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A Realistic Assessment of A.B. Vajpayee’s Tenure as Prime Minister, India

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Given all the whitewashing by a media largely accustomed to carrying scripted pieces by the powers-that-be, the BJP/RSS sponsored PR blitzes & the hagiographies pouring forth about A.B. Vajpayee soon after his passing away, after spending well over a decade in a totally faded out, vegetative state almost, it may be necessary to take a dispassionate, hard-headed look at his tenure as the Prime Minister, India. This piece is an attempt to do so.
He was the genial, supposedly accommodating, consensus building ‘mukhauta’ or mask for the hardliners. While he was bogged down with the realities of a coalition government where he needed to seemingly make compromises & forge consensus just for the sake of survival of his ministry, various hardliners like Togadia, Uma Bharati, Modi were given a largely free reign to carry out the unpalatable Hindutva experiments, some of which are described in the attached article linked just below.
Hindutva Experiments during Vajpayee’s tenure
His regime was characterized by quite a few missteps & disastrous decisions. Foremost among these was the decision to release several hardline terrorists incarcerated in various Indian jails and getting Jaswant Singh to fly them out to Afghanistan & exchange them for a planeload of passengers held hostage by the Taliban. These released terrorists were in the forefront of major terrorist activities against India  in the coming years and went on to head organizations like the JeM & LeT. Some of them were involved also in the planning for 911.
While Advani, the party chief was all set to become the PM after the BJP’s electoral victory, Vajpayee had to be made the PM by the BJP/RSS because a hardliner like Advani was not acceptable to most coalition partners of the NDA whose support was critical to the survival of Vajpayee’s government. Advani never quite let him forget the favour & given his unshakeable hold over the party then, Vajpayee had to defer to him on several matters as he knew full well that the party was largely with Advani & not with him on these issues. He was quite adept at going with the flow and not upsetting the RSS bosses unduly. Many of his detractors say that he had the spine of a jellyfish.
Aishwarya Rai Bachchan,Aishwarya Rai,Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Nowhere was this more apparent than in his various utterances and postures post the Gujarat riots. Much is made of his ‘Rajdharma’ remark in public with the C.M. Modi sitting beside him and smiling away. In a constitutional democracy of a secular nature, the person responsible for the administration is meant to follow the constitution he has sworn allegiance to and not some ‘Rajdharma’ typically defined for kings & monarchs centuries earlier. Thus Vajpayee’s comment can be taken as an inane & vacuous one meant to appease the listeners at large. Later, during the party meeting, he kept quiet when, after the scripted & orchestrated drama, it became clear that the majority of partymen were quite against Modi resigning and that they had the full backing of the party top brass, led by Advani. Soon after, during the party conclave in Goa, Vajpayee made an outrageously communal & inflammatory speech, possibly to show the party rank-and-file as well as the RSS bosses that he was totally in sync with their thinking. Check out the full text of the speech below:
Image may contain: 4 people, people standing and weddingVajpayee had his set of media favourites whom he cultivated and often confided in. While his media management and manipulation was nowhere near as overt and as strident as Modi’s, some of his favourite journos included Shekhar Gupta, Rajdeep Sardesai, Vinod Mehta & Karan Thapar among several others. Thus, Vinod Mehta’s biography of Vajpayee may be taken as a mellow, largely positive evaluation of A.B. Vajpayee as a politician, as the P.M. of India and, above all, as a human being. Click on the link below to read select excerpts:
Excerpts from Vinod Mehta’s Biography of Vajpayee
Given below is a more objective obituary of Vajpayee by another veteran journo, Sankarshan Thakur.
Obituary of A.B. Vajpayee by Sankarshan Thakur
It is widely known that Vajpayee, at least during the last years of his Prime Ministership, had left governance almost totally to his old buddy and the erstwhile bureaucrat he had appointed as his Principal Secretary and National Security Advisor, Brajesh Mishra. Mishra acted as a gateway to Vajpayee and what he decided on any issue was often the final word on the topic. So much was Vajpayee’s dependence on Mishra that he is said to have rarely read files forwarded to him and would sign on the dotted line after Brajesh Mishra gave him a summary and told him what his recommendation in the matter was.
Image result for Vajpayee Advani and Modi
Much is said about Vajpayee’s oratory, particularly in Hindi. During his heydays, Vajpayee’s gift of the gab and his debating and oratorical skills as a parliamentarian were indeed much admired and commended on. Unfortunately, during the later years of his Prime Ministership, his style had become a rather grotesque caricature of what it used to be during his heydays and was the subject of much merriment and stand-up comedy. Most likely due to the onset of dementia, he came across as someone who was finding it difficult to gather his thoughts and talking points and string them together, coherently and convincingly. He would utter a sentence or two during his speeches, pause for far too long while he kept blinking & looking around as if trying to recollect what he was planning to say next and then, after a pause that stretched on for far too long, utter another couple of sentences. The likely onset of dementia was possibly one of the prime reasons for leaving governance matters almost totally to his Principal Secretary during the last years of his Premiership.
Vajpayee was always a genial, courteous and civil man who could get along amicably with his colleagues and his political opponents without too many problems. His ability to do so contributed to his presiding successfully over a multi-party coalition for a full-term of five years. When faced with a difficult or a potentially explosive situation, he could defuse it and often disarm his opponents with a quip and  with humorous one-liners. His term as the P.M. of India had very little to distinguish it by way of notable achievements and major milestones contributing to the development of India and can largely be considered as an unremarkable one.

— Raja Mitra

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As an Asian Giant Departs the World, the Tributes and the Assessments of the Imprint He has Left Behind, Pour In.

An internet tribute from a Singaporean which appeared after his passing away.

An internet tribute from a Singaporean which appeared after his passing away.

Much has been said and written about Mr. Lee Kuan Yew, the builder of modern Singapore, during his lifetime. The man himself has talked and written extensively about his journey and his experiences in nation-building since 1965, when he found himself in charge of a newly independent nation which Malaysia had cast adrift.

This piece is a compilation of obituaries, write-ups and images that appeared soon after the news broke, on the morning of 23rd March, that he had passed away during the early morning hours. It includes my own observations and comments on some social media networks.

To start with, here is the announcement by his son, the current PM of Singapore, Lee Hsien Loong.

A compilation, by The Wall Street Journal, of LKY’s life and times .

Check out the obituary by The Guardian and The New York Times.

This is what The Australian and The Atlantic had to say.

Here is a compilation of some of his more interesting and, at times, controversial quotes.

“If you can’t think because you can’t chew, try a banana.” (Remark to a BBC reporter, 2000 who asked questions about Singapore’s chewing-gum ban & said that without chewing on gum, he couldn’t think)

“If Singapore is indeed a nanny state, I am proud to have fostered one” – from his book, The Singapore Story, 1965 – 2000

“I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. I neither deny nor accept that there is a God. So I do not laugh at people who believe in God. But I do not necessarily believe in God – nor deny that there could be one.”

“There is an end to everything and I want mine to come as quickly and painlessly as possible, not with me incapacitated, half in coma in bed and with a tube going into my nostrils and down to my stomach.”
“Even from my sickbed, even if you are going to lower me to the grave and I feel that something is going wrong, I will get up.” — Mr. Lee Kuan Yew (1923 -2015) on religion and on his death.

On his observation that people should generally marry keeping their educational levels in view:

“If you don’t include your women graduates in your breeding pool and leave them on the shelf, you would end up a more stupid society… So what happens? There will be less bright people to support dumb people in the next generation. That’s a problem.”

On the high pay of cabinet ministers and senior civil servants:

“You know, the cure for all this talk is really a good dose of incompetent government. You get that alternative and you’ll never put Singapore together again: Humpty Dumpty cannot be put together again… and your asset values will be in peril, your security will be at risk and our women will become maids in other people’s countries, foreign workers.”

“In new countries, democracy has worked and produced results only when there is an honest and effective government, which means a people smart enough to elect such a government. Remember, elected governments are only as good as people who choose them.”

Lee Kuan Yew, in an interview with Fareed Zakaria, a few years ago.

Lee Kuan Yew, in his later years, talking to students of the National University of Singapore (NUS).

My edited comments on SM networks:

A towering figure among 20th century political leaders, I have seldom, if ever, seen the kind of charisma & presence that Lee Kuan Yew had. Many Singaporeans, particularly in their 50s & 60s, regard him truly as a father figure and are possibly feeling orphaned at the news of his demise.

A lot has been said and written and will continue to be written about the Singapore model. What, to my mind, differentiates Singapore from success stories like Hong Kong or Dubai is the fact that Lee Kuan Yew had his priorities right and implemented them singlemindedly. Among other things this included a really good schooling & higher education system through world-class universities and polytechnics, affordable public housing (housing ownership for Singaporeans is among the highest in the world, at about 90%), zero tolerance for corruption, highly pragmatic and efficient systems & processes which are regularly tweaked and adapted to changing situations as often as needed, a world-class infrastructure for businesses & individuals, an efficient bureaucracy built on meritocracy and a truly world class airport and sea port which have firmly established Singapore as a key tourism destination and a logistics hub in Asia Pacific. He also put in place a system of succession planning which ensured that all these will remain in place and be nurtured across generations. He set the bar for quality and customer service high in all that he planned and implemented.

Even after Singapore became a first-world country, an oasis among a whole host of third world countries in the region, he kept pushing Singaporeans to strive hard and excel in their chosen spheres and not become complacent or mushy. He may have exercised strict control in many spheres of daily life but he ensured that Singaporeans and residents had what it takes to not worry about the essentials of life and an environment where they could focus on doing well for themselves and their families. Among other things, the sense of safety and security one has in Singapore can hardly be matched by most other Asian countries and only by a small number of countries globally. As LKY said, if Singapore is indeed a nanny-state, the credit largely goes to him for making it one. Anyone accustomed to the standards and efficiency levels of most things in Singapore, can’t quite be faulted for getting irritated and frustrated with what he or she sees in virtually all other South and South-East Asian countries.

Typical of the efficiency of the place, tourists or business travellers could look forward to getting off their flight, clearing customs and immigration, picking up their baggage and reaching their hotels or offices downtown in less than an hour’s time. Businesses could be registered and be up and running in a week’s time. There can be no better testimony about systems that work clinically and efficiently.

No one is perfect or should claim to be. The downsides of his period at the helm and even later, as a key influencer and mentor of the government of the day, have been discussed in some of the obituaries referenced above and I have nothing further to add on that count.  All I can say at this instant of his departure from the world stage is, ” Farewell Sir, you have been inspiring in many ways and your achievements and vision will be remembered and admired for a long time.”

LKY-tribute-6

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