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A Nice Old Boy

A Nice Old Boy
When two or three individuals are gathered together and the talk turns to politics or affairs of state, it is inevitable that sooner rather than later the subject of Atal Behari Vajpayee will come up. Even those who loathe the BJP find Mr Vajpayee’s character, personality and beliefs endlessly fascinating. It says much about the quality of our political landscape that for all his weaknesses and faults, Vajpayee remains perhaps the only interesting politician in India. If the prime minister is a towering figure in 2004, we must remember the competition he is up against. He is ‘tall’ in a land of pygmies.

In Parliament, Mr Vajpayee’s opponents seldom attack him personally. This is not because of his national, pan-Indian stature but because his person-to-person relationships with his adversaries are cordial and non-confrontational. A Rajya Sabha MP, viscerally opposed to the BJP, once told me: "He is a nice old boy. It is difficult to dislike him." Vajpayee is always ready to laugh at himself and his party, he is blessed with a lack of pomposity even though he is extremely touchy about any aspersion on his integrity.

I believe the secret of Mr Vajpayee’s appeal across party lines rests on his refusal to be pigeon-holed. He is W.B. Yeats’ quintessential Holding-the-Centre man. "The best lack all convictions; while the worst are full of passionate intensity." Ideologically speaking, he could be the supreme leader of the Congress or the TDP or the Samata Party or the ncp. The same cannot be said of L.K. Advani or M.M. Joshi or Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh or George Fernandes. People like Govindacharya and many in the RSS and the BJP find the absence of clear ideological commitment a major flaw. And for that precise reason Vajpayee’s position in his own party is frequently challenged. However, no one practises realpolitik as astutely, as craftily as Atalji. He is the politician’s politician.

It is often said that a statesman is a politician who has been dead for 10 years. Mr Vajpayee has serious ambitions to be remembered as a statesman. Naturally, he has much work to do to achieve the status, but, health willing, it is within his grasp. For Mr Vajpayee to continue to walk the statesman-path, BJP supporters must ensure the party gets no more than 170 seats in the forthcoming elections.

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