Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first Bharatiya Janata Party leader to become the country’s prime minister at the head of a coalition government, was an exceptional man in more senses than one. He was a member of the Sangh Parivar, with all the baggage that goes with it, and yet surmounted the narrow view of history and mission of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to rule a diverse country.

His poetic gift gave him the vocabulary to pull at the heartstrings of his fellow citizens, and as he coped with the difficult task of governing a coalition, it was his humanism that held sway in domestic and foreign affairs. And it was this quality that helped him overcome the contradictions between the BJP’s philosophy and the needs of governing a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multilingual country.

Two examples will suffice. His call to resolve the problems of Kashmir on the basis of insaniyat (humanism) resonated then and for years after he became incapacitated. And on Indo-Pakistani relations, he left a permanent mark by undertaking the famous bus journey to Lahore in 1999 and visit the memorials of Pakistani nationhood to underline the point that though he belonged to the BJP, a votary of akhand Bharat (un-partitioned India), he fully accepted Pakistan’s nationhood.

As The Statesman’s political correspondent, I used to meet Vajpayee often when he served as the Janata Government’s foreign minister between 1977 and 1979. The newly-formed dispensation of many opposition parties came together after the spectacular defeat of Indira Gandhi in the election called after the Emergency. But the Janata Party bickered before it broke up and he once told me as factionalism grew from bad to worse, “I say, it might be better if Indira would return to power.”

The Vajpayee tragedy

Vajpayee’s exceptional qualities shine in contrast to today’s dispensation, with the BJP forming its first majority government under Narendra Modi. Prime Minister Modi did make a dramatic air dash to Lahore to meet his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, an initiative lost in the usual name-calling. And his party men’s call invoking Vajpayee’s insaniyat fails to resonate in Kashmir.

This brings me to the crux of Vajpayee’s tragedy: his relatively short reign did not permit him to reconcile the rough edges of the BJP’s, and its mentor RSS’s, philosophy to the compulsions of governing India. We see the consequences of the unbridled propagation of the Sangh’s edicts nearly every day: the murders and lynching of Dalits and Muslims in the name of cow protection; bending research organisations and colleges to the compulsions of Hindutva, seeking greater control and indoctrination over schools through scandalous textbooks, reordering national icons to suit Sangh Parivar prejudices, with the maker of modern democratic India, Jawaharlal Nehru, banished to the shadows.

Sangh Parivar supporters say they are not dividing India when every second initiative they take does precisely that. BJP leaders say that the state of Dalits is an old problem and blame the Congress governments of the past for it. So it is, but what has changed is the atmosphere the new dispensation has created in which cow protectors feel empowered to lynch and kill Dalits and Muslims. And it takes a month for Prime Minister Modi publicly to decry the horrors.

Again, the BJP says the Congress put cow protection laws on statute books. But Congress governments winked at the law, as Dalit spokesmen point out, instead of creating an environment in which Dalits and Muslims are killed for consuming or transporting beef.

Brilliant orator

The salient point in bringing up these examples is that, contrary to the present BJP rule, Vajpayee’s rule was guided by a less draconian notion of bringing to fruition the RSS variety of Ram rajya. It is, of course, true that the RSS used the opportunity of the BJP coming to power at the Centre for the first time to plant its men and women in the government apparatus. These sleeping subversives, if they may be so called, in the decade of Congress rule after Vajpayee came to life following Modi’s rise.

Although Modi is no mean crowd puller and unerringly knows which buttons to push to charm crowds, Vajpayee’s oratory was of a different and higher order. His Hindi diction was superb, often lit up by poetic interludes, and the cadence of his sentences was unmatched.

It is a miracle that the Sangh Parivar reared a man of Vajpayee’s qualities. I shall treasure my frank exchanges with him. His humanism will live on.

S Nihal Singh wrote this piece for, in August 2016. He died in April.