Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was conferred with India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna, on Friday. The decision to bestow the Bharat Ratna to the first prime minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party seems a popular one, considering the cross-party support it has received. Vajpayee, unlike his party leaders today, possessed a vision and wisdom that received many plaudits from political allies and opponents alike. As prime minister, Vajpayee went above and beyond his party’s oft-spoken nationalist rhetoric to improve relations with Pakistan.
According to senior political commentators, Vajpayee believed if it took a Republican president in Richard Nixon to break the ice with China, then it would take a prime minister from the BJP to achieve a significant breakthrough with Pakistan. In fact he had once famously remarked, “while friends can be changed but neighbours can’t”. The present dispensation could take a leaf out Vajpayee’s policy book and engage both Pakistan and separatist elements in resolving the Kashmir issue.
Vajpayee, who fought against the Emergency in the 1970s, also possessed the image of an old-fashioned liberal committed to the ideas of personal and economic freedom. From his heroics during the dreaded Emergency to his rapturous speech in Hindi at the United Nations General Assembly as India’s foreign minister in 1977, Vajpayee captured the imagination of many. Some, however, seem to forget that if it were not for Vajpayee, India would have sent troops to fight in former US president George Bush’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq. Despite calls from then defence minister George Fernandes and home minister LK Advani to send Indian troops, Vajpayee held firm.
In a moment of political astuteness, Vajpyee summoned two senior communist leaders in AB Bardhan and HK Surjeet to his office, who had earlier launched a nation-wide campaign against any Indian involvement in Iraq. According to reports, Vajpayee implored both leaders to raise the decibel levels on the protest so that he could tell Bush his hands were tied. The rest they say is history. Over the years, people less-deserving of the honour, have received the award. Vajpayee, a true statesman, does not fall into this category.