(Dr Pentapti Pullarao*)
Death is a very serious business. Shakespeare wisely described death : as a journey from which no traveler returns “. In the case of the much –loved Atal Behari Vajpayee, he reached the age of 93 and was afflicted with age-related illnesses . From the outpouring of grief, it is obvious that most people thought well of Vajpayee. The same Shakespeare also famously wrote in his book “ Julius Caesar “ “ The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones” Shakespeare meant that once people die, only the bad and evil is remembered.
But in the last 10 days, we have witnessed the outpouring of praise for the 94 year old M. Karunanidhi and 93 year old ex-prime minister Atal Behari Vajapyee and we can even believe that Shakespeare maybe wrong as he never met Indians.
Indians are very generous when leaders die. They find only the good they have done and are genuinely emotional and sincere in their grief . Indians forgive everything after a leader dies.
Atal Behari Vajpayee became a Member of Parliament in 1957 and won 9 more elections to parliament after that. He also famously lost some elections particularly the 1985 Lok Sabha election after Indira Gandhi was assassinated . The high point of Vajpayee’s career was that he became prime minister thrice. The first time was in 1996 for a short time of 14 days. Then again in 1998 for a year and after that in 1999 for 5 years.
During this tenure, Vajpayee had to face the Kargil attack by Pakistan and won a clear victory. At the same time Vajpayee immediately agreed to finding peace with Pakistan and went on the famous Bus trip to Pakistan. Of course , Vajpayee also faced difficult failures in the Kandahar hijacking of Air India and also the terrorist attack on parliament. But the public forgave him these failures as the entire world was facing terrorism .
The important political contribution of Vajpayee was that he made the BJP acceptable all over India. Even the Dravidian parties like DMK and ADMK became willing allies of the BJP. Vajpayee’s pleasant behavior and face created a great aura about him and the public viewed him very favorably. In 1998, the BJP won many MPs only because of the charisma of Vajpayee. Imagine winning 6 MPs out of 42 in 1998 in Andhra Pradesh by the BJP without any allies.!
Another contribution of Vajpayee was that the BJP could manage large number of allies favorably . Of course, Vajpayee had to concede a lot since he did not have the numbers like Narendra Modi does today in parliament .
Vajpayee was also able to successfully win over the USA during George Bush’s time and after that, Pakistan never enjoyed good relations with the USA. Vajpayee was very good in foreign relations and he also had a very smart foreign minister in Jaswant Singh ..We forget that in 1977, Vajpayee became the Foreign Minister in Morarji Desai’s cabinet. During that time, Vajpayee liberalized the passport applications system and millions of people got passports easily after that. This was a major contribution of Vajpayee.
As far as economics was concerned, Vajpayee’s tenure saw high oil prices. The Indian economy is totally dependent on low oil prices to grow and have big amount of foreign currency . Though Vajpayee did not hinder the economy, his government was neither very good with the economy . His government had no Dr. Manmohan Singh to steer the economy .
If you carefully examine the praise being heaped on Vajpayee today, it is because many of the fans of Vajpayee do not like Narendra Modi and by praising the Vajpayee, they in fact are criticizing Narendra Modi and his strongman image. History takes time to give its certificate on any leader. We cannot come to any conclusions right now about Vajpayee and his government .
There is one other thing which no one is talking about. In 2004, the BJP government led by Atal Behari Vajpayee went for elections 6 months early with the extreme confidence that it will win 300 MPs out of 544. But the shocking defeat removed Vajpayee from Prime Ministership and he had to retire from politics. As the great warrior Napoleon said over 250 years ago : Victory has many fathers . Defeat is an orphan “. No one likes defeat and the BJP quickly pushed Vajpayee aside . In fact, L.K. Advani very quickly took over the leadership of BJP . But Advani was also pushed aside by the RSS and Narendra Modi ,when Advani started looking like a big loser. No one saw much of Vajpayee after 2004 as the BJP felt that his charisma ahs expired and will not get any more victories for them. Age also became a big relentless enemy of Vajpayee .
The question which historians will ask in the future is that if Vajpayee government was so good, then why did it lose to a weak Congress and other parties ? Every speaker on TV today spoke everything about Vajpayee but never about the stunning defeat of 2004 of Vajpayee which ended his political career. No one wanted to speak ill of Vajpayee today
I have quoted the great Shakespeare twice . But I have to end with the quotation of a great writer Diogenes Laertius who lived 1700 years ago in ancient Greece. Diogenes Laertius said “ Do not speak ill of the dead “. I hope I did not violate Laertius’s warning
*Dr Pullarao is a noted economist and political commentator