New Delhi: The trouble with both one-man rule and with a technocrat prime minister is that a country loses its political instincts and political management skills. A technocrat PM like Manmohan Singh, however, is marginally better than a ruler who has centralized all powers to himself like Narendra Modi because some political instincts do survive after all in the first instance. Political instincts would be fully aroused and show marked success when the PM is a balanced politician and practices politics as a sublime art. You could readily put Atal Behari Vajpayee in this bracket. Domestic politics would still tolerate one-man rule for a while with all its angularities. But geopolitics is another matter. A country that loses its political instincts and edge from one-man rule would soon find itself at a dead-end in diplomacy and the Narendra Modi government would without more delay discover the same in relation to Pakistan. The government may pat itself on the back for “snubbing” Pakistan’s efforts at resuming the peace dialogue. But it is conceding propaganda advantage to Pakistan more so since Imran Khan, who initiated the offer for resumed talks, is on record that terrorism, India’s central concern, would be one of the chief focus areas of the dialogue. It is Imran, the PM of a much smaller country, that wants talks, and it is the head of government of a larger entity, the largest by far in South Asia, who is fighting shy. It dramatizes the extent to which India has lost political instinct because of one-man rule while revealing the net transfer of the same to Pakistan on account of Imran Khan. Who should have thought Imran Khan would receive such a priceless gift from India leading to its political diminishment?

Contrast Modi with Vajpayee. Vajpayee displayed first-class political instincts by inviting Parvez Musharraf to Agra. The summit ostensibly failed and the two leaders, one an elected PM and the other a dictator, could not reach an agreement. With their different backgrounds little else could be expected. Nevertheless the word “ostensibly” is purposely employed. The world thought the Agra summit had failed. Vajpayee’s ministerial aides, L K. Advani and Jaswant Singh, certainly thought so. They were opposed to the summit in the first place. But Vajpayee had seen a little of the future. He pursued Musharraf for peace and eventually won, through him, the Pakistan army’s support for the border ceasefire. He also extracted an undertaking, followed more in the breach perhaps later, that Pakistan would not permit terrorist activities from its soil directed against India. That Pakistan even conceded to this undertaking constituted a personal political victory for Vajpayee and accorded further recognition of India’s redoubtable political negotiating skills. It is not an accident that Vajpayee belonged to Uttar Pradesh where the art of persuasive politics is to be found in its waters. In contrast, Narendra Modi is totally deprived of psychosocial, psycho-political and diplomatic skills. He is stodgy as a dictator. He has missed the chance with Pakistan.

In his place, Vajpayee would have weaved a delicate web around the Pakistanis. He would have understood the true nature of the new constellation of power in Pakistan to even out ties. Imran Khan is the most charismatic prime minister Pakistan has had in years. Although heading a minority government, he will soon come to be accepted by all of Pakistan because he does not represent a clan or sectional/ regional interests. The Pakistan army has also run out of foreign clients who would service its outre demands. The United States is no longer willing to sign off blank cheques to Pakistan and an American sword hangs over Pakistan’s bailout request to the IMF whenever it is made. Conceivably the Pakistan army and more openly and forthrightly the Imran Khan government share deep anxieties about Chinese CPEC investments trapping Pakistan in debt. Maldives has only days ago voted out a pro-China government and Chinese BRI investments will presumably come under fresh scrutiny. Outwardly the Pakistan army has pooh-poohed debt-trap concerns and the chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, made a conciliatory visit to Beijing. Underneath, however, concerns persist. Bajwa is also keen on accommodation with India.

True to form, Vajpayee would have commenced with the engagement of Imran Khan, and knowing his limitations, moved on to the Pakistan army. The Pakistan army held no threat for him and provoked no awe. He had dealt with Musharraf at the height of his powers; the Pakistan army is considerably weakened today in the international dimension. The famous Vajpayee manner of political diplomacy would have slowly but surely started to have its effect. He would have worn down the Pakistanis with long silences and soft but ruthless thrusts, and presented a convincing description of their world isolation. He would have done all this with minimum drama, a complete absence of jingoism, and deployed none of the tawdry nationalism of the Narendra Modi government. Can you imagine Vajpayee celebrating “surgical strike day” when the need of the hour is peace and engagement?

This one instance itself reveals that Vajpayee will remain light years ahead of Modi in international political management. Further, a vast gulf separates Vajpayee’s excellent last government and Modi’s dross present one. But what else could you expect from one-man rule where ministers are obliged to shed political instincts, skills, talents and grammar and slavishly follow the provincialism of the maximum leader and puppeteer? It will take the country years to undo the damage and return to normal politics. Geopolitical recovery will take longer.