Sun, 14 Jan 2001

Indian PM: A man for all seasons

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): Even after half a century of participation in public life, Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 76, admits that he is unable to distinguish today between the Kauravas and the Pandavas of the world.

Using symbolically the names of the two ruling families who go to war with each other in the Mahabharata -- the ancient Indian epic, Kaurava Kaun Kaun Pandava (Who is Kaurava Who is Pandava) is only one of the many poems where the poet prime minister bemoans the increasing absence of ethics and morality in present day politics.

Whatever critics and admirers may have to say about Vajpayee's political views, both agree that the prime minister is honest to the core. Many may not love the man but none can deny that Vajpayee indeed is the moderate, liberal face of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). He is admired for constantly putting up a fight within the BJP itself to control Hindu radicals that forever try to hijack his more broad based agenda.

Leader of an alliance of over 20 parties, Vajpayee is respected for being a consensus builder. He did anger many within the country and raised fears around the world when he ordered nuclear blasts in India in May 1998 but he is also admired for his humble bus ride to Lahore, the cultural capital of neighboring Pakistan in the hope of rapprochement.

Vajpayee first stretched his hand of friendship to his Muslim neighbors in Pakistan when he was foreign minister in 1977 and claims Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Pakistan's greatest poets as one of his favorite writers. India has an on going problem with Pakistan over Jammu and Kashmir that started half a century ago and is responsible for draining much of its diplomatic energy apart from the tragedy it involves on the ground.

Born in a high caste family of Brahmins, Vajpayee has spent a lifetime trying to rise above communal politics and fighting caste prejudices. A student of political science, he was jailed by the British for anti-colonial activities. After independence in 1947, he earned his living working as a journalist and as a social worker. He won a seat in parliament in 1957.

While still young, Vajpayee became known for his fiery speeches that were able to arouse great emotions among his audience. His purpose in life remains to pursue a secular, inclusive, integrative agenda and to make sure that India remains a home to all communities, not more to some and less to others. Most precious to him is the diversity and unity of his country and its democratic system.

After all if it were not for its vibrant democracy how could the son of an ordinary village teacher like himself rise to the highest office in the country?

His favorite color is blue, that stands for the loftiness of the heavens and the depth of the seas. He loves to retreat now and again preferably into the mountains even as he believes that height is never enough if it is not accompanied by expanse. One of the many famous sayings of the elderly Indian leader is never to let himself reach so high that he is unable to bend down to embrace another human being.

But what makes senior journalist Khushwant Singh like most about Vajpayee is the fact that he represents an end to the days of dynasties in India. Vajpayee is a bachelor and does not misuse what belongs to the country to the advantage of his family, especially his children.

In the absence of children, Vajpayee, the first Indian prime minister to visit Indonesia in 14 years, is able to shower all his attention on other loves instead like reading, writing, films, music and pottering around in the kitchen.

And considering that his favorite food is fish and Chinese cuisine, Vajpayee, who arrived in Jakarta on Wednesday and will be heading home on Sunday, is surely in for more than one feast in Indonesia, the largest archipelagic country in the world famous for dishing out one of the meanest bowls of noodle soup outside of China.