Former Prime Minister AtalBihari Vajpayee, who ordered nuclear tests to make India a nuclear weapons power and traveled by bus to Pakistan in a grand diplomatic gesture, died on 16th August,2018, he was 93. Vajpayee was one of the few leaders of the BJP to express anguish when hundreds of Muslims were killed rioting in 2002 in the western state of Gujarat, which Modi governed.
Vajpayee called the 1992 destruction of a 16th-century mosque on a disputed site by Hindu fanatics India’s darkest hour.
However, he also defended a Hindu campaign for construction of a temple on the disputed site, which Hindus believe was the birthplace of god-king Rama.
His popularity across political lines could be attributed in large measure to his ability to accommodate diverse views and his respect for rivals. These were qualities he probably acquired from his long stint in Parliament and also his efforts to internalise the ideals of such political opponents as Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister who was a liberal politician with much patience for opposition leaders despite the vast majority he commanded in the House.
In spite of Vajpayee’s frequent excursions to the Hindutva camp, a close analysis of Vajpayee’s speeches from 1957 to 2004 reveals that his unstated idol was Nehru himself, though when the Congress leader was alive, Vajpayee was a bitter critic of many of the leader’s policies. On more than one occasion, Nehru broke his habit of speaking in English and instead spoke Hindi in reply to a Vajpayee speech made in chaste Hindi.
When the young Vajpayee once approached Nehru along with two other MPs of his then party, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, demanding a discussion on the Government’s shortcomings in the humiliating war with China, Nehru immediately agreed.
Nehru also occasionally showered praises on Vajpayee, making it known to everyone that the opposition leader was one of his favourites. The senior statesman didn’t even respond when Vajpayee once accused the Congress Prime Minister of having a split personality. “You are both Churchill and Chamberlain,” he told Nehru, the leader who once introduced Vajpayee to a foreign dignitary, saying “This young man will one day become the country’s Prime Minister.” And when Nehru died, Vajpayee gave a touching speech in Parliament: “A dream has been shattered, a song silenced, a flame has vanished in the infinite… When friends were asleep and guards were slack, we were robbed of a priceless gift of life. Bharat Mata is stricken with grief today….”
For a man who had spent a large chunk of his career in Delhi—and in Parliament—and one who believed in taking a bipartisan approach to many issues, Vajpayee knew only too well the lures of Lutyens’ Delhi and its power games. He understood the role of emotions in politics, and maintained strong friendships with people in high places and across political parties. Besides outmanoeuvring rivals within his party, he also knew the art of power balancing in the time of coalition politics.
For a man who had come under the spell of Nehru, Vajpayee had to balance his own views in more ways than one. The RSS, the nursery of his political career, wasn’t impressed with his unconventional lifestyle: living with a woman and her family that included her husband; and his drinking and eating habits that were looked down upon. For the average shakha-goer, Vajpayee was a breakaway from the usual mould of Hindutva politicians.
Vajpayee was famously averse to the Ram temple movement steered by LK Advani that mobilised masses in favour of the BJP. He even poked fun at TV visuals of Advani in a motorised chariot trailed by a procession of slogan-chanting activists as “Advaniji and his vanarsena”. As a man who loved the good life, Vajpayee wasn’t an admirer of aggressive mobilisation tactics of the BJP under Advani, but when the party was thrown into a crisis in 1992, with various state governments headed by his party dismissed by the Centre after the demolition of a disputed mosque in Ayodhya, Vajpayee came back into the political limelight as a moderate who could challenge what the party called a ‘murder of democracy’ under Congress rule. He would typically stray from the Sangh’s core programmes, but always came back with renewed vigour. Whenever his party’s image took a tumble, he would use his reputation as a moderate to draw sympathy for the cause of Hindutva politics. That made him an invaluable asset for the Sangh and also potential allies.
One could sense this non-conformist trait throughout Vajpayee’s life. He was a regular at RSS shakhas as a teenager and even composed a ballad that is now sung at many of them: ‘Hindu tan man, Hindu jeevan, rag, rag mera Hindu parichay (I am Hindu in heart and body, my life is Hindu, Hindu is my only identity).’
But in school, he was also influenced by the Leftist movement, becoming a member of the AISF, the students arm of the CPI. After he was caught by the police for taking part in the Quit India movement (and accused of making a confessional statement to the police), he returned to the RSS fold. Around the turn of the 1950s, he was handpicked by Syama Prasad Mookerjee, founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), to be his assistant. Mookerjee was enamoured by Vajpayee’s public-speaking skills and their association continued until 1953 when Mookerjee said goodbye to him at Pathankot before he entered Jammu and Kashmir, where he died in incarceration.
For a Political amateur who had spent a lot of his time in the company of RSS men and like-minded people, it was the LokSabha that became his temple of learning, as Vajpayee later acknowledged. He was still seeen as a hardline Hindutva leader when he won elections from Balrampur and became a Member of Parliament. However, a close examination of his speeches over the decades shows how he evolved from a militant Hindutva and Swadeshi activist to the moderniser he later became when the world was on the cusp of change and India in transition from the 1990s to 2000s. I went through his speeches for a biography I had written of Vajpayee to suggest that ‘Nehru’s forbearance and genial ways to the most virulent of criticisms, launched by the likes of him, were destined to have a long-standing effect on the angry, young parliamentarian. Notwithstanding his bloopers, Nehru’s aristocracy, his striking presence and liberal aura would leave young Atal deeply inspired’.
Many years later when Vajpayee was External Affairs Minister in the 1977 Morarji Desai Government, he discovered that Nehru’s photograph was missing from a certain spot in Parliament. He only had to ask where it had gone, and the photo was back in its original spot the next day. In fact, Vajpayee’s reverence for Nehru was used by some of his detractors within the Jana Sangh, especially the late BalrajMadhok, to attack him, albeit unsuccessfully. It goes to Vajpayee’s credit that he drew the Jana Sangh away from the regressive ways of his early mentors, transforming the party and himself to suit new political goals.
Incidentally, though he was extremely popular outside, within the Jana Sangh he wasn’t considered the immediate successor to DeendayalUpadhyay who died under mysterious circumstances in 1968. It took Vajpayee much effort to ward off competition and emerge the most prominent leader of the party by early 1973. Some of those familiar with that stage of his life say that he was a past master in outsmarting anyone who conspired against him. He, Advani and NanajiDeshmukh who—in that order—became powerful in the BJS, also had the blessings of RSS chief MS Golwalkar, who passed away in 1973.
As a survivor in the rough and tumble of Sangh politics, Vajpayee was adept at defending himself from those plotting his downfall. He also used various tactics to overleap political hurdles, which also meant he had to court many controversies. During the Emergency, after he was arrested along with Advani and others in Bangalore and later transported to Delhi for a surgery, Vajpayee was placed under house arrest. Ram BahadurRai, now president of the board of trustees of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts, was general secretary of the ABVP when he met Vajpayee on December 31st, 1976. No one had an inkling then that the Emergency was soon to be lifted. Vajpayee told Rai that he had met Om Mehta, a minister close to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Vajpayee, Rai said, asked him to get ABVP to own up to alleged destruction of public property and tender an apology for the Government to begin efforts to repeal the Emergency laws. During the period, Vajpayee had also written a letter to Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, aunt of Indira Gandhi, about his worries. There are those within the Sangh who argue that it was Vajpayee who influenced then RSS chief BalasahebDeoras to tone down its aggression and instead lie low towards the end of the Emergency.
Notwithstanding such controversies, Vajpayee was a crowd-puller any party would want on its side. After the Emergency was lifted in 1977, on the night Vajpayee was to address a large crowd at Ram Lila Maidan in Delhi, the national broadcaster aired Bobby, a blockbuster Raj Kapoor movie starring Dimple Kapadia and Rishi Kapoor. As Tavleen Singh wrote after listening to that speech, Vajpayee started off saying, “Baadmuddatke mile haindeewane (it has been an age since we whom they call mad have had the courage to meet).” His speech was an incredible experience. I summed up the speech in my book: ‘Between Bobby and him, people chose Vajpayee.’
NDA then came his first experience with power. Despite hiccups and infighting that marred India’s first non-Congress Government ever, Vajpayee left a mark as External Affairs Minister with his outreach to the Chinese—though no breakthroughs were achieved, the ice was broken—and his speech in Hindi at the United Nations. He also played a role in early moves to normalise ties with Israel. It was when he was India’s foreign minister that Moshe Dayan, an Israeli minister and iconic general, visited India.