With Congress likely to face a resounding defeat in the ongoing General Elections, and most of the opinion polls predicting a highest ever score for BJP; the scenario has thrown up a question: Has Narendra Modi overtaken Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the tallest leader of the BJP?
In 1977, for the first time in the history of Independent India, Congress was forced to confront a bitter defeat in the General Elections. The new Janata Government was at the helm and Vajpayee was sworn in as the External Affairs Minister. In that cabin, there used to be a portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru on the wall, which was removed by some over-smart bureaucrats. Vajpayee was quick to notice that blank spot on the wall and immediately insisted on the portrait being reinstated.
Not merely the number but the manner in which he treats his ideological opponents is a great indicator of a quality leader. Vajpayee had reasons to pat the backs of those bureaucrats as he was reared in the RSS. However, he decided to make a gracious statement. It is hard to imagine Modi being as genial in victory.
During PV Narasimha Rao’s tenure, Manmohan Singh was the finance minister and Vajpayee had criticized some of his policies. Singh took the criticism to heart and offered to resign. When Vajpayee came to know about it, he immediately called up Singh and told him that these comments were made merely to collect political points. Even today, Manmohan Singh regularly inquires about Vajpayee’s health.
Therefore, number of seats won by the party under a particular leader cannot be a parameter to judge the credentials. By that logic, Ricky Ponting should go down as the greatest captain Australia ever had ahead of Allan Border. The respect, dignity, and sportsman spirit goes beyond numbers and that is a hallmark of a top leader.
Another aspect of a good leader is the way he treats his colleagues. When Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, LK Advani served as the Home Minister. Before Vajpayee’s election, Advani had strong backing to grab the ultimate post. One day, Advani boasted that it was his courtesy that Vajpayee could become the Prime Minister. Vajpayee did not react immediately. The next day, Advani got a call from the Rashtrapati Bhavan informing that he has been elevated as the deputy Prime Minister.
Modi, on the other hand, has been running a completely autonomous campaign. ’60 saal aapne shaasak chune hai, 60 mahine iss sevak ko chuniye’ sort of statements insinuate that he is the only crusader against the corrupt incumbency, neglecting the importance of his team. Even in Gujarat, he is not only the Chief Minister but has many more portfolios like home, industry, information, ports, general administration, science and technology, climate change, Narmada, Kalpsar and all policies.
People say that there is no Congress in Gujarat but it would be a fair argument if one says that there is neither BJP in Gujarat. It is all about Modi, which is very unlike Vajpayee, who followed democratic process and believed in building a team. Aakar Patel said, ’You are allowed to express your opinions in Modi’s cabinet as long as you agree with him’. As Henry Ford once said, ‘You can have any colour of my car as long as it is black’. That is why ‘Ab ki baar, Modi sarkar’ is scrutinized much more than ‘Ab ki baari, Atal Bihari’. While the latter was just a catchy slogan, the former can be taken literally.
Vajpayee’s government fell down in 13 days in 1996 because of the absence of allies. By the time 1999 arrived, he was able to form a government with 184 seats. He developed a consensus and took everyone along with him. When Modi’s name was declared as the Prime Ministerial Candidate, Advani had expressed his displeasure, citing that a leader should be the one who can take everyone along with him. It would not be unfair to say that what Vajpayee knew in 1999, Advani realized 15 years later.
However, if one listens to the speeches of Vajpayee in early 90s, it is quite clear that his ideology did not differ much to Modi’s. In 1996, Vajpayee had emphasized on Deve Gowda’s praise for the RSS. Having said that, the hallmark of an open-minded leader is his ability to evolve. Karl Marx’s essays written in 1854 differ from those written by him 10 years later. Even Mahatma Gandhi modified his views about caste system. Similarly, genuine efforts of the reconciliation between India and Pakistan were made under Vajpayee. Modi, on the contrary, has only passed derogatory remarks about our neighbour.
After the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, Vajpayee wanted to sack Modi as the Chief Minister but he was forced to rescind the idea by Advani and company. When NDA could not come to power in 2004, Vajpayee had cited the communal violence in Gujarat as one of the reasons for it.
When Vajpayee had gone to Lahore after India and Pakistan carried out the atomic tests, a reporter asked a rather personal question regarding the woman he used to live with without marriage. Vajpayee was transparent enough and said that what India and Pakistan feel about Kashmir, I feel about her. Considering the drama, denial, and ambiguity regarding Modi’s wife; there lies, perhaps, the biggest difference between the two.