It was in February 1999 that I first saw and heard Atal Bihari Vajpayee in person. I was an undergraduate student in Hindu College, Delhi University, and Vajpayee was the chief guest for the college’s centenary celebrations. I was in a crowd of a large number of students who had gathered to hear the Prime Minister. He was 74 and signs of old age and frailty were apparent in the effort it took him to walk and move around. That was also the time when he was at the peak of his political power.
“Is manch par do pradhan mantri hain,” (there are two Prime Ministers on this stage), he said with elderly mischief as he looked at the president of the college’s student union. The college had modelled the student body on the lines of a Parliament, and its leader was called Prime Minister. Amid laughter, he addressed students and the staff. This was his last public engagement before the historic bus travel to Lahore on February 19.
Interestingly, the bus trip, seen in the context of what necessitated it, gives us an idea of his eclectic support base — something that defined his political legacy in the Right-of-centre stream of Indian politics.
The idea of the trip was to bring a thaw in frosty relations with Pakistan following India’s move to conduct three underground nuclear tests in Pokhran range on May 11 and May 13, 1998. If the tests had made Vajpayee the determined flagbearer of nuclear nationalism, the bus trip was evocative of Nehruvian pacifism. The latter obviously failed as the Kargil War, Kandahar hostage crisis and disastrous Agra summit were to show in the months to come. That, however, didn’t mean any significant change in the ideological space Vajpayee sought for his governance: the middle ground.
Being the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full term, Atalji, as he was fondly called, could afford this concession from Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the party he, along with members of the parent party Jana Sangh, reorganised in 1980. He also knew the significance of completing five years in the South Block. After all, he had got only third-time lucky in completing the full term — his previous two stints as the Prime Minister had been cut short by failure to prove majority in Lok Sabha (1996) and the fall of his BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government by one vote (1999).
In some ways, his stints as Prime Minister reflected the power play of coalition politics in the 90s. As a moderate leader more acceptable to coalition partners wary of BJP’s image of a Hindu nationalist party, he owed his projection of Prime Ministerial candidate by the BJP to the compulsions of coalition politics.
It’s convenient to see Vajpayee’s legacy as that of a more accommodative and softer Right-wing leader. But it will be a lazy way of looking at his political journey.
Born in Gwalior in 1924, with ancestral roots in Uttar Pradesh, he grew up in the Hindi heartland — a region that saw a steady rise of political Right in the second half of the twentieth century. The imprint of Arya Samaj and then a lifelong association with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) went back to his school and university days before he attained his post-graduate degree in political science at DAV College, Kanpur.
Though his foray into the freedom movement was truncated after his arrest during Quit India movement, the political outlook of young Vajpayee was shaped by RSS ideologues like Umakant Keshav Apte and later more significantly by Jana Sangh founder Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee.
However, in some intended as well as unexpected ways, the role of Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyay was pivotal to Vajpayee’s political career. Upadhyay spurred the journalist-editor in Vajpayee as he worked with the Hindi magazine Rashtradharm and RSS’ weekly Panchjanya. Hindi dailies like Veer Arjun also hosted young Vajpayee’s work. As the key organisation man in Jana Sangh, Upadhyay was keen on leveraging Vajpayee’s oratorical skills in Parliament, especially after the death of Syama Prasad Mookerjee.
When Vajpayee entered Lok Sabha after winning Balrampur seat in 1957, Upadhyay’s imprint on Vajpayee’s impressive parliamentary performance was evident. In what has now become part of parliamentary lore, Vajpayee’s oratory and interventions were praised by Jawaharlal Nehru too.
However, given the stature of Deen Dayal Upadhyay in the erstwhile Jana Sangh, it’s tempting to speculate on whether Vajpayee’s political career would have had to wait for ascendancy if Upadhyay had not died so early in a train accident in 1968.
In wresting control of the party from a rival camp led by hardline leader Balraj Madhok, Vajpayee cast Jan Sangh of the 1970s in his own image. In promoting his friends like Lal Krishna Advani, he sought to widen the reach of the party with accommodative politics but without retreating on critical issues of political Hindutva, national security and opposing any form of appeasement.
Despite being seen as a moderate, it’s relevant here to recall what Vajpayee wrote in 1973, as Jana Sangh president. In his foreword to a compilation of party documents, Vajpayee wrote: “Congress hopes that the creation of Pakistan would put an end to the agonising chapter of communal violence and animosity had been falsified. The Hindu-Muslim conflict had only enlarged into an Indo-Pakistan confrontation. There was widespread discontent in public mind regarding the government’s Pakistan policy which in effect was only an extension of the Congress’s Muslim appeasement policy.”
There is a view that the moderation of his Jana Sangh line coincided with his stint as external affairs minister in the Morarji Desai-led Janta Party government. His tenure as foreign affairs minister was considered remarkable for improving ties with neighbours, especially Pakistan.
When Jana Sangh was reorganised as BJP under Vajpayee’s presidency, the stamp of Vajpayee’s ideological adjustments was apparent. Among other elements, the newly formed party embraced Gandhian socialism as one of its objectives. In a fast-changing political milieu and with sub-nationalist tendencies on the rise, the Vajpayee-led BJP of early years was losing its distinct voice and identity as it veered towards a centrist space — a territory overpopulated by other political claimants.
This drift in the party’s ideology and fortunes coincided with growing discontent with Vajpayee’s approach and the drift was only averted in the latter half of the 80s. Under the leadership of a strong organisation man Lal Krishna Advani and with the momentum created by Sangh Parivar organisations, the Ayodhya movement was the radical break that BJP was looking for to consolidate its vote bank from the Jan Sangh days, and more significantly, to make deep inroads into Hindu identity politics.
Since Vajpayee distanced himself from the Ayodhya movement, he wasn’t part of the radical shift in the dynamics of conservative politics in the country. He slid into irrelevance in the new forms of electoral mobilisation the party was now working and succeeding at. There were valid questions about his organisational prowess too. Vajpayee, however, made his unease clear with his condemnation of Babri Masjid demolition.
The return of Vajpayee to the centre of BJP’s electoral scheme in the mid-90s was, in essence, a realisation of two things. First, the electoral dividends of the Ayodhya movement had entered a phase of diminishing returns, as evident in its loss of power in UP’s Assembly election of 1993. The BJP needed a leadership which offered a narrative beyond that. Second, as mentioned earlier, in the era of multi-party coalition governments, it required a consensual figure to offer to its potential allies.
The electoral tactician in Advani grasped this quite early. In his presidential address at BJP’s national council meeting held in Mumbai in November 1995, Advani said; “We will fight the next elections under the leadership of A.B. Vajpayee, and he will be our candidate for prime minister. For many years, not only our party leaders but also the common people have been chanting the slogan: ‘Agli baari, Atal Bihari’.”
Vajpayee of the 90s was an answer to BJP’s anxieties about political untouchability, and with varying degree of success, he proved to be the glue to keep different parties together as partners in BJP-led NDA government at the centre. Once dubbed by party ideologue Govindacharya as “mukhauta” (or mask) for Sangh Parivar’s hidden Hindutva agenda, Vajpayee fought with his team of trusted party leaders and handpicked bureaucrats to carve his own space. And he did carve, to an extent.
Having shed his short-lived love for Gandhian socialism, he pushed second-generation reforms in the economy, though with mixed results. Telecommunication and road infrastructure are often credited as success stories of his regime. What, however, failed to work was his big-ticket disinvestment agenda.
He did occasionally voice his concerns about the bottlenecks, lack of continuity in policy and disruptive noises made by anti-reforms Sangh Parivar organisations like Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM). At a Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) event, he said: “The time has come to insulate the nation’s economy as much as possible from the turmoil in the democratic polity. Swadeshi doesn’t mean that the government will not value foreign investment and foreign companies. The permissions will not be withdrawn or narrowed in scope. The government is a continuing entity.”
While the extent of his relative autonomy from Sangh Parivar is debatable, there was growing impatience in the party with his refusal to facilitate the post-Ayodhya phase of identity consolidation. He enjoyed popularity across different parts of the country, but his hold over his own party affairs was relatively weak.
Vajpayee’s failure in overruling the opposition from within the party to his decision of removing the then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, in the wake of communal riots in the state, reflected his limited clout. His advice to Modi for following rajdharma obviously lacked the authority of a leader in control of his party.
Like many electoral results in India, there is no clear explanation for why he lost power in 2004. By any means, it wasn’t one of the most unpopular governments at the Centre. What, however, was becoming increasingly certain was that once out of the South Block, Vajpayee wasn’t going to be seen in national politics. Besides obvious health concerns, it was also a feeling rooted in the kind of drift that had set in the party post-2004 poll debacle.
It would be unfair to remember Atalji confined to his political life. Indeed his place in popular imagination is marked with recollections of things apolitical. It ranges from his thoughtful pauses to words spoken and from innate civility to paternal grace. And it invariably includes memories of his speeches and poems. For starters, Vajpayee was aware that he was an average poet, and wasn’t much respected in Hindi literary circles.
There is a popular anecdote of how he asked a proofreader, working on his collection of poems, to repeat several times the encouraging words that great Hindi poet Nagarjuna had said about his poems. As the proofreader was afraid of showing Nagarjuna that he was proofreading something mediocre, Nagarjuna had reportedly said, “chhipate kyun ho? Atal bhi ek tarah ka kavi hai, jo mann mein aata likh deta hai” ( Why are you hiding? Atal is also a type of poet, he writes whatever appeals to his mind”). Vajpayee was elated to hear this and wanted it repeated to him many times.
A bachelor, his personal life was subject of much speculation. He was rumoured to have not lived the life of a disciplined RSS and Jana Sangh worker. This was used by his rivals against him in the organisation. They failed, and Vajpayee survived such speculations in the media too. To his credit, his public conduct and untainted probity made sure that his stature remained unaffected by personal attacks.
In the last few decades of a fiercely fought political battles on the terrain of an evolving democracy in India, Vajpayee came closest to the idea of statesmanship in public imagination. More than that, his presence carried the reassurance that grandfatherly grace can bring. One hopes that he passed away singing his loved lines: Kalke kapaal par likhta mitata hoon, geet naye gaata hoon (I write and erase on time’s scalp, I sing new songs).