I have already felicitated Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on the completion of his five years in office. It is a remarkable achievement by itself, given the diverse and large coalition that he heads. The test of Vajpayee's skill has been precisely in that he has managed to keep such a flock together despite the several mavericks in its fold. In doing so he must have had his difficult moments, but one has not seen him lose his cool or get unnerved. He is temperamentally tolerant and personally charming—qualities that win him friends, even outside the parivar.
The country's experience of more than a decade shows that multi-party coalitions are here to stay. This, of course, goes a long way in strengthening a federal polity. But the main difference between this coalition government and those preceding it like those of Charan Singh, Chandra Shekhar, H.D. Deve Gowda and myself is that, then, outside support (from the Congress) proved to be transitory and untenable. This time, the main political party, the BJP, being the largest, heads it from within.
When all is said and done, it must be admitted that it was a rather difficult task for Vajpayee to reconcile contradictions even within his own party. The prime minister has tried hard to sustain the liberal paradigms of the polity. I wish he was more firm in dealing with the radicals of his own party.
There is no doubt in my mind about Vajpayee's own liberal outlook and catholicity, but his years in power have strained the nation's secular institutions. This may not be his own doing but that of some of his cohorts whom he would not contain. His articulations regarding Gujarat disappointed many of his friends and that includes me. I hope in the coming days, Vajpayee, as a leader of the nation-state, will be able to handle such situations deftly.
The economic policies of the government are confusing, even though those in power want us to believe it stands in a continuity from the Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram eras. It's important to build a national consensus regarding disinvestment and globalisation, particularly when the powerful countries want to put others in a straitjacket.
I share Vajpayee's broad paradigm regarding foreign policy that was spelt out by Nehru and broadly sustained by all those who followed him. Our traditional relations with the Arab world, Central Asia, Russia, China and the West are in good health. I don't think that improving relations with Israel is an impediment to Indo-Arab ties. It was Nehru who let the Israeli government establish its consulate in Mumbai without in any way diluting our support for the Palestinian cause. I also support Vajpayee's stand on Iraq. It is a balanced policy keeping national interests in mind.
Where I have differences with the Vajpayee team is in its handling of the relationship with our South Asian neighbours, particularly Bangladesh. To blame the neighbourly government of infiltration or isi activities is faulty. The poor Bangladeshis cross the border without any assistance from their government.
As for Pakistan, it didn't help when Pervez Musharraf was invited to Agra without us doing our groundwork. Now we are confronted with the uncomfortable reality of the Pakistani president benefiting from a failed summit. I believe we must distinguish between the military regime in Pakistan and its civil society. In fact, many Pakistanis of outstanding credibility are blamed by the radicals for favouring Indo-Pakistan amity. It is saddening that even such people, who are sympathetic to India, are denied visas by our government. We must bear in mind that terrorists or isi agents won't seek visas or travel legally.
My personal relationship with Vajpayee has been of long standing.We have worked together in various stations of life. I recall the Morarji Desai era when I was India's ambassador to the Soviet Union and Vajpayee was the foreign minister. He stayed with me rather than enjoying state hospitality during his visit to Moscow. I do share some aspects of his worldview. His recent speech at the non-aligned summit in Malaysia has my support.
However, I am worried about some aspects of the situation prevailing in South Asia where a major world power is creeping in. Unless we revive our faith in the dynamism of saarc, we may be confronted with many difficulties in the future. I do hope the regime here will not let saarc be diluted because of our difficulties with Pakistan. Even the terrorist challenge that confronts us can be effectively met through South Asian cooperation.
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