Beyond the mask

Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1924-2018), who was often described as brilliantly multifaceted, was never really free of the sectarian agenda of the Sangh Parivar in spite of his being projected as a moderate.

Published : Aug 29, 2018 12:30 IST

Atal Bihari Vajpayee  at his residence in New Delhi.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee at his residence in New Delhi.

‘Brilliantly multifaceted’ was the adjective repeatedly used to describe former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee during his long political career. There were several reasons for this description—Vajpayee’s extraordinary proficiency in political oratory, effective parliamentary practice, skillful maneuvering of political negotiations with an ability to strike personal equations with leaders beyond party lines, efficient handling of administrative and governance mechanisms, natural interest in international affairs and deftness in deploying diplomatic gambits, and so on. And all this was complemented by the celebration of Vajpayee’s intermittent excursions into Hindi literature and poetry along with the wry humour that he selectively displayed in public fora.

However, as Vajpayee himself reiterated often, the evolution and flowering of all these traits were subservient to his identity as a pracharak of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led (RSS) Sangh Parivar. To paraphrase K.N. Govindacharya, one-time close associate of Vajpayee and acclaimed ideologue of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), all other personality traits that this veteran parliamentarian of five and a half decades standing had were a sort of “mukhota” (mask).

Govindacharya’s description fits well with the way the Sangh Parivar claims to have moulded the roles and personalities of the leadership of its political arm through different generations. The roles of leaders, ranging from Deendayal Upadhyaya to Syama Prasad Mookerji, from Balraj Madhok to Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and from Lal Krishna Advani to Narendra Modi, have been crafted and built up keeping in mind the exigencies of the times as well as individual strengths and weaknesses of the leaders themselves.

It is also believed that almost all the leaders have lived up to the roles assigned by the larger Sangh Parivar. Some of these leaders have been projected as champions of various existing or concocted ideologies and political positions from time to time. Thus, Deendayal Upadhyaya was projected as the propounder of integral humanism, Vajpayee as the advocate of Gandhian socialism and Advani as the propagator for Hindutva and Hind Swaraj.

Image-building exercise

The stamp of this planning by the larger Sangh Parivar and Vajpayee’s adherence to it was starkly evident in his political life. One of the roles visualised for Vajpayee becomes clear if one looks at expositions on political alliances advanced by Acharya Giriraj Kishore, a senior leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the self-professed ideological sword-arm of the Sangh Parivar, and prominent player in the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation in Ayodhya.

In the early 1990s, he specifically referred to the role designed for Vajpayee in the scheme of things to build united fronts. Giriraj Kishore used to draw parallels between the “united front” strategy adopted by the Communist International in the 1930s as expounded by Georgi Dimitrov and the strategy that the Sangh Parivar was pursuing in India. His contention was that the Sangh Parivar manoeuvres were the Hindutva version of Dimitrov’s ideas.

“Dimitrov’s plan was to join hands with parties protecting so-called bourgeois interests and ultimately bring them under communist, working-class interests. Our plan would be to join with neutral and secular parties and move them finally to the Hindutva fold,” Giriraj Kishore used to tell VHP activists. He also told these gatherings at VHP chintan shivirs (discussion summits) that Vajpayee was to be a key player in forging these alliances. (This correspondent had an opportunity to listen to one of Giriraj Kishore’s presentations in Amritsar in the early 1990s. Sangh Parivar activists later revealed that this theme was repeated in a series of lectures he gave in the 1991-92 period.)

The series was timed to coincide with the unique juxtaposition of the personalities of Vajpayee and Advani respectively as a moderate face of the BJP and an aggressive pursuer of Hindutva. This happened even as Advani was getting ready to become the protagonist of the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation.

Thus, Vajpayee was presented as a moderate who had made way, after leading the BJP for the first six years (1980-86) after its formation, to a more vociferously Hindutva-oriented Advani.

In his Amritsar presentation, Giriraj Kishore specifically referred to the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) led by Parkash Singh Badal as a potential ally though the party had decided to boycott the Assembly elections scheduled to be held in February 1992. His argument was that opposition to the Congress would ultimately lead the SAD to the BJP fold and that Vajpayee’s “moderate political persona” would help in making this a reality.

Babri Masjid

fl14 vajpayee rampng

April 4, 1991: Vajpayee addresses participants at a combined rally held by the BJP and the VHP on the Ayodhya issue in New Delhi.


However, the mask was off on the evening of December 5, 1992, when Vajpayee was directed to return from Lucknow a day prior to the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. Senior leaders L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, were in Ayodhya to oversee the demolition on December 6 while Vajpayee skipped the event.

On the previous day, Vajpayee asserted his allegiance to the Sangh Parivar’s plan with an extremely volatile speech in front of kar sevaks in Lucknow. The speech, in typical Vajpayee style, had elements of the figurative and the allegorical. He referred to a Supreme Court order of November 1992 prohibiting construction on the 2.77 acres [of the disputed site], but interpreted it in such a way as to give the impression that the Supreme Court had not prohibited kar seva but had only directed “not to start construction till the final verdict of the Lucknow bench of [the Allahabad] High Court is delivered”.

He also gave a new twist to the permission given by the Supreme Court to sing bhajans and kirtans at the disputed site. His rhetoric went thus: bhajans are not done by a single individual but collectively; they could not be done by being on one’s feet. There are sharp-edged boulders at the site of the congregation for kar seva in Ayodhya and that the ground would have to be levelled and made fit for sitting. The mention of “sharp-edged boulders” and the exhortation to “level the ground” were greeted with the kar sevaks’ prolonged applause and cries of “Jai Shri Ram”. This was followed by the statement that “the kar sevaks will also be doing yagya, so there will be some construction also, at least a vedi [an altar for performing rituals] will be constructed”. He went on to say: “I don’t think that the Supreme Court has prohibited any of these. If bhajan, puja, kirtan and yagya take place, then those who are performing these may also think in terms of putting up a shamiana.”

Vajpayee concluded the speech by stating that he did not know how all these activities would be carried out in Ayodhya but added that he was sure that everything will be decided by the kar sevaks.

On hindsight, the demolition of the Babri Masjid as well as the erection of the temporary structure for the Ram Mandir on December 6, 1992, happened almost exactly as depicted by Vajpayee a day earlier. It was clear that the demolition was a planned act by the Sangh Parivar and that Vajpayee was in the know of it. Vajpayee displayed his allegiance to the Sangh Parivar’s programme at other junctures of his career too.

Addressing the BJP national executive in Goa in April 2002, when he was the Prime Minister, Vajpayee made an extremely sectarian speech: “Wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in co-existence with others, they don’t like to mingle with others; and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats. The world has become alert to this danger.”

Gujarat genocide

This was barely two months after he had seemingly criticised the then Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, for his role in the 2002 February anti-Muslim genocide in the State. Visiting the State as Prime Minister in the wake of the mass murder, he had told a press conference that his advice to the Chief Minister was to follow raj dharma (ruler’s duty) without discriminating between people on the basis birth, religion or caste. This was celebrated by sections of the political class, media and observers as yet another sign of Vajpayee’s commitment to secularism, while sections of the Sangh Parivar questioned his “putting down” Narendra Modi.

The April 2002 speech in Goa was a shocker to those who were trying to discover secular commitment in Vajpayee. It exposed the majoritarian tilt of the then Prime Minister’s world view. Sectarianism was evident in Vajpayee’s speeches even in his early stints in Parliament, but was probably masked by his oratorical skills, which had been noticed, apparently even by Jawaharlal Nehru.

Even after he grew in prominence as the External Affairs Minister in the government of the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party alliance, which came to power in 1977, this sectarian streak appeared now and then. Jana Sangh was the political arm of the Sangh Parivar before 1977. It merged with the Janata Party in the run-up to the 1977 elections citing the need for all democratic forces to unite against the Indira Gandhi-led Congress that imposed the Emergency in 1975.

Soon the Janata Party was rocked by the “dual membership” issue; that is, the association of Jana Sangh members with the RSS even after the formation of the Janata Party. This led to the resignation of Vajpayee, Advani and other Ministers from the Janata government. Vajpayee and Advani made it clear that they would rather remain members of the RSS than ending their association just for the sake of holding on to power. Thus was born the BJP in 1980, with Vajpayee as President.

A look at Vajpayee’s overall political track record underscores the fact that he was never free of the sectarian and divisive agenda of the Sangh Parivar. However, he and some of his associates in the BJP and the Sangh Parivar were able to persist with their image of being innately secular, which came in handy for the National Democratic Alliance, by winning over regional parties and smaller national outfits as allies.

While his first two stints as Prime Minister in 1996 and 1998 lasted 13 days and 13 months respectively, his return to power in 1999 lasted until 2004.

The third NDA government had 15 active partners and the outside support of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP). The formation of this government and the completion of its full term is considered by several political observers as Vajpayee’s greatest contribution to the BJP, especially because the saffron party was anathema to almost all political forces in the country.

Stint highlights

Vajpayee worked through most of this last stint to buttress his image as a leader committed to the principles of democracy. He maintained good relations with his alliance partners and gave a free hand to large sections of the bureaucracy. At the policy level, an assessment of his three stints as Prime Minister brings out its four distinct aspects.

The first was the greater momentum added to the privatisation and liberalisation of the economy. Even as big business hailed this as revolutionary, farmers, agricultural workers, the industrial working classes and unorganised labour resisted it.

The second was foreign policy overtures to improve relations with Pakistan though his earlier stint saw some moments of confrontation with the neighbour. During his first tenure, India conducted the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in May 1998. Pakistan promptly responded with its own nuclear tests, thus bringing about nuclear parity between the two neighbours. In effect, this wiped out whatever perceived strategic advantage that the Pokhran tests were to bestow on India.

More significantly, in a “political follow-up letter” sent to the then United States President, Bill Clinton, on May 11, 1998, after the Pokhran tests, Vajpayee referred to China as the primary concern behind India embarking on the nuclear weapon tests path. The letter depicted China as “an overt nuclear weapon state on our borders, a state which committed armed aggression against India in 1962” and stated that Vajpayee had been “deeply concerned at the deteriorating security environment, especially the nuclear environment, faced by India for some years past”.

He added : “Although our relations with that country have improved in the last decade or so, an atmosphere of distrust persists mainly due to the unresolved border problem. To add to the distrust, that country has materially helped another neighbour of ours to become a covert nuclear weapons state. At the hands of this bitter neighbour we have suffered three aggressions in the last 50 years. And for the last 10 years we have been the victims of unremitting terrorism and militancy sponsored by it in several parts of the country, specially Punjab and Jammu & Kashmir.”

This letter generated yet another controversy, but some of his spin doctors sought to play it down by spreading the story that the letter was the handiwork of the Prime Minister’s adviser, Brajesh Mishra, and that Vajpayee had not even read the letter.

Despite all these confusions and controversies, Vajpayee sought to improve diplomatic relations with Pakistan and travelled to Lahore by bus to meet with the then Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. But that effort did not make much headway and the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan broke out during Vajpayee’s regime. Still, Vajpayee is credited with a positive attitude that sought to look beyond reverses.

Thirdly, engagements with the trouble-torn Jammu and Kashmir were advanced on the basis of the slogan, “Kashmiriyat, Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat” (Kashmir’s inclusive culture, humanitarianism and democracy), which is perceived by many regional players in the State as a viable policy parameter, if followed steadfastly and with sincerity.

The fourth highlight of his tenure was infrastructural initiatives, especially in terms of road infrastructure, although they were marked by conspicuous oversight of core developmental imbalances. This track record was deemed “promising” and “statesmanlike” by a number of political observers.

By all indications, the confidence gained from the positive responses to these moves prompted the Vajpayee regime and its campaign manager, Pramod Mahajan, to embark on the “India Shining” campaign for the 2004 Lok Sabha elections.

Policy thrusts

During the preparations for the election, some Sangh Parivar organisations such as the Swadeshi Jagran Manch, the Sanskar Bharati, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and the Bajrang Dal, and so on, raised objections to his initiatives such as the establishment of the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority Bill, the ban on the sale of non-iodised common salt and the decision to allow 100 per cent foreign investment in the cigarette manufacturing industry.

However, they withdrew their objections at crucial junctures and let the government have a free rein.

In the final analysis, it was the cumulative impact of the economic hardships that these policy thrusts imposed on the common people that led to the “surprise” defeat of the Vajpayee-led NDA in the 2004 election. Vajpayee was not able to continue in active politics for long after his ouster from power.

By the next general election he had been replaced by Advani as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. There were efforts at that time to adorn Advani too with moderate colours and make him acceptable. But that often did not make much headway among the electorate or with smaller parties, unlike in the case of Vajpayee.

There is little doubt that on this count Vajpayee would be rated as a superior leader—one who managed to win the confidence of smaller, regional parties and their support base despite the divisive agenda of the Sangh Parivar.

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