Of course, the flip side, which his political adversaries emphasise, is that with his light touch, humour and elegance, he gave a measure of acceptability to a contentious ideology and to hardline Hindutva. It was he who made the BJP politically palatable in the era of coalitions in the 1990s — when secularism was still not yet considered a “pseudo” ideology, the Congress was still the biggest political party, and the embrace of socialism and communism was not branded anti-national.
And yet, for all the question marks about the ideology that he professed, Vajpayee in his prime was the perfect leader for a party that was straining to break free of the fringes and become mainstream in an era dominated by a left-oriented Congress and caste-affiliated socialists. He was considered “the right man in the wrong party”.
In May 1996, faced with the prospect of losing the confidence vote after 13 days as Prime Minister, Vajpayee himself gave voice to that characterisation in the Lok Sabha. “Sahi baat hai (It is true),” affirmed several stray voices from the Opposition benches. To this, Vajpayee replied, a twinkle in his eye: “Agar achhi baat hai to kya karne ka irada rakhte hain? (If you approve, what do you intend to do?)” The Treasury and the Opposition benches were in splits, and for a moment, the master orator had doused the tension that had dogged the corridors of power ever since the general elections threw up a hung Parliament.
Roots in the Sangh
It was true. Vajpayee was a swayamsevak, a member of the RSS, but he wasn’t the unalloyed saffronite in the LK Advani-MM Joshi mould. In 1980, when the BJP was born, with Vajpayee as its first President, he spoke of his commitment to Gandhian socialism and a brand of positive secularism.
And while his heroes were Bharatiya Jan Sangh founder Syama Prasad Mookerjee and its long-time General Secretary Deen Dayal Upadhyay — both of whom are celebrated by the current Narendra Modi dispensation — Vajpayee greatly admired Jawaharlal Nehru, who is today routinely an object of scorn for the BJP. In 1959, when China walked all over Tibet, Vajpayee, then a debutant MP, delivered a stirring speech accusing the Communist neighbour of “a new kind of imperialism”.
It is a measure of how “acceptable” he was across the political aisle that Nehru encouraged the young Atal; Indira Gandhi consulted Vajpayee; and PV Narasimha Rao saw Opposition leader Vajpayeeji as an ally, and honoured him with the Padma Vibhushan.
It was his ability to be this, and also that, that made Vajpayee one of the most popular, and acceptable political faces. Some politicians are liked, others are reviled; but Atalji, who refused to be labelled a representative of a ‘cow-belt’ party, was adored. \
No wonder then that 13 parties, including the Trinamool Congress and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, backed the first National Democratic Alliance government, which lasted only 13 months. In 1999, when the NDA stormed back to power after the Kargil war, Vajpayee led a 16-party government, and became India’s first non-Congress prime minister to last a full term in office.
In tandem with Advani
But while Vajpayee swung the moderate votes, it was his long-time friend LK Advani, who energised the BJP’s support base of core voters, and gave it a shot at power. They had been together in the Jan Sangh, and had launched the BJP together. But when in 1984, the Congress wave after Indira Gandhi’s assassination blew the BJP away and left it with all of two seats in the Lok Sabha — Vajpayee lost in Gwalior to 39-year-old Madhavrao Scindia — the baton was handed over to Advani. Whereas Vajpayee was wedded to moderation, Advani took the BJP down the strident Hindutva path, leading a Rath Yatra as part of a campaign for a Ram temple in Ayodhya.
For the most part, Vajpayee stayed away from the campaign. He did not visit Ayodhya. Was it because he did not agree with hardline politics? Or was he sulking that Advani, and not he, had a larger role in the BJP? He did, however, address the kar sevaks in Lucknow on December 5, 1992, a day before the Babri Masjid was pulled down. Vajpayee’s edgy speech valourised the Ram temple cause, and sounded to some like an incitement to ‘action’. “There are sharp-edged stones on the ground…no one can sit there. The ground has to be levelled,” he said. And then, part prophetically, part mischievously, he said: “….I don’t know what will happen there tomorrow. I wanted to go to Ayodhya but I was told to go to Delhi…”
Perhaps Vajpayee regretted his role, however small, in the demolition of the mosque, and its calamitous social consequences. Or maybe it was politically expedient that he be seen as remorseful. Advani realised that given his own hardline image, he would have to play second fiddle to Vajpayee, the perceived ‘moderate’ face that could appeal to a broader political consituency. With unmatched oratorical skills, Vajpayee led the party in the years to come, and won admirers even in Kerala and Kashmir, where the BJP was never strong.
Peacenik Prime Minister
As Prime Minister, Vajpayee sidelined elements of the RSS, and surrounded himself with leaders such as Jaswant Singh, George Fernandes, Arun Shourie, all of whom had nothing to do with the Sangh. Brajesh Mishra, a career bureaucrat in whom Vajpayee had implicit trust, ran the Prime Minister’s Office and kept it clear of swayamsevaks. Relations soured between Vajpayee and Sarsanghchalak KS Sudarsan.
With Pakistan, Vajpayee never towed the hard line of the Sangh, or that of the BJP’s oldest ally, the Shiv Sena. He was something of a peacenik, and never gave up on improving ties with the neighbour. In 1999, the Prime Minister rode a bus to Lahore, signed a nuclear treaty, and shook hands with Nawaz Sharif, barely a year after the nuclear tests in Pokhran. A few months later, India and Pakistan went to war in Kargil. Later in the year, an Indian Airlines flight was hijacked by Pakistan-backed terrorists demanding the release of the dreaded Masood Azhar.
And yet, Vajpayee gave peace another shot in 2001, hosting General Pervez Musharraf in Agra. After the fruitless summit, Pakistani terrorists attacked the Indian Parliament in December that year. For several months after that, the armies of the two countries stood eyeball-to-eyeball at the border. But Vajpayee would not give in. At every possible multilateral forum, though he would call out Islamabad for backing terrorism, the Prime Minister still saw hope. A year before his term was to end, in the summer of 2003, Vajpayee visited Kashmir and spoke of peace, and also extended the hand of friendship to Pakistan.
On that trip, he also gave a call for ‘Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat, Jamhooriyat’ (humanity, Kashmiri-ness, democracy) as the means to resolving the conflict in the Valley and bringing peace to the strife-torn State.
As administrator, Vajpayee was a democratic man, letting many of his ministers blossom. The Prime Minister was the undisputed leader, but Sushma Swaraj, Pramod Mahajan, Yashwant Sinha, Arun Jaitley, Shahnawaz Hussain, and others were all leaders in their own right.
Groundwork for ‘Shining India’
On the economic front, the Vajpayee government guided an India that was beginning to show much promise through the slow-growth years of the early 2000s, when the country was wracked by successive years of drought. But the groundwork was laid for the high-growth years ahead, for the boom in the telecom sector, the extensive network of Golden Quadrilateral highways.
Towards the end of his years in public life, which coincided with his final years as Prime Minister, Vajpayee’s health began to fail. He underwent a knee replacement surgery, and had trouble walking. He no longer spoke with the felicity he was known for, and the pauses between his phrases grew longer.
Even his voice did not command the clout it once did. In 2002, when he wanted to replace Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, who was widely criticised for the riots, the demand was shot down by Advani and the Sangh. All he could do was to ask Modi to follow “Raj dharm”, to not see differences among his people on the basis of “birth, caste or community”. The Gujarat CM, visibly embarrassed by the public admonishment, feebly defended himself: “Hum bhi wohi kar rahe hain, saab (That is precisely what we are doing, sir)”.
After the shock defeat in the 2004 elections, which the NDA was widely touted to win, Vajpayee’s public appearances were mostly ceremonial. In 2015, when he was awarded the Bharat Ratna, in the only photograph released to the media, his eyes were closed.
In an interview to veteran journalist Tavleen Singh some time after his first stint as Prime Minister in 1996, Vajpayee said it was never his intention to enter politics, but now that he was trapped in it, he hoped he would depart unblemished. “I hope people will say [after I am gone] that I was a good man, who tried to better the lot of my country and the world.” No one else could have put it better.
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Courtesy: The Hindu BusinessLine and the links given above.
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