Vajpayee’s Economic Vision
By Shivaji Sarkar
Seven years had passed since liberalisation of the Indian economy. Some years were troublesome. Scams such as that of the Stock market, the LIC, UTI had rocked the nation. Globalisation, though in, was yet to be accepted. And it was at that moment, in 1998, a pure politician, Atal Behari Vajpayee, with little credentials in economics held the mantle of the country.
And he did economic wonders and virtually laid the roadmap for future. His regime was a political marvel. For the first time a non-Congress party, the BJP, was the leader of a difficult coalition, the NDA, which had 24 parties in it. Unlike the previous United Front coalition it did a miracle by completing its full term and gave the country a stable regime. Socially, politically and economically it was a success.
He, it can be safely said today, re-laid the path to progress. After 1950s, it was a new era and in fact reformed the reforms of 1991 too. A policy that successive UPA-I, UPA-II and the NDA-II couldn’t budge. Politically too, he set the tone for the coalition rule, which continues even 14 years after he demitted office. He established that India is a social coalition and that political process could not do without this basic. Indeed, it has become the fundamental of India’s inclusive progress.
It ushered in a new era of foreign relations with opening up the markets to Southeast Asia — the Look East policy, which was not averse to relationship with China despite unease and gave a fresh concept to explore Africa as the future market. Undeniably, close ties with ASEAN are the result of his effort. And he even was not averse to good neighbourly relations with a difficult neighbor, Pakistan.
He did not ride the bus to Lahore merely to open up travel but to pave the way for strong trade ties. If it did not succeed because of General Parvez Musharraf’s Kargil misadventure, Vajpayee did not think twice to call him to Agra for a solution. And who does not know that he was instrumental in more than one way for making Musharraf, the CEO of Pakistan its President. Recall, Islamabad failed him in many ways, including the attack on Parliament during his time.
Yes, he did all he could at any critical time. He maintained a continuous dialogue with all his allies and even the Opposition. His talks with the Opposition made his parliamentary work easier. It wasn’t easy for him to move the economy the way he wanted to and it is well-known that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank were breathing down the neck of India. Their concealed agenda was to benefit some of the powerful western economies. Vajpayee, a skilled statesman, neither annoyed the Breton Woods institution nor some of the fraternal organisations within the Sangh parivar.
He carried out a nuclear agenda which made the nation proud. Pokaharan II was neither an aberration nor an expression of an adamant attitude. Instead it was a visionary move to pressurise the Western world to make them comprehend that India was changing and even with imposition of sanctions they couldn’t do without India. It was the beginning of a new era of nuclear cooperation and technology transfer without signing the NPT that later his successor Manmohan Singh could achieve.
Vajpayee’s move paved the way for close cooperation with the US and India’s self sufficiency in other scientific area including space technology. India is today launching 104 satellites through one vehicle bringing in business from the most advanced western nations because of his subtle but actually aggressive policies. It also paved the way for digital India, where satellites play critical role in connectivity, be it phones or the internet.
The massive infrastructure projects — opening up the aviation sector, Golden Quadrilateral highways, PM’s Gram Sadak Yojana – all led to a massive connectivity which created a unified Indian market. The tariff barriers between States were conceptualised to end finally in the GST today. Unfortunately, new barriers like multiple kinds of toll remain despite a uniform Rs 8 per litre petro cess. If this is abolished the new India of his dreams would come true.
Vajpayee started the Disinvestment Ministry, sold some PSUs but didn’t mind going slow after the Centaur hotel controversy broke. Gradually the government exited from many areas, including trying to get rid of the ailing Air India, which was acquired from the Tatas in 1953, possibly marking the beginning of government monopolisation in the Nehru era. Now with an open aviation policy which Vajpayee had launched, that monopoly looks out of sync.
He had a new vision for the North East which synchronised with his Look East policy. His DONER Ministry had decided to invest massively in the NE, including Nagaland, where he led efforts to sort out the nagging insurgency. At the same time, he didn’t hesitate to stop the massive financial package when some poky newsman told him of the huge leakage of funds. He redrew the map and today on his path BJP has almost a monopoly in North East.
Vajpayee had an onerous dream– about an Indian going abroad with the rupee and the foreigners lapping it up. This has yet to come true. On the other hand, the wonders of his regime was freeing Indians from queues of all sorts be it the fair price food grain shops or telephone and LPG gas connections etc by ensuring a low price regime. This led to a thriving market and a life of ease. Even prices of homes were static for almost six years of his rule. Some economists were wondering whether the country was heading for depression. But the growth continued, education improved and overall happiness engulfed most Indians. Few of his successors could match his feat.
Vajpayee worked with contrasting characters and allies and this was possible for a personality like his only. He had an Alsatian dog and a pussycat as pets. The dog would sit by his side and the cat on his lap. When he was not home, the two were seen to engage in naughty games. That perhaps was the secret of his success, which needs to be emulated by all political parties.
Vajpayee, the practical politician, realised that India’s politics would not succeed unless people’s economy was taken care of. He dipped his politics in economy to create a comfort level for the people. A diagnosis not easy to follow, but every government is trying to do precisely that, be it in the name of the poor, dalits or the kisan.—INFA