New Delhi: For India to reach geopolitical greatness, it needs a prime minister like Atal Behari Vajpayee. In the foreseeable future, that does not seem possible.

The obituaries have focussed on the usual issues: Ayodhya, Vajpayee’s strained ties with the RSS, his sincere but failed attempts to make peace with Pakistan, his liberalism, his brilliant management of the biggest alliance government at the Centre since independence, his respect for and encouragement of ministerial talent, his courage and capacity to take new paths, and so forth.

All these are important and singularly true. But their real significance only emerges when placed in the correct context of time and place.

It is rarely appreciated that India’s elected governments have represented a natural and interesting continuum of progress and modernity. Four prime ministers are particularly representative of this process of change with continuity. These are Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, P. V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Behari Vajpayee.

As the first prime minister, Nehru had the thankless task of nation-building with little capital which forced him to adopt planning and a mixed economy. However, he built so well, almost like Otto von Bismarck built Germany to last, that whatever of material value we have, from the IITs to the great dams, Chandigarh, the PSUs, and so on, we owe to Nehru.

But Nehru also gave democracy to this country whereas Bismarck left a legacy of authoritarianism which culminated in the disaster of Nazism.

Indira Gandhi made up for her father’s deficit as a wartime leader and further repositioned India as a regional and nuclear power. Her Emergency was tragic but had the effect of making authoritarianism disgraceful.

To Narasimha Rao fell the arduous task of guiding the nation safely through the minefield of a post-Cold War world when separatism in Jammu and Kashmir and Punjab almost seemed to overcome the Indian state. Compelled as well to undertake economic reforms, he charged Manmohan Singh with the technicalities and set India on the growth path.

What Nehru was prevented by circumstances and material conditions to do was finally undertaken.

The election of Vajpayee as prime minister marked a political shift to the Right in line with the economic trend. This was nearly as revolutionary as the 1991 reforms itself.

At his position, Vajpayee was perhaps India’s first genuinely conservative politician of the Right. This is not to be confused with the communal leadership of the NDA government/ BJP today.

As a conservative Right politician, Vajpayee was true to form. He was an economic reformer. He was not anti-intellectual and cherished bright ministers like Arun Shourie.

Opposed to Indira Gandhi’s big brother neighbourhood policy, he made genuine attempts to connect with South Asian states. As prime minister, he retraced his steps taken as a Janata foreign minister.

His liberalism was possible because he had philosophically broken from the RSS long ago. This made the Ayodhya movement anathema to him.

In sum, a highly evolved man became PM at the exact moment of the country’s evolution to a right-of-centre polity. His liberalism and commitment to democracy impelled him to conduct a breakthrough assembly election in Jammu and Kashmir which was the freest and fairest in decades.

His Pakistan policy flowed from a conviction that India needed a settled and peaceful neighbourhood to attain geopolitical greatness.

He was not as trustful of America as is made out, having seen the ruin brought by its interventions in the Middle East and Indochina. He desired India and Pakistan to make up so a third party could not exploit their differences.

Pakistan failed to appreciate his sagacity and earnestness for peace.

And yet, Atal Behari Vajpayee was an aberration on the Right. Which is why India’s ascent to geopolitical greatness appears suddenly interrupted.

In his person, Vajpayee mingled the best of the Right. Those who now claim his legacy, however, exhibit the worst features of the right-wing.

Sustained geopolitical greatness requires natural internal unity based on fair and equitable citizenship. Vajpayee could not have known how awfully his party politicized the NRC issue and tried to create a “national community” as the Nazis did in the 1930s.

The second key to geopolitical greatness lies in steady, stable and predictable market economic policies leading to growth. Vajpayee understood the watershed quality of the 1991 reforms and even sought to expand and deepen their reach.

Now, they are virtually dead with demonetization, a mindless GST, tax terrorism and inspector raj.

And then, since Vajpayee was a statesman, India was trusted. Adversaries did not need to deploy to India’s full capability which has always been considerable.

No sooner than the present regime came, however, than “cold start” became fashionable to proclaim. This in turn speeded the Pakistani theatre nuclear weapons programme.

Further, the bombast accompanying the “surgical strike” pitiably exposed the lack of Indian strategic thinking about Pakistani terrorism. And the move into Doklam exposed Bhutan to direct Chinese pressure for territorial adjustment.

Atal Behari Vajpayee understood the value of politics and diplomacy undergird by quiet and unspoken military power. He believed in sober statecraft and the inescapability of dialogue.

He was wedded to democracy. He abhorred one-man rule.

He imparted his moderation to India which made the country, under his watch, a valuable addition to the international community and spurred its geopolitical growth.

There won’t be another prime minister like Vajpayee in a long time.

And the continuum of progress and modernity has been ruptured with his passing.