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Rahul Jacob: Reassessing Mr Vajpayee

Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s address to Parliament in May 1996 before he resigned after 13 days as prime minister because the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could not muster enough support to ensure it had a majority is widely described as one of the finest speeches in India’s history. It is full of charm. He directly tackles and disputes the Opposition’s description of him as a good man in a bad party. At another point he speaks in Tamil. He reminds Parliament and TV viewers that he has always played by the rules of democracy as a Member of Parliament for 40 years.

At one point Somnath Chatterjee shouts him down, saying “You are completely isolated.” Watching this debate, one is tempted to reply that Mr Vajpayee was never isolated. It was impossible not to like Mr Vajpayee. No Indian prime minister, with the exception perhaps of Lal Bahadur Shastri, has as untarnished a historical legacy even 10 years after relinquishing office. His Bharat Ratna and the anointing of his birthday as Good Governance Day is just the saccharine icing on his 90th birthday cake. And never mind that commemorating good governance in a country infamous around the world for its lethargic, obstructive political and bureaucratic modus operandi can only mean some celestial prankster is mixing something potent with the water supplied to Lutyen’s Delhi.

Mr Vajpayee’s halo is unquestionable and unusual. Nehru’s reputation has been besmirched for imposing socialism on the natural entrepreneurialism of India, for the defeat in the India-China war and so much more. Indira Gandhi is still seen by the masses who flock in huge buses to her memorial on Safdarjung Road as “Durga,” as Mr Vajpayee described her, but political analysts and historians have been less kind.

The empirical evidence for this great elder statesman image that Mr Vajpayee enjoys is mixed, however. He certainly expended political capital and made extraordinary strides to normalise relations with Pakistan by visiting that country and allowing freer travel across the border. He made an eloquent speech in Kashmir, reminding us that it is our common humanity that requires finding a solution to the problems that bedevil that unfortunate and beautiful place, despite the intractable positions of the two states.

Mr Vajpayee led a reformist government, which actually had the courage to sell off state-owned enterprises rather than merely offload small portions of public sector companies on to the stock market and twist the arm of state financial institutions like the Life Insurance Company to buy these shares if no one else will. But, like every central government since the reforms began in 1991, Mr Vajpayee balked at labour reforms when the unions protested.

He deserves credit for appointing a minister for disinvestment but his poetic oratory was not directed at speeding up decision-making nor defending free-market reforms. Even Manmohan Singh spoke more eloquently for that cause as finance minister in the 1990s. The policy for special economic zones was announced with fanfare in 2000 but was a bad idea to begin with.

In their Economic and Political Weekly article, Maitreesh Ghatak and others may have been superficial to compare the gross domestic product (GDP) growth rates of the Congress-led years between 2004 and 2014 with the BJP-led 1998 to 2004. But, it is also true that annual GDP growth of nearly six per cent between 1999 and 2004 versus 7.6 per cent for the Manmohan Singh years can’t all be attributed to a different global environment (the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath was during the United Progressive Alliance years) or just the effect of the foundation Mr Vajpayee and Yashwant Sinha built for the Congress to capitalise on. The real difference is in the average inflows for foreign direct investment – about $ 20 billion annually during the UPA years and just under $ 3 billion a year under Mr Vajpayee. If there is a barometer for business confidence that surely must be significant.

Also on the debit side of the ledger is the decision to openly declare India a nuclear power in 1998 and the jingoistic rhetoric that followed, both of which did nothing to deter Pakistan from its cross-border aggressiveness. As many have argued, declaring our nuclear status nullified our conventional arms superiority over Pakistan. If it was aimed at China, the tests have not stopped the routine incursions into Indian territory, most recently even as President Xi Jinping nibbled Gujarati delicacies on the banks of the Sabarmati. In retrospect, few moves by New Delhi have done more to “hyphenate” India to Pakistan than that fateful decision.

It is hard to argue, as many in the media have done, that being a gentlemanly consensus builder did much to lower the incidence of communal violence under Mr Vajpayee’s watch. His reaction to the burning of Christian missionaries in Orissa was to call for legislation to prevent conversions. His anguish about the riots in Gujarat of 2002 seemed real enough. To his credit, he visited the Shah Alam camp in Ahmedabad where many of the victims of the riots were housed, but the anguish also seemed most poignantly expressed in the context of what foreign leaders would think of him on his visit soon after to Singapore and Cambodia.

“With what face will I land,” he is reported to have said. As Manoj Mitta points out in his book, The Fiction of Fact-finding, Mr Vajpayee’s inflammatory communal speech in Goa, days after visiting the Shah Alam relief camp for riot victims, was “a complete disconnect from the one he had delivered just eight days earlier… invoking ‘rajdharma.'”

As a consequence of the nuclear tests and of ‘India Shining,’ an unseemly ‘great power’ triumphalism entered the national discourse. As George Perkovich, author of India’s Nuclear Bomb sensibly argues being a diverse democracy is achievement enough: “Perhaps the notion and language of ‘great power’ is irrelevant when it comes to India. Maybe we should keep score in a different way.” Mr Vajpayee should have made that point. Like so many great orators, he played to our collective vanity instead.

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