Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who died on Thursday after a prolonged illness at the age of 93, was one of the tallest leaders of the post-Independence India. Outside the Congress stable, he ranked the highest. Though the Opposition had several notables, nobody contributed as much for so long to end the Congress monopoly over power as he did. He was the face of the Opposition long before the Congress, basking in the reflected glory of the freedom struggle, seemed vulnerable. But he never wavered in his fight, championing economic liberalisation and independent foreign policy when the dominant political discourse in the country was a license-permit-raj variety of socialism and a pro-Soviet Union version of non-alignment.
For someone who had joined active politics back in 1951 upon the founding of the Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP, and who had suffered several rejections at the ballot box, he showed not a trace of bitterness. He retained equanimity in defeat and victory, never giving up, and, eventually, in the late 90s tasted power. It had taken him more than four decades to occupy the chair which the first prime minister had predicted he would back in the late 50s, so impressed was he by the then young parliamentarian. It was indeed a long, arduous and an eventful journey. He had virtually grown with the Republic, experiencing its highs and lows from close quarters, often as an active participant. A certain ideology, economic, social and cultural, drove his politics. Initially, it had few takers, but as the time passed, and the Congress degenerated into a self-aggrandising party tied to the little finger of a single family, Vajpayee got his due. He emerged the foremost leader of the country, building on the debris of a crumbling Congress a viable collation of like-minded parties of which he was the sole anchor. Always a man of consensus and conciliation, he shunned confrontation and conflict, though he never abandoned his core beliefs for power.
His government fell for want of a single vote but he refused to indulge in the usual jiggery-pokery lesser politicians resort to in such situations. Controversial agendas were relegated to the sidelines whenever Vajpayee helmed the Jana Sangh and, later, the BJP. The RSS constituted the core of the party but, thanks to his charisma and his middle-of-the-road approach, he could carry everyone in the wide political spectrum with him. His friendships cut across the political barriers. No other leader commanded the respect and admiration of fellow politicians as he did. Because he never used a harsh word about friends and foes alike. Political differences might have divided them, his innate decency earned him wide respect. Indeed, long before he became prime minister, the RSS and he had veered away. Vajpayee had outgrown RSS’s rather narrow and sectarian world-view. Any other leader who lacked faith in the core RSS philosophy would not have lasted a day longer in the BJP, but Vajpayee, despite resisting RSS and following his own liberal-secular approach while in government, was too big to be fiddled with.
He was the one who made the Jana Sangh-BJP, the RSS creation, widely acceptable. His number 2, Advani, played footsie with the RSS, so long as Vajapyee was active, but upon the latter withdrawing from politics following a crippling stroke in 2009, Advani tried to don the Vajpayee garb but came a cropper when he certified Jinnah’s secular credentials. There was only one Vajpayee in politics and he was an epitome of decency, broad thinking, pragmatism, and strong economic and political nationalism. He was never mean-spirited, embracing in the party fold even those who had called him names. His silver-tongued oratory, sense of ready wit, an extraordinary zen for life, his refusal to lead a double-life, one for public and another for private consumption, all defined him. He could be tough when needed, like taking India nuclear even though it was known it would earn the wrath of the older nuclear haves. He took the process of liberalisation and reforms ahead during his near-full third and last term as prime minister, but after the surprise loss in 2004, Atalji gradually withdrew from politics, with a severe stroke eventually leaving him bed-ridden and in the 24×7 care of doctors. With his death, the country has lost the tallest politician who personified all that was good in politics and life. Pygmies on all sides now dominate our national life.