Vajpayee, The years that changed India by Shakti Sinha

As a scholar bureaucrat, Shakti Sinha Sir remains an inspiration for bureaucrats like me. Here, he writes an interesting book on Atal Ji, an insiders account.

My main takeaways from the book;

  1. The book is a political journey of Atal Ji beginning with his electoral victory in 1957 from Balrampur to the year 1999, when his government fell by one vote in the Lok Sabha. The focus of the book however is on the period March 1998 to May 1999, when Vajpayee was sworn in as the PM for the second time, and provides an insider account of the government and the happenings during the period.
  2. India exercised its nuclear option in May 2018 becoming an overt nuclear weapon state. The book highlights the international and the domestic reaction to these tests. Americans were livid at the test as were the Canadians, Japanese and the Scandinavians. France, UK and Russians on the other hand were more understanding. The Americans completely overlooked India’s rationale for the test, disregarded China’s proliferation record in the subcontinent and the consequent threat that it posed it India’s security. Instead, President Clinton and his administration imposed sanctions on India, also seeking to create a G2 with China to manage South Asia. Domestically too the government was criticized by its political opponents with the Congress party under Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, arguing that there was no credible reason for India to have tested. She questioned the secrecy with which the tests were undertaken, which for her symbolized the lack of transparency. Ironically, the Congress manifesto of 1991, prepared under Shri Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership, had mentioned the need for India to exercise its nuclear option.
  3. Vajpayee’s opening to Pakistan, his Lahore Bus yatra and the events during the trip make for an interesting read. Reading those pages, the image of Vajpayee as a statesman repeatedly gets reinforced. The Lahore visit created conditions for communication lines to remain open between both the Prime Ministers even during the Kargil conflict, PM Vajpayee and PM Sharif having repeated telephonic conversations during the period. The back channel between RK Mishra and Niaz Naik also continued to remain active.
  4. The book should be a compulsory read for all those who keep extolling the virtue of coalition governments of myriad parties over a one party stable government. It clearly brings out the compromises that such a government is forced to make, the endless energy that the leadership has to spend not on meeting the actual challenges of governance but instead on managing the demands (more often than not for personal benefit of leaders), pulls, pressures and the blackmail of the coalition partners.
  5. What I found very interesting in the book is the role President Narayanan played first by creating difficulties in the way of Vajpayee in forming the government, and later when the government fell by one vote, trying to engineer an alternative government. The author quotes Natwar Singh who in his book had argued that President Narayanan, sent his Principal Secretary, Shri Gopal Krishna Gandhi to the Congress leaders, with a view to convince them to support Jyoti Basu as PM. The effort failed necessitating a midterm election. Reading it made me chuckle thinking of all those who shout from rooftops, as to how institutions have got all politicized today and are no longer nonpartisan.
  6. Personally, Atal ji was a person seeped in the Indian cultural and civilizational ethos, who was deeply influenced not only by classical Indian literature but also Ramcharit Manas. For him the word Hindu did not denote a religion or a particular mode of worship but an eclectic way of life. During the confidence vote of May 1996, he stated that India was inherently secular for it did not believe that any faith or system of worship had a monopoly over truth. Interestingly, he got a letter from Syed Sahabuddin who argued that he disagreed with his Vajpayee’s description of Indian philosophy and that he as a Muslim believed that his path was the only true path. Vajpayee ji let the issue pass and did not respond to him.
  7. On the issue of governance and politics, it was his firm belief that some issues like national security and national sovereignty were beyond/above petty politicking. So, when then Minister of Defense, Mulayam Singh Yadav announced that the Sukhoi deal had been concluded, Vajpayee to the shock of many congratulated him in Parliament. Explaining the role of government and opposition in India to a visiting Nigerian delegation, he stated, ‘the opposition should have its say, but the government must have its way’. On economic issues, he believed that the government should play the role of a regulator, the culture of ‘free’ should not be encouraged, instead user charges for services provided should be paid, more so by those who could afford it. He also called for the rationalization of subsidies.  

Sadly, considering the stature of Vajpayee, much has not been written about him, compared to other leaders of India’s cultural right. This book fills an important gap more so for people like me, who seek to understand and research on the cultural nationalists/right in India. A very interesting read.

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