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Millennium Post

Vajpayee: The secularist with nationalist fervour

Atal Bihari Vajpayee displayed a surprising dichotomy of espousing rightist ideals while proposing unblemished equality among all communities – this enigmatic combination doubled by his remarkable oratory and kindheartedness have immortalised his virtues in the history of Indian politics.

A parliamentarian for five decades, a former Prime Minister and a recipient of the highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna – Atal Bihari Vajpayee passed away on August 16, at the age of 93, leaving behind a rich legacy of distinctions in public life. As a politician, he was suave and sophisticated – unlike other politicians, he never showed undue haste or opportunism in grabbing power. His first tenure as the Prime Minister of India lasted for only 13 days and his second, barely 13 months before he ruled the country for a full term of five years from 1999 to 2004. And, when he lost the elections in 2004, he took retirement from politics, announcing that he would not contest the next elections. Vajpayee's popularity transcended much beyond his party and he was often described by the opposition leaders as the right man in the wrong party – a party he had founded in 1980 to become its first president. When his successor Lal Krishna Advani became the BJP President in 1986, the party adopted a hardline approach and became the political voice of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement with an eye on polarising majority Hindu votes. Though the BJP's electoral success went as per the script, Vajpayee was not happy with the party trying to divide people into communal lines. He is said to have expressed grief over the demolition of the Babri mosque in December 1992. Though Vajpayee spent all his political life espousing the ideologies of Hindutva, RSS and Bharatiya Jan Sangh – he was never on the same page with hardliners like Advani or even Narendra Modi, who as the Chief Minister of Gujarat was reminded of his Raj Dharma by Prime Minister Vajpayee in the aftermath of the 2002 Godhra violence. This dichotomy, where he presided over a party that openly aligned with Hindu nationalist ideology while garnering a soft corner for people of other faiths, makes the enigma of Vajpayee somewhat intriguing.

Vajpayee was quintessentially an RSS pracharak, handpicked by the likes of Deen Dayal Upadhyay and Syama Prasad Mookerjee early on to lead the Sangh Parivar's foray into politics. When Vajpayee first became a Lok Sabha MP in 1957, Advani was appointed as his secretary by RSS leaders. While Vajpayee was recognised for his oratory, Advani was seen as a man with tremendous organisational skill. In 1968, Vajpayee became the president of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh and, thereafter, the top post in the BJP. Subsequently, the BJP remained with either of these two leaders.

Vajpayee's first tryst with power came in 1977 when he became the foreign minister in the Morarji Desai cabinet of the Janata Party government. Beside his famous speech at the UN in Hindi, Vajpayee had taken initiatives to improve relations with China and Pakistan. Unlike his colleagues known for their hardline approach, Vajpayee enjoyed an image of being liberal and pragmatic. His approach to resolving conflict did not recognise narrow partisan goals. Rather, he was known for using sagacity and big-heartedness to win over his adversaries. His famous bus trip to Lahore in 1999 to meet then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stands as an initiative that promised to end all belligerence and misgivings in bilateral ties. It was a remarkable high point in the diplomatic history of the two countries. Soon after that visit, India had to deal with intrusions by militants and the Pakistani Army regularly in Kargil – revealing Vajpayee's naivety in envisioning a lasting friendship between India and Pakistan. His sagacity and big-hearted approach were met with deceit and chicanery.

Vajpayee had an MA in Political Science and had worked with some newspapers before he took up politics full time. As most RSS pracharaks remain bachelors, Vajpayee too stuck to bachelorhood all through his life. However, he lived with his adopted family of Brij Mohan Kaul, who taught philosophy at Delhi University and Rajkumari Kaul. Initially, Vajpayee was a little suspicious about the West and western culture – but it was Rajkumari Kaul who would brief Vajpayee on these issues, helping him weed out unfounded perceptions. Among the major influences on Vajpayee, Rajkumari Kaul figures prominently, as she would interact with him on major issues and provide him with academic inputs. They lived together for more than 50 years in the same house. Some media reports suggest that Vajpayee and Rajkumari Kaul were in love during their college days but could not marry because Rajkumari's family did not approve of their relationship. However, Vajpayee's personal life was never discussed in public and even his opponents never broached the subject. Unlike other pracharaks, Vajpayee did not believe in living a frugal life. Rather, he enjoyed drinking whiskey and eating non-vegetarian dishes.

The legacy that Vajpayee has left behind is rich in magnanimity. The political party that Vajpayee along with his erstwhile Bharatiya Jana Sangh colleagues formed in 1980 is in power at the Centre with an absolute majority. The party that ruled the country when Vajpayee was an opposition leader, the Congress, is in tatters today. The BJP is in power in six of the seven northeastern states, a region that evoked extreme concerns among RSS workers for the large-scale conversion to Christianity reported from there. The party has its government in the largest state, Uttar Pradesh. As of August 2018, the party has a majority in 13 state assemblies. Though the BJP government has so far avoided taking up their favourite agenda, the change that they want to bring about in the country is already evident. Current BJP Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, has been on a globetrotting mission to motivate the Indian diaspora and sensitise foreign governments about India's arrival on the world stage. India does not fear Pakistan or China and has successfully tamed both with examples of unblemished democratic tradition and sustained economic growth.

The BJP's robust performance under its new leadership today has a lot to thank Vajpayee for, who used his personal appeal and vision to lend strength to his party at a time when it mattered the most. The idea of the coalition government in the absence of a full majority was experimented by Vajpayee during the 1977 Janata Party government and subsequently in 1996, 1998 and 1999 under NDA with varying degrees of success. He was one of those leaders who had realised that the time for single-party rule had ended and the big parties must carry along smaller and regional parties with them if they are serious about their role in national politics.

After quitting politics in 2005, Vajpayee lived the rest of his life with his adopted family, restricting his social presence. Known for his poems that challenged the human spirit to overcome obstacles on the way, Vajpayee was an optimist who achieved the pinnacle of glory in his lifetime. His moderate voice and political wisdom will guide and inspire not only his party but the entire nation.

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