In ancient times, the need to secure protection of life and property made human beings surrender themselves to greater power. What would be the ideal nature of that power and what its essential duties would be were deliberated upon by thinkers and philosophers. Plato suggested a “philosopher-king”, one who is wise but not hungry for power. Hobbes spoke of the Leviathan. Indian thinkers have also engaged with the concept of an ideal ruler and his responsibilities.
A glance through the ancient sources of wisdom clearly enunciates the basic principles of good governance. Among the Indian epics, the Mahabharata contained elaborate treatises on good governance. In the Shantiparva of the epic, the sagacious Bhishma, lying on his bed of arrows enlightens Yudhisthir on the nature of kingship and his duties. The bounden duty of a king is to follow the path of dharma. A king’s dharma is to protect and preserve his people and their properties. A worthy king only seeks the welfare of his subjects and acts without fear and favour, but to do so he has to conquer himself as well as his enemies. Among other literatures, Kautilya’s Arthashastra stands out as a major contribution to the idea of good governance where he reckoned peace and prosperity as the cornerstone of good governance.
However, as we transitioned from the monarchical system of governance to liberal democracy the yardstick of good governance has been redefined, new dimensions are added and older perspectives are replaced. Subjects are replaced with citizens; the divine right to rule or absolutism is superseded by constitutional checks and balance. Nevertheless, the principle philosophy of good governance remained more or less unchanged.
In independent India, a leader who made a virtue of good governance with his untiring energy and adaptive nature was Atal Bihari Vajpayee. What was special about his rule was his experiment with the ancient wisdom of good governance in a democratic set-up. His vision was deeply rooted in the principles that India has inherited from the past, however, his eyes were firmly fixed on the future he dreamed for the country and its people. Vajpayee was mindful of the fact that he was in the command of a democracy that is unimaginably diverse. Being the first coalition prime minister to complete his full tenure, Vajpayee made the best use of his moderate nature and accommodative skills. At a time when the country was going through continuous political turmoil, Vajpayee held various political parties together to keep the country running.
Vajpayee grasped the essence of the dharma of a leader in a democracy and integrated it with his vision of India. As a prime minister, his initiatives were guided by the principles of prosperity and protection of the people. He merged transformation with transparency, action with accountability and decisiveness with democratic deliberation. All these elements can only be brought together by someone who knows the country and its people. So, on one hand, he aimed to connect the major cities of the country with modern highways under the Golden Quadrilateral project, on the other hand, he was also aware of how important it was to connect every village of India with proper roads. While the Golden Quadrilateral was meant to provide faster and easier connectivity among industrial, agricultural and cultural centres primarily catering to the needs of urban India, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) was launched with the objective of connecting rural India in order to fight persistent poverty and deprivation.
Good governance also stands for protection of the people. One of Vajpayee’s biggest achievements was Pokhran II. Despite challenges at home and threats of surveillance and sanctions from international communities, he went ahead to realise his dream of making India a part of the prestigious nuclear club. In 1964, when China tested its nuclear weapon, it was Vajpayee who unequivocally advocated for India’s pursuit of nuclear capability. Pokhran II was a realisation of that long-cherished dream. However, it was not an act of desperation, nor did it stem from a sense of belligerence. Surrounded by hostile neighbours with a history of engaging in frequent conflicts, it became pragmatic and imperative to attain the necessary capability that may have a deterrent effect on neighbours. But he knew better than most how to maintain balance between war and peace. Vajpayee’s regime saw it both and he manoeuvred through both with utmost ease and aplomb. He did not shy away from giving a fitting retaliation to Pakistan’s aggression in Kargil. He, however, believed that peace is the only way for both the countries to prosper. Vajpayee maintained a fine equilibrium between restraint and retaliation. He never took shelter under jingoism. Peace, whether within the country or with the neighbours, was the pre-condition of prosperity. Hence, Vajpayee never hesitated in walking the extra mile to improve ties with Pakistan.
An array of personal qualities made Vajpayee the efficient leader that he was. He always held to his dharma and dutifully practised it in his personal and political life. Therefore, when in 1996 he became prime minister without the required numbers, he chose to relinquish gracefully rather than hankering for power through unfair means. The speech that accompanied his resignation in Parliament not only displayed his supreme oratory skills but was also a statement of political morality. He was often called the right man in the wrong party; however, he made it a point that a leader is not confined to his party only, a leader is defined by how he serves his people. Like Plato’s philosopher-king, Vajpayee was virtually a prime minister with the heart of a poet. And he was well-versed with the rhymes and metres of people’s expectations and aspirations.
The writer is national secretary, BJP and former member of Parliament