India’s most respected right-wing prime minister is no more

The right man in the wrong party.
The right man in the wrong party.
Image: AP Photo/Manish Swarup
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Former Indian prime minister and statesman, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, passed away on Aug. 16 in New Delhi following prolonged illness. He was 93.

He breathed his last a little after 5pm at the capital’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences. The veteran politician had been admitted there since June 11 following urinary and chest complications.

A long-standing parliamentarian and deeply respected leader across the political spectrum, Vajpayee served as the head of the Indian government three times. He is best known for reinforcing India’s credentials as a nuclear power before the world.

He had announced his retirement in December 2009 after over six decades in public life. His first shot at prime ministership came in 1996, but the coalition led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of which he was a founding member, lasted just 13 days.

Vajpayee formed the government again in 1998. This time it lasted 13 months and proved to be deeply tumultuous for the country.

Eventually, he formed the government again after the BJP emerged as the single largest party in the 1999 general elections. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) that his party then led became the first non-Congress entity—and coalition—to complete a full five-year term. Coming after years of unstable permutations at its helm, his government provided India some stability as it turned the millennium.

His eventual success is, however, perceived differently by people depending on their location on India’s political spectrum. Critics of his party’s Hindutva, or Hindu nationalist, DNA see the “Vajpayee years” as having played the Trojan horse for extremist elements to get ensconced in the establishment after decades on the margins. The Hindutva proponents look up to it fondly for finally having begun dismantling the centre-left edifice represented by the Congress party and dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family.

A well-regarded Hindi poet, he may also have been the last leader from the right to have found broad acceptability and respect across the board. This despite being a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the fountainhead of Hindu nationalism and the BJP’s ideological parent. For he was among the youngest politicians to get seasoned in the moderate parliamentary politics that marked the first few decades of Indian independence.

The freedom fighter

Born to Brahmin parents in Gwalior (now in the state of Madhya Pradesh) on Christmas day in 1924, Vajpayee’s association with the RSS began at the age of 15. He completed his master’s degree in political science as a student of DAV College, Kanpur (now in Uttar Pradesh).

His first brush with politics came in 1942—though this episode is deeply disputed—when Mahatma Gandhi gave the call for the British to quit India once and for all.

Post-independence, Vajpayee joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), the BJP’s predecessor, headed by his mentor, the late Syama Prasad Mookerjee. He was elected to the Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s parliament, for the first time in 1957 from Uttar Pradesh’s Balrampur constituency.

His fine oratory and skillful interventions in parliament caught the eye of Jawaharlal Nehru. Once, while introducing the young parliamentarian to a visiting foreign dignitary, the then prime minister is reported to have said, “This young man one day will become the country’s prime minister.” And despite being his fierce critic, he also looked up to Nehru, and mourned his demise in 1964 thus: “…[a] dream has been shattered, a song silenced, a flame has vanished in the infinite.”

Vajpayee’s relationship with Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, was far more adversarial.

He was among the country’s top leaders to be jailed by her regime after she declared an internal emergency in India in 1975, assuming almost dictatorial powers and suspending civil liberties.

His first taste of power came in 1977 as India’s external affairs minister in a rag-tag coalition—India’s first-ever non-Congress government—led by prime minister Morarji Desai. During his short tenure then, he attempted to mend ties with China, against whom India had lost a brief war in 1962.

In 1980, having lost power to the Congress again, Vajpayee, along with long-time colleague and friend Lal Krishna Advani and others, formed the BJP, disbanding the BJS.

A series of events since then slowly but surely put the Vajpayee-Advani duo in the national limelight.

Hindutva’s Ram-Laxman

The 1980s saw grassroot Hindutva gain strength following several mis-steps by the Congress, by then led by Nehru’s grandson, Rajiv Gandhi.

All through that decade, the BJP played on India’s identity politics, dipping into rising Hindu anger. The party found a vehicle in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement which sought to replace a medieval mosque in Uttar Pradesh with a temple at a spot where Hindutva proponents believe the Hindu god Ram was born. The movement reopened age-old social fissures in the country, culminating in the destruction of the Babri mosque in December 1992 and leading to a period of violence and instability.

While it was Advani who spearheaded that movement, Vajpayee was right behind, using his incendiary oratory and rhetorical skills to fan passions. While there are claims and counterclaims, Vajpayee, through one of his fiery speeches, is said to have given that last push to the mob that ultimately brought down the mosque in Ayodhya.

Earlier, in 1983, the veteran is alleged to have fanned passions in Nellie village of Assam state in India’s northeast. The target at that time were the illegal immigrants, mostly Muslim Bengali speakers from neighbouring Bangladesh. By one account, the violence that followed his speech saw nearly 2,200 people being massacred.

Despite all this, Vajpayee was never perceived as the typical rabble-rouser that Advani was seen as. His sophisticated language skills and sharp political acumen perpetuated his soft-nationalist aura. His critics, though, often suspected his softer side to be a facade. At one time, even one of his long-time associates referred to him as merely “the mask” that hides the BJP-RSS’s real intentions for India.

Nevertheless, by the mid-1990s, the Vajpayee-Advani duo had built up the BJP into a major political force.

The prime minister

Vajpayee’s three terms as prime minister were transformative, to say the least, for India in many senses.

Months into his second term in 1998, India tested five nuclear devices, their shock-waves felt around the world. India’s traditional rival Pakistan followed suit with six of its own tests. His regime’s skillful negotiation of the diplomatic minefield that this development threw up is well-documented by former US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott.

Vajpayee, however, didn’t let the tests themselves be the last stand in his approach to Pakistan. Shortly after, he took the now-famous bus trip to Lahore, in a strong peace overture. The resulting bonhomie was short-lived, though. Just months after the high-profile visit, Pakistan was found to have encroached upon Indian territory on the sly in the restive state of Jammu & Kashmir. A limited war ensued. But to his government’s credit, the Kargil conflict did not spread to a larger theatre.

He counted on a surge in war-time nationalist sentiments to sail through the 1999 elections after an estranged ally brought down his government. While the BJP, surprisingly, failed to improve on its 1998 tally, it remained the single-largest party and formed a government again. This time, it lasted its full term, but not without trouble.

By his third term, India’s economic surge was fully on. The software boom at the turn of the millennium revealed the country’s immense talent in the field of technology. The prime minister bolstered this by laying emphasis on infrastructure building. The Golden Quadrilateral project, which saw vast stretches of modern highways being laid, remains one of Vajpayee’s many legacies.

Yet, there was bitterness, too.

The first signs of the Hindutva project—attempts to repaint the country in unabashedly Hindu colours, discounting its multiple religious and cultural threads—began to surface under Vajpayee. School textbooks got re-written to suit a Hindu nationalist worldview. Top artists and authors were hounded, often violently, for supposedly hurting Hindu sentiments through their works.

The worst came in 2002 when large scale communal riots broke out in the western state of Gujarat. The chief minister of the state was variously described as having been ineffective or disinterested in stopping the violence. While Vajpayee is said to have had serious issues with state government, he hardly took a stern public stand.

Ultimately, after he lost the 2004 national elections to a Congress-led coalition, Vajpayee himself admitted that the Gujarat riots were one of the reasons for his shock defeat. The loss followed much bravado from the BJP ranks, overconfident of an easy victory given the economic strides India had taken under their leader.

It would be a decade before India got another BJP government. And this time it would be Narendra Modi, the very Gujarat chief minister whom Vajpayee had failed to rein in in 2002, who’d storm the centre.

By this time, though, Vajpayee was mostly immobilised by a stroke he suffered in 2009. His generation was being surpassed by a new flock in BJP, much more abrasive and unabashed about its Hindutva credentials.

So much so that even opposition leaders today express their grief at not having someone like Vajpayee at the helm of affairs in today’s Hindutva dispensation.

The ultimate compliment for the former prime minister was that he was the right man in the wrong party.

With inputs from Kuwar Singh.