New Delhi: At a time when the world is being ruled by hard states and hard democratically elected leaders, one so wishes for the gentility and saneness of a statesman such as Atal Behari Vajpayee. When he became Prime Minister for the second time in 1998 with more durability than the first, it seemed it was historically inevitable that it should be so. His rise marked the establishment of bipolar politics at the national level with the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress Party taking up rivalrous positions. Vajpayee’s rise would have been indubitably more useful in the present, when narrow nationalism seems to be sweeping across the world.

Of this country’s most significant Prime Ministers, which include Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, P. V. Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee, Vajpayee was the best-rounded. This assessment of Vajpayee is made from a foreign policy dimension. A man of course cannot be rounded in only one dimension, this being a contradiction in terms. But since this piece is a consideration of foreign policy, it is from that salience that Vajpayee will be examined.

As a nation-builder, Nehru had his merits. Perhaps non-alignment as he practised it was compelled on India by the circumstances of the Cold War. In any case, Nehru’s non-alignment was Realpolitik by another name. None of the major powers of the time were deceived by the piety and self-righteous humbug in which non-alignment came wrapped. But while Nehru succeeded in deriving such benefits as were possible through non-alignment from the Cold War rivalry between the United States and Soviet Russia, he ingloriously failed in protecting Indian interests from Pakistan and China. He was the worst leader of wartime that India ever produced, and the country continues to pay dearly for his blunders.

In a fashion, Indira Gandhi was the opposite of Nehru: the best wartime Prime Minister India has every produced or is likely to, but she was bad for the nation in every other way. Her assault on democracy has never been equalled, and she put India’s entrepreneurial spirit in deep freeze till circumstances demanded their thaw in 1991. But if this writer were to trust India’s external defence with one Prime Minister, it would be Indira Gandhi. Of all the Prime Ministers, she stands out as the most strategic. To carve out a nation from another, and to achieve this by severely limited national means and by virtually unleashing one superpower over another, marks high genius.

P. V. Narasimha Rao, on the other hand, made his name by keeping India united in the most trying times of the immediate post-Cold War world. This writer who covered the two insurgencies of Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir at the time knew at first hand the perilous situation of the Indian state. Calmly, coldly, and without the smallest public fuss, he retrieved the situation in both places. He made the writ of the Indian state run there again. And no praise is enough for the 1991 reforms that Narasimha Rao single-handedly enabled so that the country could claw its way back to international prominence and esteem after centuries. This writer would call Narasimha Rao India’s first Modern Prime Minister.

With this entire legacy, it was a hard act for Atal Behari Vajpayee to prove himself. He had to prove primarily that a non-Congress Prime Minister could do as well as a Congress one, and that he would survive a whole term. Vajpayee survived nearly two indeed, and what a classy Prime Minister he proved to be. As a wartime Prime Minister, he was firm and undaunted during Pakistan’s Kargil invasion. Retaining the sanctity of the Line of Control, a legacy Vajpayee could not peremptorily shred, he won back every inch of Indian territory illegally possessed by Pakistan. But showing a powerfully reasonable and diplomatic side as well, he got the architect of the Kargil War, Parvez Musharraf, to agree to a ceasefire on the frontier.

There was a task left unfinished by Narasimha Rao which Vajpayee apparently promised to accomplish and did, which is the 1998 nuclear test. Prepared for the sanctions to follow, he deployed his most astute and agreeable Foreign Minister, Jaswant Singh, to make the peace with the United States. Incredibly, the United States saw ample reason and justification for India’s nuclear weaponization, and it set the stage for the world’s largest and most powerful democracies to come together. But this partnership never misguided Vajpayee to support American unilateralism in Iraq, prefiguring its failure long before anyone else did.

During the Second World War and at the genesis of the Cold War, Winston Churchill was the sole voice of reason urging the two sides to a comprehensive resolution of disputes that would prevent the division of Europe into conflicting spheres of interests. Alas, Churchill failed. After him, Konrad Adenauer fought an almost losing battle to preserve Western values and prevent their submergence by the nothingness of Communism. And now, as the post-Cold War world lurches about like a decrepit rollercoaster headed for an accident, this writer at least greatly misses Atal Behari Vajpayee’s vast wisdom, reasonability and sense of history. It seems almost a miracle that India ever had such a fine Prime Minister.

Editor’s Note: There is a line from Goethe’s Mephistopheles that keeps playing back to this writer. Explaining himself, Mephistopheles says, Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint: I am the spirit who always denies, the one who reduces Something to Nothing, and who thereby undoes the world of creation. The English translation is taken from an English philosopher. It is an apt description of our time.