The book seems to suggest that Vajpayee’s conviction played an important role in the decision making process, particularly on matters of national security

Political biographies offer an insightful window to understand the political processes that shape democratic polities like India. This becomes even more important in the case of the former Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, where a systematic and coherent body of knowledge regarding his worldview has been wanting. From this vantage point, Shakti Sinha’s book, Vajpayee: The Years that Changed India, fills a crucial gap in understanding India’s political history. The book offers an intimate account of Vajpayee’s statecraft in his 13-month stint as the Prime Minister of India from 1998-99. The lucid language of the book makes it a compelling read for students of statecraft and those generally interested in Indian politics. Sinha uses Vajpayee as a reference point to elaborate on the shifts that underwent in the social, political, and economic spheres.
Politically, the ascension of Vajpayee was associated with the decay or dismantling of the “Congress System”; rise of regional leaders and satraps, and a corresponding increase in the prominence of coalition politics. Internationally, the Cold War calculations were giving way to an American “unipolar” moment. Regionally, the China-Pakistan nuclear-military nexus was threatening the stability of South Asia. Economically, India had embraced reforms mid-wifed by the Narshima Rao government, leading to the opening up of the Indian economy to private and global forces. As far as the socio-political set up was concerned, the three “Ms i.e. Mandir, Mandal (OBC reservation), and Market” came to assume a dominant role. The Vajpayee government of 1998/99, then, in a way became the “legitimate” successor of these monumental shifts that had taken place on all imaginable scales.
Sinha throughout the book narrates Vajpayee’s deft handling of a range of issues from balancing coalition interest, braving the world in the wake of nuclear test, Kargil war and everything in between. Although Vajpayee is mostly remembered for his Prime Ministership, the book gives a glimpse of him as an opposition leader. A fact which remains understudied till this day. Vajpayee’s gesture of congratulating Mulayam Singh Yadav the then Defence Minister in the wake of successful completion of Sukhoi points to statesmanship. A quality that is increasingly losing its sheen.
Contrary to the current eulogising of Vajpayee, the book sets the record straight and points to harsher criticism, rather vilification, that he was subjected to during his tenure. The deployment of phrases like “fascist” against his government is identical to the political discourse that prevails today. Interestingly, although he was portrayed as “Hindutva hardliner”, Vajpayee put at stake substantial domestic political capital to mend fences with Pakistan and ensure regional stability in South Asia. This recurring desire to have normalized bilateral relations is often missed under the noise of simplistic, generalising labels. Thus, Sinha in his book does an excellent job of distinguishing facts from fiction.
A lot has been commented about Vajpayee’s worldview with categorizations oscillating in extremes. However, in his systematic, rigorous account of Vajpayee’s prime ministership, Sinha has assiduously engaged with the former’s worldviews. To a reader, Vajpayee, through the eyes and words of the author, comes out as a person rooted in Hindu values and ethos in a cultural sense. In fact, Vajpayee describes secularism in the Indian context as respect for all religions and not the western view of maintaining distance. This virtue gets reflected from his fast, condemning violence on Christian communities in Gujarat and Odisha. Although he was strictly against communal violence, he endorsed debate on conversion that prompted this violence. He was equally rattled by caste violence in Bihar. Even though it could be argued that political calculation had a role to play in imposition of President’s Rule there. His commitment to ensure justice for Dalits at substantial political risk can’t be ignored. These incidents show that Vajpayee was much more than what casual labels attributed him to be.
The book seems to suggest that Vajpayee’s conviction played an important role in the decision making process, particularly on matters of national security—the nuclear test of 1998 being the classic example. Generally speaking, the rationale behind these tests relate to the China-Pakistan nexus that was believed to be responsible for the proliferation of nuclear technology within South Asia and beyond. A more nuanced reason for the tests, however, could be traced back to Vajpayee’s belief that for India to get a great power status, it needed to enter the nuclear club as a responsible member. Vajpayee even cited examples of Japan and Germany, which despite being economic superpowers, were not recognised as great powers mostly because they were not members of the elite nuclear club.
Going back to India’s internal affairs, the book’s description of the “coalition dharma” points to how individual insecurities of satraps and regional leaders hampered national governance and kept the Vajpayee government on a fire-fighting mode perpetually. Reforms in fuel subsidy, urea, FDI, PDS and the like were stalled or obstructed by the competing interests within the NDA coalition. The book presents a no holds barred account of how regional leaders pressurized, even manipulated, the functioning of law enforcement agencies such as the CBI. Amidst all this, Vajpayee’s firm stance on “tainted” ministers like Buta Singh and Sukh Ram demonstrates his commitment to have a clean cabinet.
Sinha further elaborates on instances where the “Sangh and Sarkar” came to loggerheads with each other, especially on economic reforms and issues such as Article 370, Ayodhya, and so on. Their differences on ideological issues were reflective of a structural angst as Vajpayee did not have numbers to pursue an ideological agenda. On the other hand, on economic matters, he proved to be a reformist who believed in the minimal role of the state in the economy, unleashing entrepreneurial spirit instead. In response to his government policies’ criticism from Sangh functionaries, Vajpayee observed that “while deliberations are needed and desirable, the decision of the government is final”. Thus, whenever his convictions were challenged, Vajpayee made sure to assert himself firmly.
Another interesting dimension worth reflecting on is the author’s acknowledgement of himself as an “ordinary BJP worker”. This offers an interesting avenue to study the politician-bureaucracy relations in a democratic setup. Indian politics is ripe with examples of such equations. Here, Sinha’s engagement with Vajpayee dates back to the time when the latter was in opposition. Can a bureaucrat not truly invested in a political leader or his worldview do justice to his/her role as an advisor to the politician? Won’t being apolitical in a role that requires political empathy compromise the execution of one’s duty? These questions deserve examination and study of their own, particularly on the notion of neutrality in bureaucracy
The book continues to be engaging with every chapter being a lesson in the modern-day statecraft. However, it would have been better to delve deeper into Vajpayee’s role as an opposition leader—an aspect of his life that hasn’t received adequate attention. Similarly, his tenure from 1999-2004 too deserves a serious study. Given the author’s position as Vajpayee’s private aide, one expects this book to shed light on unknown aspects of Vajpayee i.e. the backdoor machinations etc. The book disappoints on this front as much of what it covers is already known in the public domain. Further, the book tangentially touches Vajpayee’s worldview and therefore an authoritative exploration of the same remains wanting—hopefully, to be continued by scholars in the years to come. That said, Sinha’s assessment of Vajpayee, despite his personal association, has managed to maintain the objectivity. The author manages to rescue Vajpayee from the clichéd labels and binaries of black and white. In fact, the book points out rather meticulously the shades of grey in Vajpayee. Vajpayee’s worldview seems very much in tandem with the Indian philosophy of, truth is one while the wise perceive it differently. Therefore, we need many more interpretations of Vajpayee to have a nuanced understanding of the truth.
Paras Ratna is an independent scholar who researches on international politics.