RIP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee

17 Aug,2018


‘His life & politics have to be assessed objectively’

By Ranjona Banerji


An interesting, though not new, discussion began on Twitter as soon as the news that former Indian prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was extremely unwell and then eventually, that he had passed away.

Journalists on social media broke into two camps: Those who extolled Vajpayee’s greatness and those who looked to his faults and failures. Some skirmishes also broke out about whether it is polite, good manner, correct and so on to criticise a person on his deathbed and/or dead.

Unlike many BJP leaders and politicians in general, Vajpayee was not an openly divisive figure. His association with the rightwing Hindutva RSS and the fact that he was the founder of the Bharatiya Janata Party was always soft-soaped by journalists and he was presented as some sort of a gentleman intellectual in opposition to the more robust within his own party and parent organisation. This has been happening for years and it is hardly surprising that this viewpoint was on full view after his death.

But, what is a journalist supposed to do when a public figure is no more? Writer and Nobel Laureate VS Naipaul died a few days ago. Almost no journalist in India cried and wept because Naipaul’s legacy and personal life was criticised or not treated fairly after his death. Naipaul was a public figure. His life therefore was up for scrutiny and much of what was said on his death had in fact been said in his lifetime. Outside India, several newspapers had (have?) full-fledged obituary departments and tradition suggests that the good and the bad are both discussed.

In India, we have traditionally pussy-footed around the bad and behaved as we are family members of this well-known public figure. And this has included journalists. No matter how unprofessional it seems, we will weep buckets over some controversial figure because we once had tea with them. I am tempted to blame Delhi journalists who thrive on “access” for being more prone to this, but truth be told, there are transgressions everywhere.

Of course, there is also a fair amount of bunkum in this pretend sentiment that one must speak no ill of the dead being an integral part of “Indian culture”. Just take a look at everything that is said about India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, by these bogus “upholders” of Indian culture and their pet journalists now weeping buckets over Vajpayee’s death and the hypocrisy is evident. Or perhaps there is a time frame in these cultured minds. You can say bad things tomorrow but not today.

It must also be pointed out that Vajpayee was not a film star or a cultural icon. He was Prime Minister of India. His life and his decisions had a bearing on the nation, on its future and its past. It is vital therefore his life and tenure as a public figure and public servant be scrutinised and analysed. For those journalists who take his death as a personal loss, commiserations. But a reality check suggests that he had been ailing and forgotten for years now and especially since Narendra Modi came to power.

There was also considerable hypocrisy in the way North Indian journalists treated the death of Karunanidhi just a few days ago. He was also a titan of Indian politics and with far more years in power than Vajpayee. Yet he was mocked on his death by several on social media, with none of these heartbroken journalists jumping in to spare Karunanidhi’s memories from criticism. The world does exist beyond Delhi and everyday I give thanks that I spent most of my working years in Mumbai.

But back to Vajpayee. His life and politics have to be assessed objectively. That he wrote mediocre poetry or that he gave great speeches or drank whiskey and ate prawns is all very well. Who cares beyond a point. His political legacy and contribution are more important.

For many Indians and journalists, Vajpayee was the “moderate”, the “liberal” face of the RSS and the BJP and therefore more acceptable to them than other hardline leaders. This is the tune that is being played out now. He was not “as bad”. He was “different” from Modi and that is the contest being set up now, which is likely to suit Modi to a T going into the next general elections.

Besides, this is a very sweet and nuanced view of Vajpayee. But Vajpayee did not belong to a party like the Congress, which evolved into an “all things to all people” party. He belonged to an ideology around which he formed a political party, and he remained a part of the RSS his whole life.

Here is an excellent objective obit from Dushyant in Mumbai Mirror, minus humbug: opinion/columnists/dushyant-arora/a-liberal-need-to-whitewash/articleshow/65431469.cms


And here is the inimitable Sankashan Thakur, using his long years in journalism to paint us a portrait of a man of contradictions but also telling us the truth:


Anyway, give us journalists a little time and lots of claws will come out for Vajpayee. Modi ji has to win an election after all…



Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist and commentator. She is also Consulting Editor, MxMIndia. The views here are personal


Dignity In Death

                                                                  By Shailesh Kapoor


The passing away of Atal Bihari Vajpayee last evening is easily the most dignified handling of a ‘celebrity’ death by the Indian media in recent years. There were a few desperate and insensitive attempts to ‘break’ news in the evening. Some channels even broke it before it actually happened! But once the news was out, channels shifted to programming on the iconic leader, intermittently cutting to live footage from Delhi. Much of this was handled with dignity, and anchors notorious for not allowing others to speak on their panels were over-zealous in allowing anecdotes and trivia to flow on their shows, as they sat back and listened.

That’s perhaps the farewell Vajpayee earned through his stature. As I watched some of his best speeches being aired across channels (some channels made poor selections though), my mind raced back to the late 90s and the early 2000s, when Vajpayee, as the Prime Minister, made many of those speeches. At that time, one perhaps took them for granted. It was understood that he is eloquent and has a rare gift of the language, and hence, his speeches will be engaging to watch, even if you differed with his political views at times.

But time has passed on (it’s 14 years since Vajpayee’s tenure as the Prime Minister ended), and his speeches have aged very well with time. The reason for that, of course, is that in comparison with the current standards on display, his speeches come across as pure gold. It was a time when you could watch Lok Sabha TV only to hear some great oration, not limited to Vajpayee alone.

Over the last decade or so, the political discourse has become vitriolic, even crass. Even in the best of the speeches in the current times, you can hear the sound of animosity loud and clear. And the humour, which was earlier characterized by dignity, has moved to being below-the-belt too.

Vajpayee, then, may be the last of those stalwarts in India’s political history who could be heard on their own merit, and not because you had to hear a leader because what he or she is saying may be of importance to you. The current crop of leaders, across parties, have been generous in their praise of the former Prime Minister. If they truly respected him, they would have tried to learn some statesmanship from him. But we have no such luck. So, we shall grin and bear, and hope for another leader of that stature to come along. In our lifetimes? Unlikely.



Shailesh Kapoor is Founder and CEO, Ormax Media. He writes weekly on MxMIndia. The views here are personal


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