Atal Bihari Vajpayee, The eternal poet and the accidental politician

“The poet disappears into the poem, which stands mute, like an idol, until the reader breathes life back into it.”- Edward Hirsch wrote in his book “On Reading Poetry”. 

A great poet, who spoke as much in his words as in he did in his pauses, ever-pregnant with timeless philosophical wisdom, stands mute, waiting by his readers to be read, to be understood. A great politician departs and there is a spate of political eulogies. Kind words, grand words flow from all ends of the political spectrum. I am trying to look at Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the poet and how his poetry defined his politics.

We are often tempted to believe that the person is a derivative of the world. We call the man a creature of circumstances. This is often true, but only to a limited extent. Similar circumstances produce different men and women. Our belief that the individual is the helpless victim of the world he or she lives in, is erroneous and is an unfair assessment of the depth and greatness of people like Vajpayee. When we try to hold and study a Ram Prasad Bismil as a revolutionary ignoring the fact that he was a polyglot poet and intellectual, or when we look at Lokmanya Tilak as just another Congressman and freedom fighter, ignoring his personality as a mathematician, astronomer and Indologist; we are doing grave injustice to such great souls.

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To me, irrespective of the political upheavals Atalji faced in his own life, his struggles, his humiliations at the hands of vile and craftier politicians of the day in and out of parliament, Atalji’s victories go way beyond what he gained in politics. He did become the first non-congress politician to complete a full term as the prime minister in the face of the most hostile opposition, having lost the majority in the first term in 13 days. He did, like a phoenix, see the Party grow from one with only two seats in the Lok Sabha to the world’s largest political entity which is in power in India, leading the opposition by a mile. His political victories were nothing but the manifestation of Vajpayee- the Poet. He was not a poet of Mushayaras and Mehfils. He was a poet of the soul. He wrote what he believed in. It takes a rare strength of character for a political poet to recite in public a poem, declaring his Hindu tan man. His political success, the affection he received from the people emerged from the unapologetic honesty with which he unfolded his soul in front of the masses. He spoke what was then unspeakable as Indira Gandhi tried to rebuild her dynasty post the excesses of Emergency, he did what was at that time unthinkable. He gave voice to what tormented the souls of those who were not blessed with the magic of lucid words.

Many Indians alive today were raised through the days of British rule and in the initial days of independence under the Nehru dynasty, ruled by leaders more English than Indian, to be embarrassed, apologetic and ashamed of who they were. A land of snake-charmers, a third-world nation was our identity. Only people who were considered fit enough to occasionally pick us as a nation out of the squalid slavishness of soul were educated in foreign lands, blessed with foreign mannerisms and culture. Anything blatantly Indian, Bhartiya, was scorned at. The thoughts were muddled and words would not come to the parched Indian lips. Emergency, imposed by the daughter of the first feudal, and somehow incongruously, socialist lord, came as a blessing in disguise. Vajpayee began speaking and a floodgate of chained Indian thoughts broke open with slogans running in the darkest lanes of the remotest villages. Atal Bihari Bol Rahaa Hai, Indira Shashan Dol Raha hai (As Atal Bihari speaks, the throne of Indira shakes).  Bharat founds its courage in the words of a poet.

Shelley wrote,“Poets are the hierophants of an unappreciated inspiration; the mirrors of the gigantic shadow which futurity casts upon the present; the words which express what they understand not; the trumpets which sing to the battle and know not what they inspire… Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

And once Vajpayee was anointed by the masses as the poet of the people, it really did not matter which election he won or lose. Through his words, he started a movement of national pride. He made us understand that Hinduism is not contrary to the principles of secularism, the principles of modernism. He came in as a shy brook and expanded like wide vistas of the Ganges in the plains of India. The kind of unapologetic voice he gave to the people, it was only a matter of time that political power came to him. And once it did, we realized what Shelley meant when he wrote about the gigantic shadow which futurity casts upon the present. We saw this turning real as World class roads and infrastructure began rolling in our towns and cities. Awestruck Indians struggling with escalators, looking lost in Malls in foreign lands became rarer and rarer. Telecommunication segment erupted, an ambitious river-linking project was initiated. The life of landlords descended into the world of the labourers. The word aspirational Indian gained currency.

It was thanks to his poetic vision that the aspirational Indian was not at war with the Dharmic Indian. The material merged with the spiritual. The term Hindu became acceptable as an identity and the term Hindu used in depreciating manner to explain abysmal growth rate of our economy lost currency. The old aristocracy came and hit back with a vengeance. Atal Ji being Atal Ji, refused to deal underhand and save his Government with those immortal lines- Sarkaarein Aati Jaati Rahengi, Desh Rahnaa Chaahiye, Loktantra Bacha Rahnaa Chahiye (Governments will come and go; the nation must be defended, the democracy must be protected)The ideological offsprings of Macaulay rubbed their hands in glee as the poet-politician bewildered at the unscrupulous polity, having been, by then, called Traitor and Crazy by the principal opposition, walked resolving to himself, muttering to himself, Raar Nahin Thaanunga, Haar Nahin Maanunga (Will not hold anything against anyone, will not give up either). The elite Indian which looked at the humble Bharatiya with disdain felt, that with their wily political mechanization and rhetoric, they have defeated the poet for the good. But as is the nature of a poet, he thundered back from the gloomy dust of defeat, with a roar which echoed so harshly across the citadels of power that they are reverberating with it like glass-houses even today.

Today, in his death, we celebrate Atal Ji as Ajaat Shatru- the one without enemies. Why so, after so many ugly skirmishes? How is it that his grand benign magnificence prevailed over the pettiness of the politics which surrounded him, we may ask. We find the answer in what Yeats wrote of a poet. A poet is a man of ideas, and his ideas become his wings which allow him to levitate over the pettiness of everyday politics. He is a man of ideas. Ideas do not have enemies, dogmas have.  WB Yeats wrote, We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but out of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry. This allows a poet to prevail, over the opposition, over difficulties. He introspects more than he instructs. That is why he succeeds where others fail. He guides, lighten the dark path and steps back. He makes us initiate, he makes us follow, for in his words resonates our darkest desires; in his poetry soars our hopes which had broken wings.

Edward Hirsch wrote, “I take a poet as a maker who sends out a formal enticement, a provocation, a challenge. The success of the poet is that unlike feudal leaders who speak at the people, the poet steps down, sits among his readers and sings his verses. This is the way he has learnt to make his art succeed. This is the way his politics work, by being one of the people. Jorge Louis Borge says Poetry can work its magic by fulfilling our profound need to recover a past and prefigure a future. Is it not what Politics has to do at least in a nation like India with ancient heritage and future promises? This is what Atal Ji brought to Indian politics, when he was at the helm himself and when he is breathing among us in the being of Narendra Modi.

Socrates celebrates a philosopher in politics but almost shuns a poet out of politics. To me, I cannot find the difference between the two. A philosopher is as much a man of ideas as is a poet, and often, the two are the same. I cannot, for instance, differentiate between Nietzsche the poet and Nietzsche the philosopher. A poet who can rise above the fictional ideal and emerge as an agent of action, inevitably is a philosopher, and bestowed with political power, becomes a philosopher-king. Apart from softer nuances that Vajpayee brought to Indian polity, the dreaminess and imaginations of a poet, reflecting in his policies; he did also bring in a politics of astute consideration. Fair, considerate and self-assured at once. We saw it more than once. We saw the philosopher-king in action when Kargil happened as Pakistan back-stabbed his warm gesture of friendship with an intrusion into India. We saw a decisive and unwavering philosopher-king willing to go to a war for honour and win with Operation Vijay. Another time, we experienced this strong, clear and decisive leadership during the Pokharan nuclear tests which placed Indian into the big league. History is always a record of things not done rather than things done and we may not be able to appropriately assess the impact of the Pokharan test. Vajpayee- The Philosopher-king not only offered a break for India from “This is the way we have been doing it”, he also paved a way for a persistent future.

We hope that the blessings of Vajpayee remain forever on this land which has suffered so much for centuries, and our own Marcus Aurelius keeps watching over us. Politicians without values and principles will continue to attempt to sway us from our chosen path, but we must remember there was immense wisdom in the words of Socrates when he said, Unless, said I, either philosophers become kings in our states or those whom we now call our kings and rulers take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is the conjunction of these two things, political power and philosophic intelligence, ….there can be no cessation of troubles, dear Glaucon, for our states, nor, I fancy, for the human race either.” For this, we need to understand Atal Bihari Vajpayee the poet and philosopher first, before we attempt to understand the Vajpayee the politician. The politician Vajpayee is nothing but the continuity of the Poet-Philosopher Atal Ji and that is the leader whose spiritual presence we need watching over us, even when he is gone.

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