Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The moderate ‘mask’ of BJP and RSS

While he will be appreciated for the Pokhran nuclear test, his memorable bus trip to Lahore and Agra summit, Vajpayee will also be remembered for the contradictions that marked his life and politics

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter
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NH Web Desk

Widely hailed as the ‘moderate face’ of the Jan Sangh and later the Bharatiya Janata Party, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee was described as the ‘mask’ by erstwhile colleague Govindacharya. He was also a towering leader and a democrat in the Nehruvian mould. Indeed, Mani Shankar Aiyar, the diplomat-turned-Congressman, had called him the best Congressman the party never had.

Before joining politics, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a journalist. He worked for newspapers like Rashtra Dharma of RSS ideologue Deendayal Upadhyay, Panchjanya (the RSS mouthpiece in Hindi) and dailies - Veer Arjun and Swadesh.

Four years after becoming an RSS pracharak (full-time worker), Vajpayee got associated with the Bharatiya Jan Sangh (precursor to the BJP) in 1951. He was the political secretary to Syama Prasad Mookerjee, the BJS founder-president, when the latter launched campaign against the government's permit order for entering Jammu and Kashmir.

Elected to the Lok Sabha in the second general election, Vajpayee had quickly drawn attention to himself with his incisive questions, interventions and speeches. So impressed was the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru that while introducing Vajpayee to a foreign dignitary, he had said, "This young man one day will become the country's prime minister." Nehru's prediction came true almost 40 years later in 1990s.

Both Vajpayee and Advani, however, had shared a friendship that began when they were young activists. People close to the two leaders recall that Vajpayee would call Kamla Advani directly and invite himself for lunch. These calls generally coincided with the times when the relationship between the two leaders had hit a rough patch or some things needed to be ironed out

In 1977 when Vajpayee was taking charge as the external affairs minister in the Janata Party Government headed by Morarji Desai, bureaucrats had tried to remove signs of Congress as the Janata Party had won on a huge anti-Congress wave. On entering his office, Vajpayee was quick to notice a blank spot on the wall.

Historian Ramchandra Guha quoted Vajpayee as telling his secretary, "This is where Panditji's portrait used to be. I remember it from my earlier visits to the room. Where has it gone? I want it back."

Indeed, he was the only BJP leader of eminence to stay well out of Ayodhya on December 6, 1992 when the Babri Masjid was brought down. He was one of the few BJP leaders who refused to describe Babri Masjid as a disputed site and not a place of worship.

He was also much more of a socialist. It was at his instance that the economic philosophy of the Bharatiya Janata Party was initially described as "Gandhian Socialism", a phrase the party has since abandoned.

Steeped in democratic traditions, old-timers remember Vajpayee voicing his anguish at the decline of Parliamentary decorum and practices. At an event to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the inauguration of the Lok Sabha (2002), he bemoaned that while, “in the past, MPs would walk out when they wanted to show their opposition, now the Opposition was walking in the opposite direction - right into the Well of the House.”

A recent biography claimed that he had feared a coup by a section of the BJP that wanted to have him replaced by his deputy Lal Krishna Advani. The “coup of sorts” was in the works a few months after Advani took over as the Deputy Prime Minister in June 2002, claimed the book, “The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox” by Ullekh NP.

Citing an unnamed minister whom Vajpayee summoned to his residence, the author says: “The Union minister asked Vajpayee not to worry too much about it. “The PM replied that he was merely stating that he knew of a plan to unseat him and replace him with Advani. He didn’t know who was behind it, but he was convinced of the plan. He had earlier been asked by an RSS honcho to become India’s President, and leave the PM’s role to Advani,” the book claimed.

The biography also claimed that Vajpayee had offered a “compromise formula” during the 1975-77 emergency by asking activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) — the RSS student wing — to own up to destruction of public property.

“Vajpayee spoke about the arson and destruction of public property in many parts of the country by miscreants and told Rai (Ram Bahadur Rai, then ABVP General Secretary) that it was time for the ABVP to own up to its mistakes and tender an apology before the government could start thinking of repealing the Emergency laws,” the biography mentioned.

Both Vajpayee and Advani, however, had shared a friendship that began when they were young activists. People close to the two leaders recall that Vajpayee would call Kamla Advani directly and invite himself for lunch. These calls generally coincided with the times when the relationship between the two leaders had hit a rough patch or some things needed to be ironed out.

Advani had revealed to the news agency IANS that during their younger days, the two would often go to eat ‘gol-gappas’ on the streets, with Advani driving the scooter and Vajpayee riding pillion. Advani is quoted as saying, "And I remember those days, Rivoli and Regal (cinema halls), in the middle was a golgappawala. We would go there and have chaat. Those days, I would drive the scooter and he (Vajpayee) would ride pillion. I was not particular about chaat. But he (Vajpayee) would sit beside the chaatwala and eat, also golgappas."

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