Before Vajpayee became the BJP’s moderate face, he thought of quitting the party

Dyed in saffron.
Dyed in saffron.
Image: Reuters/Kamal Kishore
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Some senior political leaders, who were in important positions during the late 1980s, claim that overtures were made to Atal Bihari Vajpayee to quit the BJP and join the fledgling Janata Dal at that time. Along with Atal, another BJP stalwart, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, was also similarly approached.

The duo were told that they would have no long-term future in the BJP because it was abandoning its original Gandhian philosophy and was being converted into a party with a Hindu ideology. Thus it would make more sense for them to join the Janata Dal, which would be a party like the Janata Party, on whose principles Atal had sought to construct the BJP.

These leaders say that both Atal and Shekhawat wavered for a moment, but ultimately spurned the overtures. They were steeped in the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) culture and, therefore, could not think of abandoning their alma mater. “We also did not persist with our efforts, not that it would have made a substantial difference, because the priority that VP Singh and we had was to break the Congress on the issue of corruption and not target the BJP and its Hindu agenda,” says a senior leader who was part of the effort.

VP Singh claimed in his memoirs, titled Manzil Se Zyada Safar, released in 2006, that Atal and Shekhawat wanted to break away from the BJP. Immediately after the release, Atal reacted strongly to the allegation and, in a written statement, said that VP Singh’s claims were totally wrong. He said, “The statement that I was unhappy with the party is not only far from the truth, it is also laughable.” Atal said that Singh’s statements “would lead to (a) wrong impression, so this statement is to remove doubts.”

In many interviews, when Atal was asked if he ever thought of leaving the party, he would jocularly answer, “Jaayein to jaayein kahan?” If the questioner persisted, he would say that the BJP was the best and that is why he always answered, “If I have to go, where will I go?”

The stories about Atal mulling the option of leaving the BJP may not have been true, but the fact was that LK Advani was now the helmsman, and what he did immediately after taking charge was to appoint a new team of office-bearers and infuse new blood into the system. He also dovetailed the programme of the BJP with that of the VHP that had embarked on the path of Hindu mobilisation through ekatmata yatras, which were designed to bring out the faith and devotion of the masses towards Bharat mata and Ganga mata.

The RSS also chipped in with its own efforts; the organisation having remained distant from the BJP in the Atal era was now in the thick of things with jan sampark abhiyans. Advani himself was often seen in public, addressing various concerns. What is significant is that his tone had become strident, almost reminiscent of the Jana Sangh era.

Circumstances too helped Advani. The young but inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi, who had come to power in the elections that followed the assassination of his mother, started stumbling. The most well-known instance is the Shah Bano case, where he used his party’s brute majority in parliament to push through a regressive legislation against the rights of Muslim women.


Things, however, begun heating up with the outbreak of the Bofors scandal. Powerful people, including Rajiv Gandhi, were suspected of having been paid kickbacks to the tune of Rs64 crore ($9 million) by a Swedish company called Bofors AG for the purchase of field guns by the army.

This, in a way, acted as a signal for the Advani-led party to bring the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, that had been lying dormant, into focus…In June 1989, as elections approached and it became increasingly clear that the Congress would not be re-elected, the BJP brought up the Ram Janmabhoomi issue in the national executive.

So, was Atal sidelined when Advani took over as president in those tumultuous times?

“I would not say so although that was the impression in the political circles,” says P Shivshankar, an important Congressman who had served in the cabinets of both Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. Shivshankar said that Atal and Advani had a symbiotic relationship which meant that the latter always consulted the former….Atal was always considered a more senior leader of the party by the public at large.


Incidentally, writing in the Indian Express two decades later in December 2009, Advani said, “He (Atalji) had reservations about the BJP getting directly associated with the Ayodhya movement. But he accepted the collective decision of the party showing that he was a thorough democrat by conviction and temperament.”

Whatever be the case, Atal did not contest the 1989 Lok Sabha polls. Though he was a Rajya Sabha MP (member of parliament), this was a little unusual because he always preferred membership of the Lok Sabha to a position in the upper house. The Congress won 197 seats in the polls in which it was pitted against the National Front.


Since the Congress was the single largest party, President R Venkataraman called upon Rajiv Gandhi to form the government. He, however, declined and, thus, the invitation went to VP Singh.


He pulled out a 10-year-old Mandal Commission report, that was gathering dust somewhere, and announced that he would implement its recommendations. The report had recommended that job reservations that were limited to scheduled castes and tribes be extended to other backward communities (OBCs) as well. VP Singh wanted to create a political base for himself amongst the OBCs, so that he would be unshakable. However, the public reaction was very adverse in urban centres.

The BJP also saw in the move an attempt to counter its plans to consolidate the Hindu vote. Immediately, LK Advani took the decision to set out on a rath yatra to mobilise Hindu opinion. The objective of the yatra obviously was not to oppose OBC reservations but to mobilize Hindu opinion on the Ram Janmabhoomi issue. This would have the impact of unifying the Hindu vote.


The VHP also declared its intention to start construction work on Feb. 01, 1990, and called upon the Muslims to voluntarily move the mosque to some other spot. By that time VP Singh was in power and, realising that trouble could be at hand, he requested Atal to ask for more time, four months to be precise, from the VHP. Atal acceded and interceded on behalf of VP Singh, seeking more time from the VHP.

Since the request had been conveyed through Atal, the VHP leadership agreed.

After four months had elapsed and the VHP perceived that the government had done nothing to resolve the problem, it decided to start work on the temple on Oct. 30. This was the day on which Advani planned to reach Ayodhya at the end of his rath yatra.


In the meanwhile, not unexpectedly, the BJP pulled the plug on the VP Singh government.


The country was back to another poll in the summer of 1991…Atal decided to contest the polls to the Lok Sabha and chose Lucknow, the capital of UP, to contest from.


Atal won hands down, garnering almost 2,00,000 votes…The BJP won 120 seats, improving its tally from 85 seats in the previous election. The party also consolidated its vote base, from 11% in 1989, to 20%. Atal was no longer seen as occupying the backseat.

Now public analysts began saying that Advani was the hardliner in the party with a Hindutva face and Atal was the moderate face of the BJP and that both had their respective roles to play.

Excerpted with the permission of Aleph Book Compay from Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Man for All Seasons by Kingshuk Nag. We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.