New Delhi: The decision to award the Bharat Ratna to A. B. Vajpayee and Madan Mohan Malviya is unexceptionable. Malviya deserved the recognition earlier but such are the ways of the Nehru-Gandhis. Vajpayee, on the other hand, is perhaps the only contemporary politician beloved by Indians. This is rare. Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees himself as his legatee. He is the only second prime minister from the Bharatiya Janata Party and the National Democratic Alliance.

What should A. B. Vajpayee’s example mean to Narendra Modi? And where can he transcend his legacy?

Pre-eminently Vajpayee broke the jinx of non-Congress prime ministers who couldn’t complete the term. He did so on the third attempt. This is no small feat and points to his endurance and durability. He won the second and third terms back-to-back. A war was fought with Pakistan during this transition. Vajpayee’s government won the conflict and the mandate to reign an uninterrupted full term.

Vajpayee reigned with a light but firm hand. He did not have a Lok Sabha majority like Modi. He lost the alliance of J. Jayalalithaa in the second term. He knew the limits of coalition. But his charisma and essential goodness eased the way. This is an area of learning for Narendra Modi.

Did A. B. Vajpayee have vision? Definitely. But his personal vision was mingled with the ideology of the Conservative Right he represented. This is normal. Before him, the only non-Congress prime minister of note was Morarji Desai. But Morarji was a late-comer to the non-Congress opposition. He did not last the term anyway or leave an impact except of a negative sort.

But Vajpayee was more complex than a simple opposition politician of the Right. He admired the first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. He accepted and appreciated Nehru’s bequest of strong, democratic, constitutional foundations to India. He wished to succeed where Nehru failed with China. But this is a more complicated rivalry than anyone can imagine. He rejected the traditional Indian National Congress’s “big brotherly” attitude towards India’s neighbours. Nevertheless, he left only a limited mark on peace with Pakistan. He was closer to his ideological aims with the second Pokharan test. He made India a nuclear power from which there is no retreat.

Can Narendra Modi better him in these areas? Why not? Modi has been extremely successful in foreign affairs. He has got the essentials of rise right. The transformation he aims for has occurred in other parts of the world. The Meiji Restoration of Japan is one example. But Narendra Modi needs to learn political consensus-building from A. B. Vajpayee. Peace at home means all the difference between a successful and failed prime ministry.

Narendra Modi’s peace with the opposition cannot come easily because of strong feelings he provokes. But give-and-take cannot stop for that reason. The prime minister should “give” with no expectation of receiving. Goodwill has a curious way of completing the circle. His immediate problem is the Sangh Parivar and its regressive agenda which clashes with Modi’s accent on development and progress. He must gain the upper hand to make his prime ministry purposeful.

Vajpayee and Modi have early roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. It is not easy to forsake old associations even if one has travelled far in search of new horizons. Vajpayee drew a red line around government which the RSS could not breach. Narendra Modi did this as chief minister of Gujarat duly incurring the enmity of Praveen Togadia and others. Modi must assert his old self.

In Narendra Modi’s victories, all communities have contributed. Modi is non-sectarian. It is a better word than “secular” which has been abused by Sonia Gandhi, Mulayam Singh and Laloo Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar and others. Vajpayee qualifies for the same description. It is his non-sectarian identity that Modi must strengthen. The greatness of a leader lies in reconciling differences. This is politics. What was Germany before Otto von Bismarck? In the words of one, “... a cluster of insignificant states under insignificant princelings....” Prime Minister Modi has to rein the Sangh Parivar to his agenda. He must not remain in denial that Togadia and Co. constitute a threat to his legacy.

Managing that, he can contain the opposition. Vajpayee never had such clean options. He was often fighting for survival with a coalition government. He had L. K. Advani snapping at his heels though he may now claim him his supreme leader. In the party and government, Modi faces no challengers. Once the fruits of development and progress become widespread, Narendra Modi will grow unassailable; he can go beyond Vajpayee. People from all regions and communities will back him. The shameful obstructions of the Rajya Sabha won’t be repeated.

Every time Prime Minister Modi finds himself at a crossroads, he must ask how A. B. Vajpayee would have acted. He will not go wrong.

Editor’s Note: Merry Christmas to our readers.