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The many facets of Atal Bihari Vajpayee


Obituaries remember Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a ‘statesman with a poetic soul’. As voices from across the political spectrum hail him as a ‘true nationalist’ who ‘stood for democratic values and demonstrated this commitment in all his acts’, it becomes important to understand the legacy he has left behind.

In this curated media commentary below, CPR researchers analyse the leadership and policies of the former Prime Minister.

Sandeep Bhardwaj writes in the News Central, about Vajpayee’s contribution to the Hindutva agenda, that goes beyond the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the 2002 Gujarat riots, which has opened the door to today’s political climate of communalism, hyper-nationalism and fear. Bhardwaj elucidates how ‘Indians started discovering new ‘anti-nationals’ in their midst everyday’ and how ‘anti-Muslim propaganda became commonplace’ under the Vajpayee government.
He explains how despite these facts, Vajpayee is still remembered for his moderation, arguing that it was a case of ‘secular wish fulfillment’ – ‘there was a strong desire within the liberal India to see him as a moderate and to believe that Indian secularism remained intact despite the evidence to the contrary’. Apart from that, ‘the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) Government also employed three main strategies to keep Hindutva palatable. First, corruption and economic liberalisation issues were kept on the forefront, while Hindutva agenda kept building up beneath the surface. Second, stories of fissures within Hindu right-wing were forever highlighted – Vajpayee vs Advani, BJP vs RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), RSS vs VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad) – as a distraction, all the while these elements worked hand-in-hand on the ground. Third, Vajpayee and others sought to redefine Hindutva and present it as a benign ideology, often using vague or meaningless explanations, going as far as to suggest that it had nothing to do with Hinduism’.

As the nation was prepared for today’s political climate by the BJP government, Bhardwaj concludes by arguing that Vajpayee ‘ was either an unwitting abettor or willingly complicit – at best he played with fire without understanding that it was bound to go out of control, or at worst, he knowingly lit the match which burned down the building’.

The full article can be accessed here.

Srinath Raghavan writes in ThePrint, about Vajpayee’s guidelines on China and how they remain India’s best hope for an eventual agreement to solve the border dispute.
Raghavan highlights a series of failed attempts by successive governments to end the boundary dispute, which encompassed three sectors – eastern (Arunachal Pradesh), middle (Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand) and western (Ladakh including the Aksai Chin plateau). The Chinese Premier, Zhou Enlai had suggested that ‘if India accepted their claims to de facto control in the western sector, he would be open to considering India’s claimed boundary in the eastern sector’. However, such a ‘package deal’ was rejected and the bilateral relationship between the two countries went downhill.

Raghavan describes how ‘in an ironic turn of history, the relationship did not thaw until the advent of the Janata government in 1977 with Desai at the helm and Vajpayee as his foreign minister. Vajpayee’s visit to Beijing in February 1979 was a crucial moment. To assuage public opinion in India, the Desai government had stated that the relationship could not progress until the boundary dispute was resolved. In their meetings with Vajpayee, however, the Chinese leaders evinced no urgency on this matter. They wanted to put the boundary issue on the backburner and improve exchanges in other areas, especially economic ties. Deng Xiaoping said that if the problem could not be solved by this generation it should be set aside for the next generation. Vajpayee came up with a subtle formulation that bridged both sides’ positions’ by increasing functional exchanges between the two countries but not setting aside the border issue at the same time.

Vajpayee made repeated attempts, pressing ‘the Chinese to resume serious efforts to settle the boundary dispute in the interests of the overall relationship’ and ‘suggested that both sides appoint special representatives to conduct political negotiations and report directly to the principals’. Raghavan describes this as a breakthrough as ‘unlike previous negotiations, these would not be caught in legal-historical tangles but aim at a political settlement in stages.’ This process ‘paved the way for the Indian government to accept the idea of a ‘package settlement’ involving all sectors. This, in turn, led to the landmark agreement of 2005 on political parameters for settling the boundary dispute’.

The full article can be accessed here.