Reading Vajpayee right

February 05, 2021 3:05 AM

The Years that Changed India reveals the former PM’s mind to academics and lay readers alike

Vajpayee's trait that he was his own man has been described most aptly when the PM was very particular that in recovering the Kargil heights form the Pakistanis, the Indian forces must not cross the Line of Control. (File image)Vajpayee's trait that he was his own man has been described most aptly when the PM was very particular that in recovering the Kargil heights form the Pakistanis, the Indian forces must not cross the Line of Control. (File image)

By Prakash Nanda

Benjamin Disraeli, who served twice as the prime minister of the UK, had written: “The relations between a Minister and his Secretary are, or at least should be, among the finest that can subsist between two individuals. Except the married state, there is none in which so great a confidence is involved, in which more forbearance ought to be exercised, or more sympathy ought to exist.”

Similarly, in his explanation of the UK system of government, which India has adopted, Lord Annan had said: “The mandarins are the permanent secretaries who are at the head of each Ministry. The spies are the young civil servants who are the private secretaries of Ministers. Every meeting a Minister has is attended by his private secretary, who logs it; every conversation he makes on the phone is recorded; every appointment he makes in Whitehall is monitored. If you try to bend a Minister’s ear, what you say will be round the civil service in 48 hours: the only way is to catch him at dinner in the evening when his attendant nurse from the Mental Clinic, his private secretary, is no longer observing his patient.”

Therefore, “Vajpayee: The Years that Changed India”, covering Vajpayee’s first term (1998-99) as the PM, authored by his private secretary, deserves more than normal attention. Competently heading a highly unstable and fragile government at the time, the author shows how despite his friendly appearance and well-known proclivity towards building consensus, Vajpayee displayed resoluteness in conducting the nuclear tests, undertaking the historic bus-ride to Lahore and dismissing an errant naval chief, Vishnu Bhagwat, who did not hesitate to play the communal card by accusing the then defence minister, defence secretary and his successor to be all Christians. All three developments had Vajpayee-stamp on them, overlooking suggestions to play safe.

Vajpayee’s trait that he was his own man has been described most aptly when the PM was very particular that in recovering the Kargil heights form the Pakistanis, the Indian forces must not cross the Line of Control. It sounded then a very harsh decision for the forces, but it had tremendous results, which Vajpayee, perhaps, had foreseen. His decision projected India, a country under attack, to be status-quoist power with no territorial ambitions, which believed in the sanctity of bilateral agreements and international law. So much so that the US under Clinton Administration, which was literally hostile to India following the nuclear tests, underwent a change of heart. Not only did president Clinton give a stern advice to Pakistan to withdraw its troops but he started taking Vajpayee’s statement seriously—the first by any Indian PM—that “India and the United States are natural partners”. Indo-US relations have only blossomed since then.

Another striking point that never got due attention among the political observers, but was underscored well by the author is the not-so-impartial role played by then president KR Narayanan, in inviting Vajpayee to take the oath in 1998 or asking him to seek a vote of confidence in 1999, when Parliament was in session. Both his decisions, particularly the latter, reflected elements of malafide and gave an impression that the president was not comfortable with Vajpayee as PM even though Vajpayee had played an important role in BJP lending support to Narayanan in becoming the president in 1997.

Though the book’s sequence of narrations could have been better organised, the book is highly readable. It will be useful not only to the academicians and political analysts but also to common readers.

The author is Co-author “Vajpayee: Daring the Irreversible”

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