In awarding Atal Bihari Vajpayee the Bharat Ratna, the NDA government has acted wisely and correctly. In fact, it has done something the UPA was repeatedly advised to do but was too small-minded in its decade in power (2004-14) to actually accomplish. The very fact that Vajpayee has been honoured with India's highest civilian honour while he is still us, albeit retired and ailing, is a blessing. Non-Congress and non-family politicians have had to wait till well after they have died, sometimes decades after they have passed on, to be so honoured.
Vallabhbhai Patel was awarded the Bharat Ratna four decades after he died, and only after a non-Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao, took charge as Prime Minister.
BR Ambedkar and Jayaprakash Narayan were named for the Bharat Ratna not just decades after they had died, but also only after non-Congress governments had come to office. Morarji Desai was awarded the Bharat Ratna in 1991, 12 years after he ceased to be Prime Minister. In the same year Rajiv Gandhi was given the honour, weeks after his assassination. His mother, Indira Gandhi, and grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, had been awarded the Bharat Ratna in their lifetimes, while serving in the Prime Ministry.
Vajpayee has a lot in common with the stalwarts named above and yet he is different. Unlike many of the other political figures who have been awarded the Bharat Ratna, he comes from an entirely non-Congress tradition (as indeed do the Communists) and it is important to acknowledge the achievers and leading lights of these alternative streams of Indian politics and political philosophy.
At a more mundane level - if that expression can be used at all in the context of the Bharat Ratna - Vajpayee will go down as one of India's finest Prime Ministers. He laid the foundations of the decade-long economic boom, the fruits of which became apparent during the early years of the UPA government. Vajpayee's government had done the hard work, whether on telecom reform, power sector revamp, highway building or triggering a housing surge. He left the successor government with an enviable legacy, including a very manageable fiscal deficit, and with the hope of a genuine Indian economic renaissance.
Vajpayee's other big achievement was in foreign policy. Among his first actions as Prime Minister in 1998 was to give permission for the Pokhran nuclear tests - building on foundations laid by at least three previous Congress Prime Ministers. It was an ambitious dare, a means of ending India's nuclear apartheid and reorienting its foreign policy. It paid off; indeed, the nuclear deal Manmohan Singh brought home in July 2005 was a logical culmination of the Pokhran II tests and the diplomatic energies they unleashed.
Perceptions are shaped by the framework in which they occur. When his party was voted out in May 2004, there was widespread admiration and sympathy for Vajpayee and he was seen as a good Prime Minister. It took a decade of under-achieving and wishy-washy leadership during the Manmohan Singh government to drive home the message that Vajpayee was not just a good Prime Minister but a great one.
He wasn't perfect - nobody is - but did more for his country and for future generations in six years than most other Prime Ministers, including at least one who served several terms.
History will judge him well, even if the UPA government was (and Congress groupies remain) too churlish to do so.
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