It was long overdue. Finally, on a befogged morning in Delhi, there was some cheering radiant news for the ailing leader-statesman as the Indian government decided to confer the country’s highest civilian honour on Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a sort of birthday gift as the iconic leader turns 90 on December 25.
The government announced on December 24 that Mr Vajpayee and legendary freedom fighter Madan Mohan Malaviya will be honoured with Bharat Ratna.
“President Mukherjee has been pleased to award Bharat Ratna to Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya (posthumously) and to Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee,” a tweet from the President’s office said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was jubilant as his party had promised that ,if voted to power, it will confer Bharat Ratna on former prime minister Vajpayee, who commands respect across the political spectrum. “It is a matter of great delight. Country’s highest honour to these illustrious stalwarts is a fitting recognition of their service to the Nation,” said the prime minister in a tweet.
The Bharat Ratna award should uplift the spirits of Mr Vajpayee, who has been ailing for many years, and will celebrate his 90th birthday on December 25. The Modi government has announced that it will celebrate the birthday of Mr Vajpayee as Good Governance Day.
A towering political personality, Mr Vajpayee, known for his dazzling oratory, formidable diplomatic skills, and political acumen, successfully led the first non-Congress government for a full five-year term. He headed the first NDA government as the 11th Prime Minister of India, first for 13 days in 1996, second time for 13 months from 1998-mid 1999, and then from 1999 to 2004.
Known by his admirers as ‘Swadeshi Nehru,’ Mr Vajpayee has been seen and esteemed widely as the moderate face of the BJP, which is known for pursuing hardline Hindutva agenda. It was his statesman-like persona and reputation as a moderate that helped the BJP mobilise a broad-based coalition to forge successive NDA governments.
Mr Vajpayee’s stints as the prime minister saw several path-breaking initiatives in the diplomatic arena. Vajpayee, also a former foreign minister, surprised the world by going ahead with the contentious decision to conduct the nuclear tests in May 1998 that made India a formal nuclear power and managed to successfully ride out international sanctions that followed through deft diplomacy.
His polices and initiatives led to a turn-around in India’s global image as a power-in-the-making, with the world’s leading powers logging into the India story during his tenure. Barely two years after the nuclear tests, the Vajpayee government hosted then US president Bill Clinton that began a process of the transformation of ties between the hitherto estranged democracies, an incremental process that culminated in the landmark India-US nuclear deal in the summer of 2005.
Mr Vajpayee is also known as a champion of India-Pakistan peace. Defying hawks in India’s diplomatic-strategic establishment, Mr Vajpayee took a major diplomatic gamble when he rode into Lahore on a bus in 1999 to mend bridges with India’s prickly neighbour. His hopes and idealism were belied when Pakistan launched a covert war in Kargil, which India valiantly won. The December 2001 attack on the Indian parliament froze bilateral ties and brought the two neighbours to the brink of a war. However, Vajpayee never gave up, and decided to give Pakistan another chance when he agreed to restore the composite dialogue in 2004 on the sidelines of the SAARC summit in Islamabad on the latter’s categorical assurance that the Pakistani territory will not be allowed to be used for anti-India terror.
The bestowal of Bharat Ratna on Vajpayee caps decades of a multi-hued career, and is a fitting tribute, however belated, to an outstanding politician-statesman, who is esteemed and admired by friends and detractors alike.
- Manish Chand is Founder-CEO and Editor-in-Chief of India Writes Network (www.indiawrites.org) and India and World, a pioneering magazine focused on international affairs. He is CEO/Director of TGII Media Private Limited, an India-based media, publishing, research and consultancy company.
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