The significance of Atal Bihari Vajpayee

The most disheartening feature of the obituaries of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that have flooded the media since his death, is their lack of political perspective

The significance of Atal Bihari Vajpayee
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Prem Shankar Jha

The most disheartening feature of the obituaries of Atal Bihari Vajpayee that have flooded the media since his death, is their lack of political perspective. While those who idealised his six –year rule have dubbed him ‘the right man in the wrong party’ others have highlighted his failure to speak up or act at critical moments to portray him as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. What both miss is that it was not Vajpayee who changed during the 65 years between his joining the RSS in 1939 and his resignation from prime ministership in 2004, but the world around him.

It must be remembered that Vajpayee joined the RSS a year before the Muslim League committed the party to the creation of a separate Muslim state at Lahore. At that point the RSS was still headed by Hedgewar, who was a Hindu nationalist, but not virulently anti-Muslim. In his youth Hedgewar had belonged to the Anushilan Samiti, a revolutionary group that counted Shri Aurobindo and Bankim Chandra Chatterjee among its members. Hedgewar founded the Hindu Mahasabha, which became the parliamentary wing of Hindu nationalism. The extent to which it was part of the nationalist mainstream is reflected by the fact that Pandit Nehru asked its leader Dr. Shyama Prasad Mukerjee to join his cabinet, and Mukherjee accepted.

All that changed, of course, with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. But by then Vajpayee had been a member of the organisation for eight years. He stayed within the fold because, as he wrote many years later, what had attracted him to the RSS was the absence of caste stratification within it. He described how, when his brother joined the Sangh he had refused to share food from the common Kitchen. It had taken the Sangh only 44 hours to make him change his mind.

It must be remembered that Vajpayee joined the RSS a year before the Muslim League committed the party to the creation of a separate Muslim state at Lahore. At that point the RSS was still headed by Hedgewar, who was a Hindu nationalist, but not virulently anti-Muslim

But there were other issues on which Vajpayee was unswervingly at odds with the RSS even then. These became more marked during the tenure as RSS chief, of MS Golwalkar. One, which Ramchandra Guha has so succinctly described, was the latter’s virulent hatred of Muslims. In the same essay, Vajpayee had this to say:“The RSS has a two-fold task before it. One is to organise the Hindus. To build a strong Hindu society, well-knit and rising above caste and other artificial differences. Some differences will persist…. like the differences of language. We don’t want to destroy this diversity. The other task is to assimilate the non Hindus, like Muslims and Christians in the mainstream. They can follow the faith of their own conviction. No one can object to it. We worship trees, animals, stones, and what not. We have hundreds of ways of worshipping God. They can go where they want. But this country must be looked upon as the Motherland for them”.

It was Islam, not Hinduism, Vajpayee went on, that had a problem coming to terms with religious pluralism, because of its Messianic origins. Getting Indian Muslims to do so, without coercion defined the limits of his “Hindutwa”.

This was the vision of India that Vajpa yeebrought into his politics and government. So why then did Vajpayee not speak up vehemently at moments of crisis like the destruction of the Babri Masjid. Why did he not dismiss Modi after the slaughter of innocents in Ahmedabad? There is only one answer, and it is the oldest in politics: “Will I achieve more by resigning, or by staying in office and waiting for an opportunity to repair the damage ?

Every decision Vajpayee made reflected this inner struggle. It explains why he took the BJP into a merger with the Janata party in 1977, instead of simply lending support from the outside . It explains why he initially opposed the party’s withdrawal from it. It explains his distancing himself from Advani’sRathYatra; it explains his determination (shared by Advani) to broaden the base of the BJP by opening its doors to scholars, journalists, retired administrators and army officers who had had nothing to do with the RSS,. It explains hiswillingness tojettison core elements of the RSS’ agenda, such as the imposition of a uniform civil code, and the revocation of articles 370and 35(a) of the Constitution to abolish Kashmir’s specialstatus within India, and a tacit decision to put Ayodhya on the back burner where there was neither a mosque nor a temple but, by implication, every one was free to worship whomsoever they wished.

Vajpayee’s true nature surfaced when he became the prime minister in 1998. He began by not including a single member of the VHP in his cabinet. The VHP took its revenge by raping Christian nuns , burning churches, and killing missionaries in the Dang region of Gujarat, and thrusting him b=right back into the dilemma that he thought he had escaped

Vajpayee’s true nature surfaced when he became the prime minister in 1998. He began by not including a single member of the VHP in his cabinet. The VHP took its revenge by raping Christian nuns, burning churches, and killing missionaries in the Dang region of Gujarat, and thrusting him right back into the dilemma that he thought he had escaped. Vajpayee responded by repeatedly demanding that the BJP state government control the situation. When it did (not could) not, he went on a Maun Vrat and threatened to go on a fast. This galvanised the Keshubhai Patel government in Gujarat, and the attacks on Christians stopped.

Four months later unrest in his coalition partners over the VHP’s excesses, gave him the opportunity he had ben looking for to muzzle the zealots in the SanghParivar. He promised to do this if they stopped criticizing the BJP in their public utterances, and created a coordination committee with Defence minister George Fernandes as its convener to oversee the pact. When the Ahmedabad riots broke out in 2002 and Modi refused to take Vajpayee’s frantic phone calls through the morning of February 28, it was George Fernandes whom he sent to Ahmedabad late that afternoon to call out the army.

Vajpayee’s finest hour was the way he accepted the NDA’s defeat in the vote of confidence in 1999, without challenging the legitimacy of Giridhar Gamang, who had already taken over as chief minister of Odisha but came back to cast his vote. This was not only his, but Indian democracy’s finest hour.

Such a long career in politics cannot be without its blemishes and Vajpayee is no exception.The lasting blot on his record is his ringing endorsement of Modi at the Goa meeting of the BJP’s national executive in April 2002 only two months after the Gujarat riots.

It is now common knowledge that hehad intended to sack Modi at the meeting but was pre-empted by younger party members, including ArunJaitley, who brought Modi to Goa and presented him as the hero of Gujarat. Why did he not assert his power and explain to the audience how Modi had encouraged, if not engineered , the slaughter of innocents? Worse still, why did he go on thediasand put the blame for the riots in Ahmedabad on a still to be proven Muslim conspiracy in Godhra?

History has penalised his lack of courage, but in the process it has penalised India as well. As Ram Vilas Paswan and Chandrababu Naidu said while leaving the NDA, Ahmedabad cost the NDA the 2004 elections. That defeat destroyed the secularising impulse within the Sangh Parivar that Vajpayee highlighted in his four New Year musings, handed the BJP back to the RSS which had never left the 18th century, and gave us Narendra Modi.

Today, the opposition does not have to take on the Modi government’s performance point by point to prove its ineffectiveness and contempt for the canons of democracy. All it has to do is to hold up the mirror of the Vajpayee government’s achievements to Modi’s face, and let the public see the image it reflects.

The author is a senior journalist. The views expressed are his own

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