The elaborate and grand manner in which the Narendra Modi government and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) conducted the funeral ceremony for Atal Bihari Vajpayee has turned the focus on the arrangements that were made for bidding goodbye to other former prime ministers. Vajpayee, who died on August 16, was given a state funeral in New Delhi and not all prime ministers, who died after demitting office, were given this honour.
Only three prime ministers in India died while they headed the government — Jawaharlal Nehru in 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966 and Indira Gandhi in 1984. And all of them got a majestic state funeral and a memorial in New Delhi.
Independent India, however, has also seen the demise of nine of its prime ministers after they demitted office — Charan Singh in 1987, Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, Morarji Desai in 1995, Gulzarilal Nanda in 1998, P V Narasimha Rao in 2004, Chandra Shekhar in 2007, Vishwanath Pratap Singh in 2008, Inder Kumar Gujral in 2012 and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2018.
Of these, all except three had relatively short tenures. Desai remained prime minister for a little over two years, Charan Singh, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, Chandra Shekhar and Gujral stayed in that position for less than a year each and Nanda was there for a couple of weeks in both his stints.
In other words, Gandhi, Rao and Vajpayee were the only former prime ministers who had completed a five-year term. Placing the funeral arrangements made for Vajpayee in a historical context will, therefore, require a comparison with how the governments of the day had dealt with the passing of Gandhi and Rao.
Gandhi was assassinated by terrorists in the middle of general elections and the country was going through political uncertainty and an unprecedented economic crisis. His cremation was arranged when Chandra Shekhar was the caretaker prime minister and the funeral arrangements were no less stately and grand than those made for prime ministers who died in office.
Rao died in New Delhi in December 2004. A government, led by the Congress, was in power in New Delhi. Rao had led a full five-year term as prime minister during a period when the Indian economy was going through its worst economic crisis. With the help of the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh, Rao undertook bold economic reforms to bail the economy out of that crisis. His inaction during the demolition of the disputed Babri mosque in Ayodhya became controversial, but his economic policies and the strategic move to come closer to the United States gave a new direction to India’s economy and geopolitics.
In many ways, Rao’s contribution as prime minister for five years was no less significant than that of Vajpayee. Yet, in spite of his family’s wishes, his funeral ceremony was not performed in New Delhi. His body was taken to Hyderabad and the cremation took place on the banks of the Hussain Sagar lake. Manmohan Singh, prime minister at that time, made a promise to the Rao family that a memorial for him would be constructed in New Delhi, but it remained unfulfilled. Rao’s cortege did not even enter the headquarters of the Congress in New Delhi before his body was taken to Hyderabad for the cremation.
Rao was not just a former prime minister but also a former president of the Congress. But the Congress under the leadership of its then president, Sonia Gandhi, ignored Rao and refused to give him credit for the policy changes he had brought about as prime minister. It even failed to own and take credit for the success of the economic reforms programme that was launched by the Rao government. The failure to bury its differences with Rao barred the Congress from taking due credit for its success in bailing the Indian economy out of an economic crisis.
In sharp contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has now completely owned the Vajpayee legacy in spite of his having serious differences with the former prime minister in the past. It is widely known that Vajpayee had differences with Modi on the way the latter handled the Gujarat riots in 2002 and reportedly he was even keen on Modi’s removal as chief minister. The leadership style of Modi is also different from that of Vajpayee.
Yet, by organising Vajpayee’s funeral ceremony and publicly claiming its ownership, Modi has not only recognised the stellar role that Vajpayee played as prime minister, but he has also staked claim to the Vajpayee legacy. His differences with Vajpayee have not come in the way as he perhaps realises that claiming the Vajpayee legacy will be a political asset for him and his party.
Should the Congress leadership have also thought on similar lines in 2004, buried its differences with Rao, given him a state funeral in New Delhi and claimed Rao’s legacy on economic reforms as its own?