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It was something that the nation had been getting ready to cope with for some time. After the ever-popular, flawlessly articulate former prime minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, suffered a speech-impairing stroke in 2009, four years after he retired from active politics citing health issues, the occasional news about him since then had mostly been about debilitating ailments. Not long after the stroke there were reports that he was largely confined to the wheelchair and in no position to meet people. As dementia and long-term diabetes reportedly took their toll, the last true statesman of the country completely disappeared from public life in the past decade, but never from public memory.
So when the grim news came from All India Institute of Medical Sciences – a little over two months after Vajpayee was admitted there in a critical state following a kidney infection and just a day after India celebrated its 72nd year of Independence – that the great man was no more, the national and international mourning over it was commensurate with the legacy that Vajpayee, whose appeal transcended party lines and geographical boundaries, had left behind.
On August 17, one of the most loved and revered sons of India was cremated with full military honours in the presence of the country’s top leaders cutting across the political divide and adoring masses.
Amidst chanting of vedic hymns and firing of a 21-gun salute by soldiers, his foster-daughter Namita lit the funeral pyre in the presence of a galaxy of leaders including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Ram Nath Kovind, Vice President M. Venkaiah Naidu, political leaders and foreign dignitaries bidding adieu to the departed leader at the Rashtriya Smriti Sthal.
Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah had earlier walked with the gun-carriage carrying the mortal remains of Vajpayee as it made its way from the party headquarters at Deen Dayal Upadhyay Marg to the cremation venue, a designated spot for the last rites of Presidents, Vice Presidents and Prime Ministers.
People had been thronging Vajpayee’s residence since morning on Krishna Menon Marg, where the body was kept since the previous night. The crowds swelled as the mortal remains were brought to the BJP’s new headquarters and kept there for over three hours for people to pay their last respects.
Delayed by an hour, the final journey saw a sea of people converging on the route to the Rashtriya Smriti Sthal, a distance of less than 3 km on the banks of the Yamuna river. In keeping with the military traditions, the three service chiefs placed wreaths on the body of Vajpayee before leaders paid their tributes for one last time.
The tricolour that was wrapped around Vajpayee’s body was given to his foster granddaughter Niharika after which the body was handed over to the family for the last rites.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan, veteran BJP leaders and Vajpayee’s long-time associates L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, RSS Chief Mohan Bhagwat, Home Minister Rajnath Singh, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman were present at the funeral.
Bhutan King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuk and former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai led foreign dignitaries including Pakistan Law Minister Syed Ali Zafar, Nepal Foreign Affairs Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali, acting Sri Lanka Foreign Minister Lakshman Kiriella and Bangladesh Foreign Minister Abul Hassan Mahmood Ali in paying homage.
Among the dignitaries who attended the funeral were former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister and PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad, Mallikarjun Kharge and Anand Sharma, Lok Sabha Deputy Speaker M. Thambidurai, former Union Minister A. Raja, MDMK chief Vaiko and TMC leader Dinesh Trivedi.
The cremation ground was surcharged with emotion as Vajpayee’s body was consigned to the flames. People, many of them misty-eyed, raised slogans like “Atalji amar rahen”.
People gathered at places enroute the procession, including a madrassa, raising slogans hailing Vajpayee. Many of the people who came had grown up with Vajpayee’s spellbinding oratory and were impressed with his poems.
When the final journey started from the BJP’s central office, Modi and Amit Shah walked behind the flower-decked gun carriage carrying the body of Vajpayee draped in the tricolour as security personnel kept a tight watch.
Deferring to Vajpayee’s stature, Modi and Shah walked the entire route till the cremation ground leading the mourners, who included union ministers, BJP leaders and tens of thousands of people.
People threw flower petals on the casket all through the three-kilometre route as an expression of their love, respect and admiration for the late leader.
Slogans like “Atalji amar rahen”, “Jab tak sooraj chand rahega, Atalji ka naam rahega”, “Bharat Mata ki jai” and “Vande Mataram” rent the air as the procession progressed. Some people were carrying banners containing lines from poems written by Vajpayee.
Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was also in the procession and supporters accompanying him raised slogans of “Jai Shri Ram”. A number of BJP chief ministers including, Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh), Manohar Lal Khattar (Haryana), Union Ministers and BJP leaders accompanied the funeral procession.
Earlier, Modi, Shah, Advani, Shiv Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray, Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, his deputy Manish Sisodia, CPI-M General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, CPI leader D. Raja, Tamil Nadu Chief Minister E. Palanisami were among the leaders who paid tributes to Vajpayee at the party office after his body was brought there from his Krishna Menon Marg residence.
Before the body was taken from the residence, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, DMK Working President M.K. Stalin, MDMK chief Vaiko, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and chiefs of the Army, Navy and the Air Force placed wreaths and paid their last respects.
Tight security arrangements had been made for the final procession by the security forces anticipating the participation of a large number of people.
The country observed a seven-day state mourning as a mark of respect for the leader who had been decorated with the Bharat Ratna. The tricolour flew half-mast for this period as well.
After all, Vajpayee had a pan-India appeal cutting across boundaries of caste, community, language and his flair for foreign policy and initiatives was acknowledged globally. His political rivals were also touched by his gentleness and magnanimity.
Being a member of parliament for almost half a century, he left an indelible impression on Indian politics through his fine oratory skills.
In fact, his maiden speech in parliament impressed the formidable Jawaharlal Nehru so much that while introducing Vajpayee to a visiting foreign dignitary he reportedly said: “This young man one day will become the country’s prime minister.” When Nehru’s prophetic words did come true, he went on to become the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete an entire term.
His stint in office is remembered for a variety of reasons. Less than two months after he assumed office in 1998, he approved the tests that made India a nuclear weapons state. Another highlight of his tenure has been his indefatigable efforts to make peace with Pakistan despite repeated setbacks with the Kargil war and the 2001 attack on parliament.
But, a less recognised fact is that he was also India’s second economic reformer after P.V. Narasimha Rao, who had opened up the Indian economy in 1991 after decades of protectionism and state-control.
When the BJP came into power in 1998, there was widespread scepticism among investors about the new government reversing the economic policies of the Narasimha Rao government and becoming more protectionist in nature. These fears were not unfounded.
A few years ago, when Narasimha Rao had pushed for India’s membership in the World Trade Organisation (WTO), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent body of the BJP, had vehemently criticised the move, arguing that it would expose domestic firms to unmanageable competition. It went against the Swadeshi principles of self-reliance. According to this view, globalisation was perceived as a foreign invasion by multinationals.
But, Vajpayee hardly subscribed to these views. He made it clear at several points during his tenure that he favoured the path of reforms to higher growth. During his visit to the US, for instance, he acknowledged the crucial role that foreign direct investment had played in India’s economic development since it had opened up. This put him at odds with the economic viewpoint of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Nevertheless, Vajpayee continued undeterred on the path of reforms, consistently trying to balance the demands of the party’s parent organisation with the needs of the economy. Most importantly, Vajpayee’s contrarian stance created a sense of continuity in government policies and kept investor confidence in India alive.
Throughout its term, the government opened up various sectors such as insurance, banking, telecom, pharmaceuticals, civil aviation and real estate to foreign investors. Simultaneously, all quantitative restrictions on imports were eliminated by 2002. But these were replaced with a system of tariffs to provide protection to domestic industries and, more importantly, keep the criticism from within the Sangh at bay.
Over the years, the Vajpayee government also initiated a litany of major reforms such as the initiation of the value-added tax regime, dismantling of administered price structure for fertilisers and petroleum products, extension of capital market reforms that Narasimha Rao had missed, reduction in government equity in public sector banks and reduction in the size of the bureaucracy.
Vajpayee also played a vital role in fuelling the explosive growth in the telecom sector in the new millennium. Even though the duo of Rajiv Gandhi and Sam Pitroda are often credited with sparking the telecom revolution in India, their efforts did not materialise in the form of telecom penetration.
In the decade since Rajiv Gandhi left office in 1989, tele-density across India marginally rose from 0.6 percent to 2.8 percent in 1999. Vajpayee changed the trend. As soon as he assumed office, he set up a National Task Force on Information Technology and Software Development that included the likes of N.R. Narayan Murthy of Infosys and Azim Premji of Wipro.
The task force called for a complete overhaul of India’s telecom policy. It resulted in the New Telecom Policy (NTP) of 1999, which improved upon the policy introduced by Narasimha Rao in 1994. Telecom licensing norms were altered to make it more lucrative for private players to enter the market while a distinction was drawn between the government’s role in policy formulation and service provision, which effectively freed the sector from political interference.
Later, the government also effected favourable fiscal changes like reducing import duties on mobile devices.
Such reform initiatives in the telecom sector drove the success story of the industry in the next decade. Against a tele-density target of 15 percent by 2010 in NTP 1999, more than half of India’s population was connected to a telecom device by the time. Most recent estimates show a tele-density has almost reached 90 percent.
The astounding growth of the Indian telecom industry and, especially mobile telephony, is a shining testament of how political clarity and focussed reform can deliver favourable outcomes.
Vajpayee, thus, emerged as an unlikely leader who kept the flame of reform alive against all odds. He never reversed the reform process that Narasimha Rao had initiated as many feared when he first came to office. If anything, he only sped it up.
The easier path would have been to give in to the demands of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to adopt more protectionist policies. But, Vajpayee stood his ground, which poised the economy perfectly well to take off into its fastest growth phase in history beginning in 2003, his last year in office.
It was Vajpayee’s moderation which enabled him to hold together for more than three years from 1999 to 2002 a mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) of as many as 24 parties, the likes of which had never been seen before and is unlikely to be seen in the future.
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, while attending a prayer meeting for the late Prime Minister recently, rightly noted: “Vajpayee was an astute leader who showed to the world the art of managing a coalition government with its myriad diversities … He embodied a unique combination of grace, idealism and tolerance in politics.”
Another one of the most crucial of Vajpayee’s legacies is the peace which prevailed in his time till the Gujarat riots of 2002, which paved the way for his defeat two years later as he ruefully conceded.
Before the riots, however, there was nothing like the present near-anarchic scenes which have made the Supreme Court bemoan the prevailing mobocracy as the “new normal” and the Centre to consider enacting a law to stop lynchings.
This is not, however, to suggest that Vajpayee never made any faults, or errors of judgement. The targeting of Tehelka and Outlook magazines because of their embarrassing disclosures about the unsavoury goings-on in high places is a reminder that no government — not even Vajpayee’s — can be tolerant of a genuinely free press.
This flawed administrative legacy goes back through Rajiv Gandhi’s abortive attempt to muzzle the media with his proposed Publication of Objectionable Materials Act in the wake of the Bofors howitzer scam, all the way to his mother’s draconian Emergency rule.
Vajpayee’s uncharacteristic misstep in the misuse of the Enforcement Directorate and other government agencies has largely been forgotten. What is remembered instead is the fact that of all the saffron leaders, he was the only one who had the Nehruvian vision of the “idea” of a multicultural India.
It was this broad outlook which made Vajpayee urge the Jan Sangh in 1960 to open its doors to “all Indian citizens irrespective of creed or sects”. Noting that at least formally, the party is opposed to politics being linked with religion, he said that “in the partition of the country, we have already had a grim experience of the consequences of mingling politics with religion”.
All said and done, though, Vajpayee was not a perfect politician. But he was as near-perfect a leader as India has ever seen in the past half century. There’s an old saying that goes: “Even the moon, master of the sea, illuminator of the night, has her scars.” Vajpayee was only human. But just like moon, he will be remembered for his myriad virtues rather than his rare errors.

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