It is too soon perhaps to evaluate the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s contribution to Indian history, and perhaps it is a task better left for better minds than mine. However, it perhaps can be said safely that he was one of the most significant figures of post-1947 India. By taking the decision to test a nuclear device, he permanently altered the geopolitical equations of the region. By creating India’s first and only national alternative to the Congress, he destroyed for good the Gandhi family’s TINA (There is no Alternative) argument. Through his partnership with Advani, he created something unique in Indian politics, a party that could legitimately speak with two voices, one targeted towards the right and one towards the center, one hard and one soft, that contrasted sharply with Congress’s monolith-ism on one hand, and on the other, the inability of regional parties to talk in a language that those beyond their regions could comprehend. There was only one who could legitimately have taken on the political genius of Vajpayee on his own turf, and that was a certain PV Narasimha Rao, and Sonia Gandhi rightfully recognized him as her family’s biggest threat and dynamited him and his legacy, but in trying to make sure that little boy Rahul got his porridge, she snapped whatever spine the grand old party had.
Which brings me to what I found the most unique about Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His likeability. Be it Babri or Graham Staines or Kandahar or Kargil or even 2002, which, and you would be forgiven for forgetting happened under his Prime Ministership, he always managed to escape the kind of toxic media and political fallout that would have buried lesser mortals. The likeability was not accidental, it was carefully cultivated. In order to contrast his party with that of the single-family DNA of the Congress, he allowed a significant number of leaders to flourish and develop their own identities within the party. While the Congress maintained an intricate network of favored and blacklisted journalists, Vajpayee had an open-door relation with the media, even those he knew were in the pocket of the Congress, because he always favored making a friend over deepening an enmity, and for that he gave access, the only currency accepted in Lutyens.
It was a rare gift, the ability to work in a deeply divisive environment with cut-throats in your own party and outside, and yet somehow not take it personal, to do what you wanted and yet not be judged too harshly for doing so.
Not too many politicians can do that.
Advani couldn’t. He inherited Vajpayee’s legacy, but then he tried to mimic Vajpayee, with terrible results, like a heavy metal fan trying to pass off for a Pankaj Udhas devotee. From hardline Hindu hawk to “Jinnah was a good person”, there was so much brand dilution and overall lack of vision that the very identity of the party came under threat. Advani wasn’t helped by those that had been groomed by Vajpayee to be the next generation of BJP leaders, middling project managers suddenly given responsibility for country-wide sales and being found out of depth in their new responsibilities.
For that matter, neither can Modi be Vajpayee. And he does not want to.
For Modi, politics is personal. And he chooses to embrace the fact that he is not going to be liked, for he knows that “they” will never accept him as part of “them”. He won’t ever be able to be a charmer like Vajpayee, with a clever turn of poetic phrase or a significantly ambiguous pause and he is smart enough not to even try. The fundamental appeal of Modi to his base is his unyielding lack of Vajpayiety, he isn’t going to reach across the aisle, he is not going to try to bend backwards to mollify journalists who once scoffed at him but now run after him for access, he is not going to give consolation ministerships to the disgruntled old guard no matter how much they plead or sabotage, he is not going to let bygones be bygones, he is not going to wear the cap, he is not going to hug the Gandhis.
It’s not just Modi, the truth is that no Indian politician can become the next Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The nation has changed too much for that.
The day of the poet-politician is over.