For long, almost two decades, he was PM-in-waiting. He was the most qualified for the post and the only leader who could pose a credible threat to Congress. But several lesser mortals from non-Congress ‘parties’ and (a)Fronts paraded in and out of Race Course Road whenever Congress was out of power. His time was yet to come.
Fate briefly smiled on him. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was sworn in when the BJP emerged as the single largest party in 1996. But, alas, his government fell in 13 days as all the Opposition parties ganged up with Sonia’s Congress to pull him down. Plain power-mongering by the Opposition pack of wolves for their pounds of flesh would have given the jungle animals an inferiority complex. All this passed off under the guise of safeguarding secularism. But a major historical shift lay embedded in Vajpayee’s fall. For the first time, and since, then, India’s non-Congress politics became anti-BJP politics.
Then came Deve Gowda and I K Gujral as non-paying guests of RC Road in quick succession as a (dis)United Front fell part. Congress, whose support was vital, kept playing its familiar mischief. After all, Congress has been addicted to absolute power and couldn’t tolerate anyone else, even for the sake of secularism.
So, it was election time again in February 1998. BJP this time had more pre-poll allies, particularly from the south. The coalition won and Vajpayee was chosen as the PM candidate. But his fate seemed to linger.
Jayalalithaa delayed the letter of support for almost two weeks. It once again seemed like a slip between cup and lip. But, finally, ‘negotiations’ ended and Vajpayee was sworn in on 19 March 1998.
This was a tortuous term with the bachelor PM being constantly harassed by the trio of Jaya, Maya and Mamata. The pain finally ended in 13 months (April 1999) when the rug was pulled from under his feet by Jaya. Vajpayee lost the no-confidence motion by one vote.
The PM-in-waiting-turned-temporary-PM was now the caretaker PM. But this was when Vajpayee scaled a new high by recovering the heights of Kargil from an intrusive Pakistan. The soft-spoken poet proved he can be a commander leading from the front.
In the 1999 October elections, Vajpayee’s coalition, which now had the rational DMK in it, won a convincing victory. He completed his term, which was one of the best times for India. He set an example as a true democrat and an accommodating, understanding leader both for the country as well as for the government. Many who were in earlier fronts gave their secular pretensions a temporary burial outside Parliament and took berths in the latest bandwagon much to their benefit. After all, most of the characters would not even qualify as councillors. Still, Vajpayee put up with this contradiction and mediocrity and concentrated on building the nation.
After BJP lost in 2004, Vajpayee voluntarily faded from politics and public space, giving way to a new crop of BJP leaders.
Much has been written and will be about him. But, for me, his delayed prime ministership was a big loss to the nation, particularly when the likes of Charan Singhs, Chandrasekhars, Weepy Singh, Sleepy Gowda and an unknown Gujral played havoc with India’s stability with their short stints. Vajpayee’s successful third attempt gave India that much-needed stability and strength at a critical juncture. Being the first non-Congress PM to complete a full-term, he had changed history. His defeat in 2004 was a national disaster as the following 10 years proved. But then, like Vajpayee, even a nation has a collective fate.