By- Rajesh Singh

Treading the middle ground while remaining on the Right is not everyone’s cup of tea, but Atal Bihari Vajpayee did it with great panache. The key to understanding him is to realise that everything he did or said was guided by his resolve to serve the national interest, writes RAJESH SINGH

The life and career of Atal Bihari Vajpayee have been an open book and enough has been written about them. And yet, despite the surfeit of material, the former Prime Minister remains, to take a quote of Winston Churchill, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. Churchill was referring to Russia and in saying so, he added that the key to unravelling the riddle was “Russian national interest”. In Vajpayee’s case too, the key to understanding him is to realise that everything he did or said was guided by his resolve to serve the national interest.

VAJPAYEEIn his book, The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox, author and journalist Ullekh NP attempts to decipher the former Prime Minister and arguably the tallest leader the Bharatiya Janata Party has had. It’s easy because the author’s subject has lived a transparent life, but it’s difficult because understanding the mind of a politician, and that too one like Vajpayee who seamlessly migrated from one end of the ideological spectrum to another and yet remains acceptable to all, calls for a high level of interpretative skills.

As an active politician, Vajpayee was certainly unique. From being in awe of Jawaharlal Nehru’s liberalism to being a flag-bearer of Hindutva to being an admirer of Indira Gandhi to being her trenchant critic to being a moderate to being a trend-setter in managing political coalitions, he often flummoxed his supporters and won over opponents. You just couldn’t ignore him, and not only because of his good looks and poetic outbursts and oratorial skills. He was a consummate politician who knew the pulse of the people — and more importantly, the pulse of the moment. And yet, the ‘paradox’ that he was, Vajpayee failed to read the signs in 2004. And twice earlier, before he settled down to complete a full term as Prime Minister, and despite his charm and goodwill, he had to go through the embarrassment of quitting the post for lack of support from the outside.

Ullekh’s earlier part of the book recounts Vajpayee’s strong support to the dismissal of the communist Government of EMS Namboodiripad in Kerala through the use of Article 356. The author quotes from Vajpayee’s statement in 1959, where the latter said, inter alia, “The people of Kerala deserve to be congratulated. I hope in future too they will give a fitting reply to the communist party… with these words I support the resolution (moved by the Congress for imposition of President’s rule).” The author then adds two paradoxes that he finds in Vajpayee’s political career: “Ironically, Vajpayee would soon become one of the most vocal opponents of the political misuse of Article 356.” Also, “It’s an altogether different matter that in the late 1990s, he chose to recommend President’s rule in Bihar, citing breakdown in law and order…”

Ullekh attributes Vajpayee’s 1959 position to “false information” that he had been fed with, regarding the acts of the communist regime in the State. But what Vajpayee had said then to support the resolution could not have been too far off the mark, even factoring for some exaggeration. “In spite of being a critic of the Congress, I have no hesitation in saying that what happened in the 13 States ruled by the Congress, in no States were cell courts set up. Fourteen-year-old boys were not banished from their homes, no parents were told to marry their daughters to communists, and no one who disobeyed a cell court was stabbed.” This was 1959, but are things any better today? The RSS and its affiliates have been the target of Marxist terror; there are villages that have been marked as ‘communist’ where no other party worker can function; and those who dare to promote any ideology other than the Left can get their bones broken or lose their lives. This has been happening for years in the State, regardless of whether the communists rule or are in the Opposition.

The author says that while Vajpayee was the “moderate face of Hindutva”, he “did stray often”. Ullekh offers one contentious instance of such straying. In 1970, Vajpayee had locked horns with Indira Gandhi in the Lok Sabha while speaking on communalism. He said, “Our Muslim brethren are getting more and more communal and as a reaction Hindus are getting more and more aggressive… Hindus will no more take a beating in this country… You cannot fight communalism by ignoring Muslim communalism. If you promote Muslim communalism, the other feeling will run high.” Where is the lack of moderation here that the author refers to? Vajpayee was simply speaking the truth — and it remains relevant to this day. Secularists of those days must have felt uncomfortable with the home truth (Indira Gandhi had responded to the speech as “poisonous topic”), just as they do now. Today’s secularists use the word ‘fascism’ at the drop of a hat to condemn the Narendra Modi Government, just as Indira Gandhi had seen “naked fascism behind those words (of Vajpayee)”.

Vajpayee was one of the leaders who bore the brunt of Emergency, and yet the experience did not embitter him to a fanatical extent. Ullekh narrates a conversation that took place during the Emergency period between Vajpayee and a senior ABVP leader. Vajpayee said, much to that leader’s shock, that he had gone to see the Minister of State for Home, Om Mehta. Vajpayee added that he was uncomfortable with the violence that had been unleashed against the Emergency, and that the ABVP should own up and apologise for the arson and loot the organisation’s cadre had indulged in, for Emergency to be lifted. So, what does one make of this conversation?

Here was a leader committed to the values of democracy and free speech, almost justifying the Emergency? After all, it was well known that the Indira Gandhi regime had been giving out exaggerated versions of criminal activities that the Opposition parties had been supposedly indulging in, in its bid to sell Emergency. Or was it the voice of a reasonable person who, while condemning Emergency, was also equally forceful in criticising mindless acts of violence? Whatever it was, it was in keeping with Vajpayee’s reputation of seeking a balance and not taking extreme positions for mere ideological sake.

This performance of treading the middle ground while remaining on the Right is not everyone’s cup of tea. But Vajpayee was an accomplished artiste. He showed traces of this in his earlier years in the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, when he got pitted against colleague and firebrand leader Balraj Madhok. The latter was senior to Vajpayee, a brilliant speaker and organiser, and had built the Jana Sangh in Delhi from scratch. But he was also too sharp for the liking of many, blunt and often arrogant in approach, and inflexible. This made him unacceptable to many within the group and even the RSS which was then in the process of steering the Jana Sangh into a process of broader acceptance in society. The party needed a ‘liberal’ face, and Vajpayee was it. Ullekh dedicates some pages in his book to the Vajpayee-Madhok rivalry, but his treatment of the issue is superficial; a few other books published recently on the former Prime Minister have dealt with the subject in greater detail. But Ullekh does bring out the fact which other authors too highlighted: That Vajpayee, assisted by seniors in the RSS, not least by MS Golwalkar, emerged as the choice of the Jana Sangh as the future face, while Madhok was sidelined. Vajpayee had played his cards well.

If the story about Vajpayee is told — as it is in Ullekh’s book — then the story about the formation and rise of the Jana Sangh also gets told. The story of the birth of the BJP and its growth gets told. The story of the formation of a BJP-led Government gets narrated. Also gets told is the art of coalition governance, the years of Prime Minister Vajpayee and those of former Prime Minister Vajpayee. In sum, a good chunk of the history of post-Independence political India is covered. Such then, has been the broad brush which makes Vajpayee such an important figure. He was vocal in his dismay over the failure of the Morarji Desai Government, and felt that a good opportunity had been frittered away. While agreeing that Charan Singh had been a hugely destabilising influence, he also believed that the RSS could have done more in defusing the crisis. But in the same breath, he felt that the RSS should steer away from active intervention in politics. Yet another paradox?

During his years as Prime Minister, he maintained cordial relations with the RSS, but also saw to it that it did not needlessly interfere in the affairs of governance. Interestingly, we find s a similar approach today with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, with Modi and the RSS maintaining perfect harmony. Ullekh quotes Vajpayee: “I must also add that the RSS, claiming to be a social and cultural organisation, should have taken greater pains to demonstrate that they did not seek a political role. Patronising a press that takes sides in the sordid politics of power, involvement in both bodies that interact with political parties,  participating with trade union rivalries… these do not help an organisation to establish its apolitical credentials.” A lesser leader would have been rapped for these remarks, but Vajpayee could not be brushed aside. The RSS responded with an acknowledgement that it had to change with the times. This was not defiance but plain speak with good intent, but the author does not see it that way. Ullekh writes, “Vajpayee alone could defy the RSS and get away with it.”

The escalation of the Punjab crisis and the rise of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale had been seen long before it hit the nation, by Vajpayee. He said, “It is not a question of political parties deriving political benefit. Sometimes there is great apprehension about India’s unity and integrity… The fire of Punjab has reached the National Capital.” While Vajpayee congratulated the Indian Army for its successful conduct of Operation Bluestar, he also had a word of caution: “We must not lose sight of the fact that the Army is primarily organised and equipped to fight foreign enemies. Using it against our own countrymen is a very unpleasant step, and we should avoid it as far as possible.” He added, with deep emotion, that “even the roti-beti relationship could not help the gulf from widening”. The fire of Punjab indeed reached Delhi when Indira Gandhi was assassinated.

Arguably the worst period for Vajpayee and for the BJP was the post-assassination one, when the wave of sympathy for the Congress brought Rajiv Gandhi to power and obliterated the BJP. But Vajpayee, along with his colleague LK Advani, continued to work for the party, resurrecting it and keeping it afloat for the future. The time came when those efforts bore fruit. Rajiv Gandhi lost power five years down the line and VP Singh’s Government came in with BJP support. Events thereafter only further strengthened the party and eventually led to the formation of the first BJP-helmed Government. From 1999 on, the Vajpayee regime was to serve its full five-year term.

It’s a measure of his across-the-board appeal and enduring popularity that to this day, even his critics have nice things to say of him. As Prime Minister, Vajpayee faced many challenges, both on the domestic and the international fronts. The nuclear tests were conducted and international sanctions imposed on India. Parliament was attacked by militants with links to Pakistan. A plane was hijacked and some dreaded terrorists had to be released to secure the safe passage of hundreds of innocent passengers on board the flight. In the midst of all this, Prime Minister Vajpayee reached out to Islamabad with a hand of friendship. It did not work — just as it has not so far despite Prime Minister Modi’s similarly sincere gestures.

But all said, it is difficult to not agree with author Ullekh’s words that round off his book: “Vajpayee was a non-conformist with a resolute streak of irreverence for the conventional, contempt for the superstitious and unrelenting ambitions that overshadowed his insecurities. True, Vajpayee made many mistakes…but he was as much a democrat as he was a revolutionary, and Indian politics would have been poorer without the sway of his rich contribution.”

-12 February, 2017 | Rajesh Singh | in Agenda