Atal Bihari Vajpayee, founding leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party and three-time prime minister of India, died last night at the age of 93. He had been ill for a considerable time and had not been politically active since suffering a stroke in 2009.
Vajpayee’s first two spells of office didn’t last long, but in the third, from 1998 to 2004, he became the first prime minister from outside the Congress Party to complete a full term. The feat has not yet been repeated, although incumbent Narendra Modi (more about him in a moment) is almost certain to do so.
Despite that success, Vajpayee spent most of his career in opposition. But that doesn’t mean it was unimportant. On the contrary, Vajpayee more than anyone was responsible for giving India a tolerably stable two-party system, where power could alternate between the centre-left Congress and the centre-right BJP.
Vajpayee also did much to build a bipartisan consensus for economic liberalisation in India. His government implemented structural reforms, including privatisation and tariff reductions, despite the BJP having opposed such things when in opposition. He also made serious efforts towards greater understanding with Pakistan, thereby angering many of his nationalist supporters.
But the left-right debates over economic policy of the 1990s now seem impossibly remote. The political spectrum worldwide is reorienting itself around two different axes: ethno-nationalism vs cosmopolitanism, and authoritarianism vs democracy.
Which makes it all the more significant that the BJP is now in the hands of its more nationalist wing under Modi, who won a landslide victory in 2014. His appeals to Hindu chauvinism have been the foundation of a formidable ascendancy, which has given strength to the fundamentalists that Vajpayee had been able to keep in check.
Modi has paid glowing tribute to Vajpayee, but the two men were never close, and Vajpayee criticised him after the deadly 2002 riots in Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister. The prime minister’s vision for the BJP is far removed from the moderate and humanistic stance that Vajpayee took.
Nonetheless, Modi’s authoritarianism has operated within limits, and voters next year will have the chance to decide whether he should be reined in. Indian democracy remains a going concern – and for that, AB Vajpayee deserves a fair share of the credit.