A mass leader

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was thrice sworn in as prime minister, has been mourned across the political spectrum. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, the current leaders of the party he founded, the Bharatiya Janata Party, walked in his funeral procession and stood by as he was cremated near the memorials of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. Members of the Opposition, including in the Congress, were effusive in their praise. This response is a reminder of exactly how influential Vajpayee’s time in power was — and indeed, how much his entire career mattered to the trajectory of Indian history. Many remembered his speeches in Delhi in the days after the election of 1977 was announced and the Janata coalition overpowered the hitherto invincible Congress; others shared clips of his speeches in Parliament, especially the one during the confidence motion in 1996. Vajpayee was, unquestionably, a mass leader.

Indeed, no leader since Nehru and Indira Gandhi has had such a consequential impact on Indian politics, its economy and its society. In completing a full term as prime minister, Vajpayee laid to rest the notion that a non-Congress government was inherently unstable. In spite of being voted out in 2004, the very fact that he had served a full term as the leader of a stable coalition sowed the seeds of the decline of the Congress. Without him, it is debatable whether the BJP would be in the pole position it is in across India today. Under him, the BJP metamorphosed from a marginal party of radicals into a credible alternative. It may have shifted to the social right since, but its position as the leading force in India’s political landscape is largely because of the foundation laid by Vajpayee. As prime minister, he also saw the most radical shifts in Indian foreign policy since the Nehru era. India became an open nuclear power, the first step towards taking its rightful position in the community of nations; and he also declared that the United States and India were “natural allies”, a declaration that all subsequent governments in both countries have striven to live up to.

As for the economy, Vajpayee’s government remains — with the possible exception of the first two years of the 1991 Congress-led government under Narasimha Rao — the reformist benchmark that others have failed to emulate. And even though markets for land and labour were left untouched, the roll of achievements is a long one. Most importantly, infrastructure investment — roads and telecom — was prioritised. A new via media was found in terms of partnership between the government and the private sector. And the banking system was liberalised. Socially, Vajpayee’s government included varied parties and represented a wide cross-section of Indians with their varying shades of opinion and belief, even though he personally maintained his allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Vajpayee didn’t believe in leadership stereotypes and there was never any question that he was anything other than what he was and always had been. Perhaps that is why his career was so influential, and he has been so missed.