Prime Minister meeting the delegation's spokesman, the lawmakers were roughed up at Race Course Road. The news reached Lok Sabha which was sitting. There was ruckus on the floor and opposition came down heavily on the government for its pusillanimous behaviour.
Rose Atal Bihari Vajpayee to speak spontaneously on the spur of the moment. I can still hear him deliver his admonition in his inimitable style in Hindi. But on that occasion, style apart, the context was as if a prediction. He had observed until now people from the provinces were coming to Delhi to knock at its door in hope of redressal. "Soon there will be a time when provinces will not come to Delhi to knock at its door, but to save your own seats, you [the Centre] will go to the provinces for holding on to your skin". What a forecast about a transition which was decades away.
Today, national political parties are constantly looking out for partners from the regions to shore up their numbers to even form a government at the Centre. They are at the mercy of the states and regional bosses. No wonder that "collaborative federalism" is in the air. There are of course those who are still blinkered about the transition and feel that the regions should come to them for getting berths at the Centre.
But the writing today is clear. Parties or players are destined to withering in cases where the hard reality is not fully comprehended. It was not so easy to detect the drift in those days though. The correct reading of the subtle course changes was Vajpayee's sagacity. He could read the pulse of the people, the mood changes, and knew how to appeal to that. Vajpayee's election speeches were the clearest demonstration of the demagogue's art of weaning people away from the opponent's camp which had now become the stuff of the legends.
The good thing was that he could deliver even his barbs in immensely enjoyable humour. Who does not now know Vajpayee's use of price rise for raising mirth and satire in the midst of election heat of north India. Good quality onion would always give a burn to the eyes while dicing, but to relate it to the prices was his kind of political polemics. The underlying tenor was that in the dusty fields where he was speaking, raw onion was essential to the palate of his listeners. It was sugar-coating a bitter failing to make it appealing, not by shouting about it. Vajpayee was of course not all honey and milk. He knew how to use his armoury, always hidden behind suavity, at the right moment.
After Lal Krishna Advani's nationwide "rathayatra" had raised the consciousness about Bharatiya Janata Party as a bankable alternative to Congress and time came for it to take up the mantle, it was not Advani who came to grab the top slot. It was Vajpayee who was elected the leader for the first NDA government. The congratulatory congregation that evening at the back of the Constitution Club had BJP luminaries on the dais. It was the glowing countenance of the Party chiefs. But in that general mirth, one could palpably sense victory and defeat.
In his moment of supreme victory that evening, Vajpayee was magnanimously understated, knowing fully well that he had beaten all, including those who had worked most for it, to go past the post first. That was his masterclass manoeuvre.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)