A few weeks ago, Rahul Gandhi walked across the floor of parliament and hugged prime minister Narendra Modi. The Congress party chief was labouring to make a point—that he and his party will pursue a more gentle, positive politics that stood apart from what their rivals indulge in.
In these deeply fractious times, the gesture stunned India.
However, the three giants of politics that India lost in the last fortnight may never have resorted to such theatrics to convey their message.
Because Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Somnath Chatterjee, and M Karunanidhi belonged to an era where gestures stemmed from long-standing respect for rivals and bipartisanship, not from the need for televised drama.
A three-term prime minister, Vajpayee passed away on Aug. 16, leaving behind decades of legacy in nation-building.
Despite being the first from the right-wing Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to occupy the country’s highest office, he was a more popular and acceptable figure among his political rivals and across the ideological spectrum—unlike the incumbent Narendra Modi who hails from the same party but rarely evokes that kind of warmth.
Vajpayee led the country through some tumultuous times and fragmented polity and was known as a consensus-builder—a reputation sealed by the fact that he led the first Indian coalition government to complete a full term.
Three days before his death, on Aug. 13, an equally illustrious colleague of his breathed his last.
Somnath Chatterjee was a highly respected leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). He was elected speaker of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, through consensus in 2004.
Often called the headmaster, Chatterjee was one of the firmest yet non-partisan occupants ever of the speaker’s chair. He took an idealistic and non-partisan position always. So much so that he refused to follow his own party’s diktat to step down over the Indo-US nuclear deal that had the then Congress-led government tottering.
For this, he was exiled from his party. He retired from politics when his term drew to a close in 2009. Chatterjee died heartbroken, yet dignified and idealistic to the end.
Tamil nationalist Karunanidhi, who passed away on Aug. 07, perhaps, had the most sweeping of political journeys among the three.
Once a prominent secessionist who sought a separate nation for India’s Tamil speakers, the Dravidian stalwart—along with the movement itself—underwent moderation. He led his party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhakam, for close to 50 years from 1969 and occupied the position of chief minister of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu five times. He was a lifelong atheist.
Yet, Karunanidhi looked beyond the strident Indian nationalism and Hindi obsession of Vajpayee’s party to join the latter’s government.
The genuine gestures
These men hailed from the polar opposites of the Indian political spectrum, but rarely bore ill-will against rivals. For consultations across the board were more the norm then, underwritten by warm personal relationships. Indeed, friendships often benefitted the nation at crucial junctures.
For instance, in 1994, Congress prime minister PV Narasimha Rao’s choice of Vajpayee to head the Indian delegation to the UN to counter Pakistan’s diplomatic offensive over Kashmir is now legendary. Old timers recall how Karunanidhi rose from his chair and made Vajpayee sit on it when the latter called on him at his Chennai home, seeking support for his coalition.
Perhaps, it was easier for Vajpayee, Chatterjee, and Karunanidhi to work together as they all began their careers in the “Nehruvian” era—Jawaharlal Nehru was India’s first prime minister and, despite being a Congressman, received Vajpayee’s lifelong admiration.
Politics has undergone a tremendous transformation in India. It has become shriller, hostile, and confrontational. The idea of “winning at all costs” has replaced the more accommodative approach. Social media (and even the visual media) have only deepened the fissures, with political animosities extending to the personal space.
Bipartisanship has died, brinkmanship rules.
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