Before he slipped out of the public limelight almost a decade ago, there were two characteristics of Atal Bihari Vajpayee which were unmistakable. The first, his long pauses while speaking in public, which were essentially used as a ploy when audiences were far more patient than today. It served two purposes – it enabled him to gather his thoughts, and gave a dramatic effect to his public speeches.
His other characteristic was known to all, but it required a classically undiplomatic political leader like K.N. Govindacharya to point it out. It was always tough to figure out what was his true persona because he always masked his viewpoint and shifted positions depending on situational demands. For instance, if he expressed reservations about Lal Krishna Advani’s Somnath to Ayodhya Rath Yatra in 1990 and his party’s overt embrace of Ram Lalla’s ’cause’, as prime minister he contrastingly asserted in December 2000 that the agitation for the Ram temple was a “symbol of national aspiration.”
Often called the ‘right man in the wrong party’, he accepted this sobriquet not because it was the true depiction of his political orientation but because it enabled him to ride two boats simultaneously. He was acceptable to liberals at times because he did not publicly go the whole hog on the divisive Hindutva issue. Yet, his acceptance within the Sangh parivar was rarely diluted because he could stand on inimical ground and assert that he was “once a swayamsevak, always a swayamsevak”.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was an ace practitioner of realpolitik who knew when and how to either camouflage Hindutva or make it palatable and sugar-coated for non-votaries. He was also astute in emphasising separation from fringe forces to retain his ‘secular’ facade. But when it came to tough action against the people of his parivar – where he was himself politically incubated – he would go soft. Vajpayee was the quintessential ‘no one’s man but his own’.
He made an early mark in a political fraternity which in the 1940s was not focussed on the freedom struggle that had entered a decisive phase. Like others of his fraternity, Vajpayee’s focus was on long-term objectives. He got the opportunity to create and disseminate public opinion when Deendayal Upadhyaya and Bhaurao Deoras, the RSS controlling-duo in the United Provinces, went about establishing the publicity organs of the Sangh in 1946. At 21, Vajpayee was editor of the Rashtra Dharm newspaper and before he eventually entered parliamentary politics, spent a few years as a journalist, setting up Panchjanya and even taking up the editorship of Veer Arjun.
Vajpayee’s first electoral bid in a by-election from Lucknow Central in 1952 ended on a disappointing note but in 1957 he made it to the Lok Sabha from Balrampur, Uttar Pradesh and with that began a lifelong association of friendship and rivalry, agreement and contestation with Advani. The ‘refugee’ from Sindh was at the time in Rajasthan but deputed by Upadhyaya to act as parliamentary research assistant to the Jana Sangh’s small contingent of five members.
As a young parliamentarian, Vajpayee caught Jawaharlal Nehru’s eye first, as a good speaker and then when he, with assistance from Advani, forced the government on the mat on several issues – be it dismissal of the communist government in Kerala or the government’s handling of the conflict with China. Yet, he ‘courted’ the other side too and when Nehru died, his words secured space for Vajpayee in the middle of India’s political divide: “The oppressed have lost their saviour, the masses the cynosure of their eyes. Peace finds itself so shaken. Its protector is gone. The main actor in the world’s stage after performing the last act of the play has disappeared.” By that time, he had lost his Lok Sabha seat and was a member of the upper house.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, Vajpayee was instrumental in giving the Jana Sangh a leftward tilt as it supported Indira Gandhi’s economic measures, be it bank nationalisation or abolition of privy purses. Till Advani clarified in his book, My Country, My Life, Vajpayee carried almost like an albatross, the statement drawing comparisons between Goddess Durga and Indira Gandhi. The statement was, in fact, made by a Jana Sangh member at a party convention and wrongly attributed to Vajpayee.
Much can be written about Vajpayee’s tenure as foreign minister in the Janata Party government and again as prime minister but there is no denying the efforts he made in pursuit of peace with Pakistan and China, countries anathema to the RSS. His decision to opt for the Pokhran II nuclear tests in 1998 was essentially aimed at appeasing hawks amid the mistaken notion that positions once taken must be adhered to without accounting for fresh developments which may have occurred. He never had pat answers to questions over whether India had become more secure after Pokhran II.
Vajpayee has been eulogised by this regime but only ritualistically because of his iconic status but his ways have seldom been followed. At a time when the BJP has floundered in managing allies and coalition partners, Vajpayee’s contribution in ushering in the coalition era and proving that even disparate alliances could serve and survive the entire tenure of a government cannot be ignored.
Vajpayee managed partners well but failed to keep his house in order. After the humiliation faced at the midnight hour in 1998 when the RSS’s K.S. Sudarshan dictated who could be made minister and who had to be kept out, Vajpayee realised it was important that a parallel power centre could not exist in the party apparatus. In his third tenure, after the ones lasting 13-days and 13-months, one of his efforts was to seize control of the party apparatus. Bangaru Laxman, however, failed him and Vajpayee could never have a pliant party. His biggest drawback, however, was his inability to keep the RSS leadership humoured. This eventually resulted in fissures so deep that they ultimately cost him another tenure.
His failures taught those who succeeded him on ways to manage the parivar. It has particularly helped Modi because he himself has a greater Hindutva positioning than Vajpayee. Eventually, he fell in no-man’s land, too soft for the fringe forces and too committed for those outside the fold. Yet, he was the right man at the right time for the Sangh parivar. Advani turned to Vajpayee after realising the BJP was stuck on a plateau after the Babri Masjid’s demolition.
The party needed a person with a statesmanlike image who was not hard-nosed like Advani to draw allies. Life was kind to Vajpayee by easing him out of public life the moment his ‘use by’ date was over. He fashioned himself as a politician with the heart of a poet. While literary critics remain divided about the populist nature of his verses, it is prudent to recall his speech after assuming the presidency of the BJP after its formation in 1980s, purely for its poignant value. It was a despondent moment, the Janata Party had splintered after showing initial promise and those wedded to the ideas of the RSS were back to being political untouchables. Indira Gandhi too had returned with a thumping majority and the newly formed BJP was in a state of confusion, perambulating between the core values of the Sangh parivar and the legacy of Jayaprakash Narayan. But Vajpayee was confident andhera chatega, suraj niklega aur kamal khilega (darkness shall give way to a new dawn and the lotus will bloom.)
Vajpayee thought Gandhian socialism would be a passport to political revival but it handed him his worst electoral humiliation in 1984 at the hand of someone who was then just a political novice, Madhavrao Scindia. He quit office to make way for Advani and hardcore Hindutva-based politics. At that time, whenever asked if he was contemplating a move, he would respond with the old lament: Jaoon to jaoon kahan? (If I have to go, where do I go?) He has finally found his destination.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and journalist, and the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984. He tweets @NilanjanUdwin.