Now that obituaries and eulogies to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee are over and he has once again been relegated to propping cobwebs, it would be good to sift through the paeans to glean something beyond the man. He was called a ‘consensus builder’, ‘right man in the wrong party’, ‘poet among bigots’, ‘mukhota’ – the soft mask for the hard-line Hindu right. Some suggested his ‘liberal’ views came from having a family and also via discussions with close friends from the other side of the ideological divide.
Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayees Rise
One cannot miss how his shifting moral and ideological positions traces his trajectory from a common person to the Prime Minister of India. His early ideas for the Jan Sangh were dyed in secularism. Vajpayee even paid tribute to Nehru, comparing him to Lord Ram and later came out against the Sadhu’s attacking the Parliament going against his RSS and Jan Sangh compatriots.
Did young Vajpayee’s dream slowly wither under the diktats of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) reality? Did his brush with power in 1977 saffronise him further? Or did the Congress victory during his tenure as Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) president, which rode home on a wave of national emotion, convince him to follow L.K Advani in whipping up a baser sentiment?
We may never be able to pinpoint the reason for Vajpayee’s deeper saffronisation and his actions. He pumped-up kar-sevaks on the eve of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The tremors of which will be felt for many generations to come. For all the moralising about international double standards on nuclear weapon ownership, in hindsight, his decision to conduct nuclear tests had nothing to do with national security or protecting national interests. It was one of the first attempts to inject vacuous nationalistic pride and garner India international respect.
Was he forced to keep up with the times and did he do so against his will? His 12 April 2002 speech, in Goa during the BJP national executive meeting, where he said ‘Wherever Muslims are, they don’t want to live in peace. They don’t want to mix with others. They use terror as a weapon” was a blatant attempt to out-saffron the new party hero, the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi who Vajpayee had, a few days earlier, wanted to sack for the Gujarat horror.
Rise and Reactions
However, the last few decades are littered with the consequences of his actions. It would appear that Vajpayee laid the foundations of India under the BJP.
The empty grandiose actions and statements of Modi and his government are a homage to Vajpayee’s May 1998 indecision. Isn’t Modi and his government’s recalcitrance and shifty efforts to bring marauding gau-rakshaks to book reminiscent of Vajpaypee’s dithering during and after the Gujarat massacre of 2002? That, current sitting Chief Ministers and Ministers have been able to spew hate and glorify lynchers is not surprising given these are but a step up from Vajpayee’s pre-Babri Masjid demolition and Goa speeches and his inability to punish Narendra Modi for what happened in Gujarat.
Modi has only taken to the next level what the first BJP Prime Minister started. Vajpayee’s essay on the secular direction that Jan Sangh should take mirrors Modi’s kneeling at the Central Hall of the Parliament.
Vajpayee erred, if at all, in not recognising the monster he was nourishing and training over the years, even though he pandered to its demands. And when he did realise his folly he did not stand up to it, instead stooped lower to conquer. Modi has it far easier, he does not have to feed the beast nor does he need to apologise for it. His silence when it runs amok only encourages it. Citizens have unwittingly played into the hands of the animal’s keepers by criticising the Prime Minister’s unperturbed silence. Modi knows that words are insufficient to put down this rabid creature. It needs the courage of Raj Dharma which Vajpayee suggested of Modi post the Gujarat pogrom and which he himself did not adhere to then and later during the BJP convention in Goa.
The Rajiv Gandhi Effect
It is not enough to blame Vajpayee for the impunity that the right wing frolic in today. The late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi said, ‘When a mighty tree falls, it is only natural that the earth around it does shake a little’ as an explanation to the Sikh pogrom carried out by some members of the Congress I and the RSS after the assassination of the then Prime Minister, and his mother, Indira Gandhi. His statement, no different from the doting parent’s explanation for their child’s obnoxious behaviour.
Did Vajpayee take a leaf from Rajiv Gandhi’s book? That both these leaders were unwilling and unable to take responsibility for these heinous crimes points to a particular pathology. Could the over 3000 murders of Sikhs not only be in retaliation to the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi and the growing Sikh demand for greater autonomy but also a tribute by the followers to Indira Gandhi? If this were the case then Rajiv Gandhi, as a neophyte leader, would not want to be seen displeased with such actions. Instead, he would want to show an understanding for their depravity, therefore his quote.
Vajpayee faced a similar conundrum in 2002. The demolition of the Babri Masjid by the Kar Sevaks on sixth December 1992 was to get back at the Muslims for an event that had occurred in 1528. Vajpayee had fueled the kar sevaks on the eve of the demolition.This had led to riots across the country which killed thousands.
The ongoing Hindutva agenda to right perceived historical wrongs led to two opinions as to the cause of the deaths of 59 kar sevaks on 22 February 2002 on the Sabarmati Express at Godhra railway station. This culminated in the pogrom of Muslims over a three month period in Gujarat to avenge what many believed was murder of the 59 perpetrated by setting 4 bogies of a train on fire by Muslims.
Vajpayee had been instrumental in building the foundations of bellicose Hindu revival. By distancing himself from those bred on his words and from taking responsibility or seeking the removal of Modi, Vajpayee would have proved the shallowness of the Hindutva philosophy and confessed his and his foot soldiers culpability in rending the fabric of India. Instead, he aped Pontious Pilot, washing his hands of the case, suggesting Narendra Modi could follow something intangible termed ‘Raj Dharma’.
In doing so, Vajpayee gave Modi a chance to stand his ground and even raise himself in the eyes of the Hindu seeking redressal for historical grievance. It led to the belief that such incidents are par-for-the-course for Hindu revival and therefore worthwhile and unpunishable.
Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, though from opposing ideologies, unwittingly came together to create a more potent version of themselves – Narendra Modi. Modi in his turn created MiniMe’s across the country who now run riot. It may seem cravenly farcical but the truth is Narendra Modi is a true product of a secular democracy and the country reaps the dividend of this unusual union.