As the first prime minister of India from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Atal Bihari Vajpayee created a legacy that is enduring and divisive at the same time. Vajpayee passed away at the age of 93 after a prolonged bout of illness in New Delhi.
Vajpayee’s legacy, shaped by his politics that began even before India gained independence, has seen many ups and downs. He was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindutva organization that has championed a more fundamentalist approach to shaping India’s destiny.
A slew of articles published after Vajpayee’s death point to two troubling speeches that defined his role as a member of the RSS. A speech that preceded a massive massacre in Nellie, Assam on February 18, 1983, is particularly troubling. Another speech that preceded the demolition of the Babri Mosque has been repeatedly cited by his critics to show how Vajpayee was first a pracharak (worker) of the RSS, rather than the “liberal” he is described as currently.
But officials who worked closely with him during his stint as prime minister reveal that while he shaped the job in many ways, the job also shaped him deeply. That leaves behind a complex legacy, which needs more nuance that the furious editorials that have sprung up in the aftermath of his death.
Crisis after crisis
Vajpayee’s tenures as a prime minister – first for 13 days, followed by 13 months, and finally a full five-year term that ended in May 2004 – faced a number of crises. Some say that no other Indian prime minister faced as many in their tenures.
The first was the Kargil War of 1999, when Vajpayee was heading a minority government. Shepherds in Kashmir discovered the presence of regular Pakistan Army troops on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC), leading to a fierce war between two nuclear-armed states that resulted in huge casualties on both sides. India won the war and recaptured the Kargil heights.
“What was remarkable about the man was his ability to remain completely unflappable even at the height of any crisis,” said A S Dulat, former chief of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Dulat served under Vajpayee first as his intelligence chief, and then as a special adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) on Kashmir.
“Rajiv Gandhi was a prime minister who was very keen about India’s intelligence operations. He was a first-timer and his fascination can be explained. But prime minister Vajpayee was different. He had seen it all and he measured the worth of intelligence within the larger picture of India’s strategic needs,” Dulat said.
The crisis sparked by the hijacking of Indian Airlines Flight 814 in December 1999 proved to be a major test for Vajpayee. “We were about to celebrate Christmas Eve when news of the hijacking came in,” Dulat remembers. “It was a tough call and he knew that whatever decision that he took would have have consequences for the future.”
Sudheendra Kulkarni, another senior official in the PMO, serving as Vajpayee’s media adviser, remembers the crisis very well.
“A decision was taken to release three terrorists from Indian jails in exchange for the hostages, who were stranded in Kandahar under the Taliban government,” Kulkarni said. “Prime minister Vajpayee repeatedly stated during the meetings that if it was his family that had been taken hostage, he would never release the terrorists. But these were Indian families traumatized by the plight of their kin who were held hostage. He took the decision to release them, knowing that it would haunt him forever.”
The Kargil War also saw Vajpayee making a decision that went against every military strategy that had been suggested to win the war quickly.
“Indian military planners were planning to cross the LoC and hit targets in Pakistan to bring a quick end to the war,” a former senior military official told Asia Times. As a senior general in the military operations directorate, he witnessed how decisions were made at the military and political levels. “But prime minister Vajpayee decided that Indian forces would never cross the LoC. That prolonged the war, but it did not escalate it.”
Both Dulat and Kulkarni separately confirm that Vajpayee’s decision not to cross the LoC was born out of a furious commitment to peace. He felt betrayed by the Pakistani intrusions into Kargil, soon after his historic bus journey to Lahore. But a deep commitment to peace with Pakistan ensured that the war would be contained to the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
A man of peace
“I accompanied him on that historic bus journey to Lahore,” Kulkarni remembered. “At first, they were suspicious, but when prime minister Nawaz Sharif came to receive him at Wagah after crossing the border, suspicions turned into bonhomie. His ability to charm them was unparalleled.”
A speech at the Governor’s House in Lahore, Kulkarni said, surprised everyone. “Everyone expected him to speak in chaste Hindi, but the speech was in flawless Urdu. As he recited one of his poems on why India and Pakistan should never allow a war, people started weeping in the hall.”
For Vajpayee, peace between India and Pakistan almost bordered on obsession. While his deputy and close political confidant, Lal Krishna Advani, is frequently used as a contrast to Vajpayee, senior journalist Vidya Subrahmaniam painted a more nuanced picture of their relationship.
While Advani would push for a stronger approach to Pakistan, Vajpayee counseled peace. On December 13, 2001, militants from the Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Mohammed attacked India’s Parliament. Vajpayee immediately agreed to a massive mobilization that almost led to another war.
“But the man was committed to peace, and after prolonged negotiations with [General Pervez] Musharraf, he managed to get a ceasefire and a declaration that Pakistani soil would never be used for terror activities against India,” Dulat said.
The former intelligence chief also remembers another episode that in many ways gives a deep insight into Vajpayee.
“Over a period of time he had become quite fond of Mian Nawaz Sharif, his Pakistani counterpart,” Dulat said. But as Sharif tried to arrest his army chief, General Musharraf, a coup in October 1999 finally deposed him as the prime minister.
“Vajpayee was worried and he wanted us to ensure that India did everything to ensure Sharif’s safety. Years later, while Sharif found refuge outside Pakistan, Vajpayee went ahead and tried to build peace with the architect of the Kargil War, in his bid to build an abiding peace.”
But Vajpayee lost the 2004 general election, and when Dulat went to meet him, to bid him adieu officially, he found a circumspect man.
“He was sure that the communal riots in the state of Gujarat in 2002 had cost him the general elections. He told me that had he managed another term, he would have ensured a lasting peace deal with Pakistan,” Dulat said.
Vajpayee publicly pulled up the then chief minister of Gujarat for his “failure” to prevent the riots. More than a decade later, the chief minister would become India’s second and current prime minister from the BJP – Narendra Modi.