A statesman with an endangered legacy
Vajpayee was the face of accommodative politics in the BJP – the ability to be ideological and yet transcend it – something that the party has now moved away from.
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s last public appearance – a decade before his death from prolonged illness – was an event that brought home the hegemonic presence he enjoyed in Indian politics.
This was on his birthday, December 25, in 2007. He had been away from the limelight for a while, and journalists thronged his residence in large numbers to sense whether he was on the verge of formal retirement or ready for another fight. In the former case – it was felt – his long-time associate LK Advani would lead the party, which had been thrown out of power in 2004.
BJP leader Shahnawaz Hussain finally took the journalists – this writer was among them – to meet Vajpayee. He was seated on a chair in the middle of a room and we were requested to just wish him and leave. His left hand seemed immovable as it rested on the chair and he answered each of us with a faint ‘namaskar’ (hello) as we walked past him.
The writing on the wall was clear. Vajpayee was terminally ill and had lost his ability to move much or even speak with clarity. Yet, reporters from across media houses went into a huddle soon after the brief meeting and decided not to say it in so many words that Vajpayee was too unwell to be politically active. Many senior journalists in the flock thought this to be the better way out. We ended up describing the event more than broach the topic of his being terminally ill.
This, in a nutshell, was the standing Vajpayee commanded even when he was not in a position to react to any news that he had walked into the sunset of his political career.
Indeed, what distinguished Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a galaxy of political leaders was his ability to stick to an ideology and yet transcend it in the interest of a politics of accommodation.
Some saw in this a whiff of opportunism, but most political observers respected the 10-time MP precisely for his non-doctrinaire approach to politics.
A year after Vajpayee’s death, after prolonged illness, the social media is abuzz with tributes to the first Prime Minister from the BJP.
Vajpayee’s ability to reach out across ideological lines was well-known. And this made it possible for him to become more acceptable than any BJP leader and also become pivotal to the BJP’s efforts to strike alliances to come to power. In other words, he was seen as the party’s prime consensus builder across the political divide. In the 1990s, when the BJP was on the rise and Advani was considered a hardliner close on the heels of the Ram temple movement, Opposition leaders called Vajpayee the right man in the wrong party.
In the 1960s, when Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and Vajpayee were prominent Jana Sangh leaders, the right-wing party began to stitch alliances with the socialists and others on an anti-Congress plank to come to power. The JP movement of the 1970s was the high point of this trend.
In 1977, the Janata Party – which was a result of the merger of a few opposition parties – defeated the Congress and Vajpayee became Minister of External Affairs. After the party split, he became the founder president of the BJP, which was formed in Mumbai in 1980. Vajpayee gave the slogan of Gandhian socialism and harked back to the legacy of JP. However, the BJP suffered its most humiliating defeat in 1984, in the wake of the assassination of Indira Gandhi. Vajpayee himself lost his election to Madhavrao Scindia from Gwalior. He lost the position of party president to Advani, under whom the party took a definitive right-wing turn a few years later, as the latter started a Rath Yatra for the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya. Vajpayee was the only BJP leader of repute who did not visit Ayodhya at this time, though he did deliver a speech nearby that many see as problematic. He said in the speech that the ground here was uneven and needed to be made plain. However, his line on Ayodhya generally steered clear of that of his party in those polarized days.
As the BJP rose electorally with the Ram temple movement, it sought out allies to be able to come to power. Under Advani, most “secular” parties were unwilling to do business with the BJP. This marked Vajpayee’s second coming as the consensus builder and the BJP could come to power, putting its core issues of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, a Uniform Civil Code and the abrogation of Article 370 on the backburner. Vajpayee stayed Prime Minister for six years, leading a mammoth NDA with many “secular” allies.
Vajpayee’s legacy was about being ideological and yet listening to contrarian voices in the polity. And trying to act in ways that ensured a larger consensus across the polity. He did try to reach out to Kashmir – saying the state would be engaged keeping in mind the three principles of humanism, democracy and Kashmiriyat – and was regarded as breaking with his party’s traditional line on the issue. Even student leader Shehla Rashid – who hails from Kashmir – paid tributes to Vajpayee after his death in 1984.
The Vajpayee legacy within the BJP has been lost under the present leadership, with the BJP government aggressively pursuing the core ideological agenda, arguably with considerable public acceptance. The abrogation of Article 370 is the surest sign of this yet.
Vajpayee, the gifted Hindi orator, would often say in Parliament: “Mat bhed hona chahiye man bhed nahin (we should have differing views, but these shouldn’t lead to personal differences).” It is this legacy that is endangered in today’s India.