The un­told saga of how Va­j­payee brought about the most pro­found cre­ative dis­rup­tion in In­dian politics, and how his legacy lives on

Governance Now - - CONTENTS - Ajay Singh

The un­told saga of how Va­j­payee brought about the most pro­found cre­ative dis­rup­tion in In­dian politics, and how his legacy lives on

defin­ing mo­ments of his­tory of­ten leave images that linger on in col­lec­tive mem­ory for gen­er­a­tions. among them, one cat­e­gory is the im­age of a leader walk­ing in the street with a sense of sheer tri­umphal­ism. The peo­ple of Paris erupted with joy and gave vent to their sup­pressed emo­tions when charles de gaulle walked on the street to re­claim France’s freedom to­wards the end of World War ii in 1944. But there is hardly any prece­dent of a head of the state walk­ing be­hind the hearse – for over four miles, in sul­try, hot weather – to pay re­spects to his men­tor and pre­de­ces­sor. naren­dra modi lead­ing the fu­neral pro­ces­sion of for­mer prime min­is­ter atal Bi­hari Va­j­payee is bound to go down in his­tory as an ex­traor­di­nary event for a dif­fer­ent rea­son. in­stead of tri­umphal­ism, this walk was a pro­found ex­pres­sion of sor­row, tinged with a sense of ir­repara­ble loss. it was a spur-of-the-mo­ment de­ci­sion. Just when the hearse was about to leave the BJP head­quar­ters on the af­ter­noon of au­gust 17, modi asked of­fi­cers of the spe­cial pro­tec­tion group (SPG) about ar­range­ments. “Sir, the car­cade is ready,” an SPG of­fi­cial replied. “let it come. i will walk be­hind the hearse,” was his spon­ta­neous re­sponse, stun­ning the se­cu­rity of­fi­cers into si­lence. There was fran­tic ac­tiv­ity to throw a pro­tec­tion ring around the prime min­is­ter. Some ministers fol­lowed him and those who couldn’t, boarded their of­fi­cial ve­hi­cles to reach the fu­neral venue. modi did not in­sist on any­one fol­low­ing him – a fact that un­der­lines it was his own per­sonal ges­ture to­wards the de­parted leader. and as the fu­neral pyre was lit, it re­minded us of the tran­sience of hu­man life, but then Va­j­payee’s

mem­o­ries came flood­ing in to re­in­force the be­lief in an in­di­vid­ual’s abil­ity to bend the arc of his­tory. What he achieved in his life­span was noth­ing short of catalysing a pro­found cre­ative dis­rup­tion in in­dia’s politics as well as so­ci­ety.

Those who re­mem­ber him for his large heart­ed­ness, states­man­ship, ge­nial ways and wit are miss­ing the wood for the trees. He in­deed had those ad­mirable qual­i­ties. But those are only some of the many facets of his per­son­al­ity. What is more im­por­tant is that his story is coter­mi­nous with the jour­ney of a po­lit­i­cal force which had be­gun ten­ta­tively but, to­wards the end of his life, es­tab­lished it­self as the prin­ci­pal po­lit­i­cal force of the na­tion. This jour­ney would have taken a dif­fer­ent turn if there was no Va­j­payee.

How did this hap­pen? let me re­count cer­tain events to em­pha­sise the crit­i­cal­ity of Va­j­payee in shap­ing a politics that saw the ad­vent of the BJP as the main party, edg­ing out the congress. There were try­ing times when one fal­ter­ing step from Va­j­payee would have been fa­tal. But his ge­nius was ex­cep­tional. He knew how to win peo­ple es­tranged by cir­cum­stances.

if you have any doubt, savour this story: it was just an­other win­ter morn­ing in 2001 when home min­is­ter lk ad­vani was pre­par­ing to leave his Pan­dara Park res­i­dence for north Block and about to board his of­fi­cial car when his wife, Kamla ad­vani, came and said, “atal-ji has just called.” ad­vani thought the call was meant for him. But she cor­rected him, “Va­j­payee-ji has called me to say that he will come to our home for lunch to­mor­row.” as was his wont, ad­vani looked at her pen­sively and left for the of­fice.

in those days, the me­dia was rife with spec­u­la­tion about dif­fer­ences be­tween the two top lead­ers over the han­dling of the Jammu and Kash­mir is­sue and vest­ing Bra­jesh mishra with the twin pow­er­ful posts of prin­ci­pal sec­re­tary to Pm and na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor (nsa). ru­mours were rife that the two stal­warts were rarely talk­ing to each other.

in the past, Va­j­payee visit­ing the ad­vani house­hold had hardly been news. He was ex­tremely fond of food cooked by mrs ad­vani. But this time the mes­sage was dif­fer­ent. The ten­sion be­tween the of­fices of the prime min­is­ter and the home min­is­ter was quite pal­pa­ble in the cor­ri­dors of power. and that had been tak­ing a toll on gov­er­nance. no doubt, the story of dif­fer­ences be­tween Va­j­payee and ad­vani was also fu­elled by a sec­tion of vested in­ter­ests that was quite ac­tive to take ad­van­tage of the pos­si­ble rift.

Va­j­payee de­fused the tense sit­u­a­tion by mak­ing a phone call not to ad­vani but his wife and invit­ing him­self for lunch. This was clearly Va­j­payee’s way of re-em­pha­sis­ing the unique bond he shared not only with ad­vani but also with his fam­ily. The ca­ma­raderie of over five decades was strong enough not to let tri­fles af­fect their re­la­tions. The lunch lasted for over three hours in which ev­ery­thing was washed down with a good amount of Sindhi del­i­ca­cies. The un­der­ly­ing mes­sage was that Va­j­payee would never let his ego or pres­tige come in the way of the larger good of so­ci­ety.

Va­j­payee’s ges­ture got huge me­dia at­ten­tion then as he was head­ing the gov­ern­ment and ad­vani was the pow­er­ful num­ber 2. But there are umpteen in­stances of Va­j­payee sac­ri­fic­ing his per­sonal am­bi­tions for his party.

right since 1957 when he en­tered par­lia­ment for the first time as a Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) mem­ber, he en­deared him­self to stal­warts of those times by his sheer elo­quence and tenac­ity. Un­like some English-speak­ing po­lit­i­cal elites of those times, Va­j­payee was a gifted or­a­tor in Hindi. His dhoti-wear­ing de­meanour, giv­ing a clear im­pres­sion of his be­ing rooted to the ground, was a per­fect counter to the elites who used to speak in clipped English ac­cents on ac­count of their for­eign ed­u­ca­tion and the hang­over of the Bri­tish raj.

and it will not be an ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that Va­j­payee, in his men­tor deen­dayal Upad­hyaya’s es­ti­ma­tion, emerged more like an­other nehru, en­dowed with unique charm and charisma but deeply rooted in in­dian cul­ture. in a fledg­ling party like the BJS, he had the po­ten­tial of emerg­ing as a foil to the legacy of the congress, com­pletely de­void of an­glo-saxon cul­tural con­text. Though at its nascent stage the BJS was helmed by an ex­tremely ar­tic­u­late and an­gli­cised Syama Prasad mook­er­jee, RSS ap­pa­ratchiks who grad­u­ally con­trolled the or­gan­i­sa­tion through their full­time work­ers were al­ways scep­ti­cal of any an­glophile lead­er­ship in­her­ited from pre-in­de­pen­dent in­dia.

in a de­tailed and com­pre­hen­sive study of “the ori­gins and devel­op­ment of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh”, ti­tled ‘Hindu na­tion­al­ism and in­dian politics’ (1990), po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist Bruce gra­ham di­ag­nosed the tra­di­tion­al­ists within the party as il­lat-ease with the English-speak­ing lead­ers. “it was as though Upad­hyaya and his group had placed their trust in a new gen­er­a­tion of pub­lic men and

women who had not known the Bri­tish raj ex­cept as chil­dren and stu­dents and who would there­fore draw more read­ily from the in­spi­ra­tion of Hindu cul­ture and Hindu tra­di­tions. Put sim­ply, the Jana Sangh had post­poned its chal­lenge to the congress party un­til such time as the younger lead­er­ship rep­re­sented by Upad­hyaya, Va­j­payee and [Bal­raj] mad­hok had time to con­sol­i­date its po­si­tion and to de­fine its in­tel­lec­tual ob­jec­tives with con­fi­dence.”

Upad­hyaya died in 1968 un­der mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances, much be­fore he could fully ar­tic­u­late the party’s in­tel­lec­tual ob­jec­tives, though he de­fined the BJS’S ide­o­log­i­cal con­tours by align­ing with icon­o­clast so­cial­ist ram manohar lo­hia and pro­pound­ing a guid­ing phi­los­o­phy of ‘in­te­gral hu­man­ism’ that mod­er­ated the im­age of a party steeped in Hindu or­tho­doxy bor­der­ing on com­mu­nal­ism. Bal­raj mad­hok, an­other promis­ing leader, found the BJS’S veer­ing to­wards the is­sues of so­cial jus­tice and egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, like sup­port to the abo­li­tion of za­min­dari, as an in­ex­orable de­vi­a­tion from the party’s orig­i­nal ide­o­log­i­cal po­si­tion. Within three years of Upad­hyaya’s death, he drifted apart from the BJS and was sacked. Va­j­payee ne­go­ti­ated po­lit­i­cal and ide­o­log­i­cal land­mines quite saga­ciously and even­tu­ally emerged as ‘the right man in the right place’. He did not be­lieve in po­lit­i­cal un­touch­a­bil­ity and be­friended po­lit­i­cal no­ta­bles across the ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum.

Va­j­payee had a unique flex­i­bil­ity that con­formed to the in­dian ge­nius, es­pe­cially his predilec­tion for the mad­hyam marg (the mid­dle path). He was blamed for let­ting the mobs run riot out­side par­lia­ment af­ter a rally or­gan­ised by a group of Hindu saints on the is­sue of cow pro­tec­tion in 1966, yet he per­suaded his party to be­come a part of the grand coali­tion against the congress. Though ex­tremely deft at deal­ing with con­tra­dic­tions, he grad­u­ally took the BJS to­wards a path that was con­cil­ia­tory and con­form­ist in or­der to ex­pand its base. in the 1970s he be­gan a long and ar­du­ous jour­ney in which he found com­pany in ad­vani.

A unique part­ner­ship

in in­dian po­lit­i­cal life, this friend­ship is sin­gu­larly un­par­al­leled. The duo cre­ated a rare ju­gal­bandi, com­ple­ment­ing per­fectly each other’s strengths and weak­nesses depend­ing on the cir­cum­stances – with­out let­ting per­sonal am­bi­tions come in the way as usu­ally hap­pens in such re­la­tion­ships.

ad­vani of­ten re­counts this story with hu­mor­ous panache while de­scrib­ing the growth of the BJS and its suc­ces­sor, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP): af­ter helm­ing the BJS for four years since 1968, Va­j­payee was keen to pass the ba­ton on to a wor­thy col­league to take the party for­ward.

The ques­tion was who should suc­ceed Va­j­payee. Va­j­payee and ad­vani with other se­nior col­leagues ini­tially iden­ti­fied the party’s vice pres­i­dent Bhai ma­havir as the suc­ces­sor. in fact, at Va­j­payee’s in­sis­tence, Bhai ma­havir presided over the Bha­galpur na­tional ex­ec­u­tive of the party which was to take up crit­i­cal and free anal­y­sis as the BJS had fared badly in the 1971 gen­eral elec­tion af­ter the in­dia-pakistan war. So Bhai ma­havir was con­sid­ered the nat­u­ral choice.

Though Bhai ma­havir ini­tially agreed to take up the as­sign­ment, he de­vel­oped cold feet af­ter con­sult­ing his wife and fam­ily mem­bers. Then Va­j­payee and ad­vani re­quested Vi­jaya raje Scin­dia, known as the ra­j­mata (the queen mother) of gwalior, who had de­fied the pro-indira gandhi wave and won a lok Sabha seat from mad­hya Pradesh, to be­come the pres­i­dent. need­less to say, she also de­clined the of­fer. So, with the 1973 BJS na­tional ex­ec­u­tive in Kan­pur, ad­vani be­gan his in­nings as the party pres­i­dent – but not with­out con­tro­versy. He sacked mad­hok who had been tak­ing pot­shots at Va­j­payee and his politics for some years.

Thus be­gan the ce­ment­ing of a ca­ma­raderie that lasted for decades.

Just as in 1973, when Va­j­payee was suc­ceeded by ad­vani, Va­j­payee once again re­lin­quished his pres­i­dentship (now of the BJP) in favour of ad­vani in 1986. The con­text was eerily sim­i­lar. af­ter indira gandhi’s as­sas­si­na­tion, ra­jiv gandhi rode on the sym­pa­thy wave and dec­i­mated the whole op­po­si­tion in the 1984 lok Sabha elec­tions. The BJP, a new party formed af­ter the BJS parted ways with

Ashish Asthana

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