Vajpayee revelled in being everything to everybody

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first person to become prime minister of India without ever having been a member of the Congress party, has been in the political limelight for most of the past four decades.

Though he was a founder member of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh when it was formed in 1951, and a protege of the first president of the Jana Sangh, Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, he was first noticed on the national stage when he got elected to the Lok Sabha in 1957 from Balrampur, having failed in his earlier attempt to enter Parliament from Lucknow in a by-election in the mid-1950s.

In 1957, he was just one of four successful Jan Sangh candidates all over the country, though Vajpayee too lost from two other constituencies, forfeiting his security deposit in one of them. In all, Vajpayee has been elected to the Lok Sabha on nine occasions and lost elections twice.

His losses came in 1962 from Balrampur in Uttar Pradesh and from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh in 1984, when he was defeated by Madhavrao Scindia, in an election that saw just two Bharatiya Janata Party members being elected MPs.

Vajpayee is the only person to have been elected to the Lok Sabha from four different states -- Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Delhi.

India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, impressed with Vajpayee's parliamentary interventions had, as early as the 1960s, picked him out as one with a bright future in Indian politics and a man who could even one day become prime minister -- an insight that has proved truly prophetic.

Along the way to becoming India's 10th prime minister (and later the 13th and 14th as well), Vajpayee has had an impressive political career in his party, in public office, and above all in being able to steer (but not entirely, as we shall see) clear of controversy.

He was awarded the country's second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, and was the first recipient of the Best Parliamentarian Award in 1994. In the citation for the latter award, he was described as a 'multifaceted personality'; and as 'an eminent national leader, an erudite politician, selfless social worker, forceful orator, poet, litterateur and journalist.'

The extent to which this opinion is shared by people cutting across the political spectrum is best illustrated by two facts. For one, it was noticeable that when the Lok Sabha was debating the motion of confidence on his government in May 1999, speaker after speaker from the Opposition ranks castigated the government for its failures on all fronts, but made it a point to shower praise on Vajpayee the individual.

For another, many of the partners in the coalition led by Vajpayee, like Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress, pointedly observed that their support is to the leadership of Vajpayee, not to the BJP.

This non-partisan appreciation of his qualities, which few Indian political leaders have been able to command, has also been the reason for Vajpayee's participation in, and on one occasion leadership of, Indian delegations to international fora.

He was part of the Indian delegations to the United Nations General Assembly in 1988, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994 and 1996. He also led the Indian delegation to the UN Human Rights Commission meeting in Geneva in 1993 (when he was in the Opposition) and was widely acknowledged as having done a commendable job of forcefully presenting the Indian position on human rights.

As the external affairs minister in the Janata Party government of 1977, Vajpayee was credited with having taken a significant step towards normalisation of Sino-Indian relations by initiating a visit to the Chinese capital. During this period, he also created a minor flutter by insisting on addressing the UN General Assembly in Hindi, the first time anybody had done so.

Vajpayee has long been perceived as having views that are not always fully in tune with his party's, even if he has been content with merely expressing a divergent view rather than aggressively countering the party's stance.

Invariably, such differences have seen Vajpayee espousing a moderate line against the more hardline Hindu nationalist positions of his party colleagues. The most striking example of this divergence between Vajpayee's position and his party's came immediately after the Babri Masjid demolition.

Vajpayee described the incident as India's 'darkest hour,' while the rest of the party was busy celebrating privately and publicly refusing to condemn the incident. It is another matter that with the passage of time the two positions have converged into what is now the official party position -- the demolition was 'unfortunate,' but the inevitable outcome of playing with the people's religious sentiments.

The differences Vajpayee often expressed from the party's official position has contributed in great measure to large sections of people who do not agree with the BJP's ideology, and the media, describing him as 'the right man in the wrong party,' an image that has helped immensely in winning him support from outside the BJP's spheres of influence.

The same image, however, has also periodically resulted in those within his party and the larger Sangh Parivar viewing him with suspicion, or at least seeming to do so publicly. The former BJP general secretary K N Govindacharya, for instance, started quite a controversy when he allegedly contemptuously dismissed Vajpayee as little more than the party's public 'mask' and as a leader of no consequence in the party organisation.

There are many who argue that such apparent distinctions between Vajpayee's positions and those of other BJP leaders are no more than an elaborately played out charade scripted by the Sangh Parivar to appeal both to militant Hindus and more moderate elements.

A conspiracy theory of this sort would normally have found no takers, but for the Sangh Parivar's well-established penchant for speaking in different voices.

However, despite all his perceived or real differences with the BJP's official stance, Vajpayee was its most acceptable public face and no non-entity in the party organisation either. He led the Jana Sangh from 1968 to 1973 and into its merger with the Janata Party in 1977 and subsequently became the BJP's first president when the party was formed in 1980 with the Jana Sangh sections of the Janata Party breaking away.

He was also the undisputed choice of the party and its electoral partners for the post of prime minister after the 1996 elections.

Vajpayee himself has not only denied that he has any differences with the ideology and the philosophy of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, he has categorically stated the following in an article published in Panchajanya: 'The single reason for my long association with the RSS is that I like the sangh, I like its ideology and above all, I like that RSS attitude towards people, towards one another which is found only in the RSS.'

Having elaborated on his first links with the RSS, which was then dominated in Gwalior by Maharashtrians, Vajpayee described how his own brother was changed after he joined the RSS and persuaded to give up his 'elitist' habit of cooking his own food and not eating the same fare offered to others in a camp.

Vajpayee's attitude towards Muslims as revealed in this article does not seem very different from the dominant view in the RSS. '(The) Congress has not correctly understood the Muslim problem. They continue to carry on their policy of appeasement. But to what effect? The Muslims of this country can be treated in three ways. One is tiraskar which means if they will not themselves change, leave them alone, reject them as out-compatriots. (The) second is puraskar which is appeasement, that is, bribe them to behave, which is being done by the Congress and others of their ilk. The third way is parishkar, meaning to change them, that is, restore them to the mainstream by providing them samskaras (a Sanskrit word whose meaning is a complex amalgam of culture, tradition and etiquette). We want to change them by offering them the right samskaras...'

While Vajpayee is clearly not implying that violence or force be used against Muslims, it is revealing that he too sees the Muslim 'problem' as one of a community that has to be provided the 'right samskaras.'

On the Ayodhya issue, Vajpayee, in the same article, stated: 'We (Hindus) did pull down the structure in Ayodhya. In fact, it was a reaction to the Muslim vote bank. We wanted to solve this problem through negotiation and legislation. But there was no 'puraskar for burai (no reward for an evil act). We change burai also with parishkar.'

'Now I think the Hindu society has been regenerated which was the prime task of the RSS. Earlier, Hindus used to bend before an invasion but not now. This change in Hindu society is worthy of welcome. So much change must have come with the new-found self-assertion. This is a question of self-preservation. If the Hindu society does not expand itself, it will face the crisis of survival...'

Vajpayee is obviously a highly complex personality -- one who can write poetry expressing empathy with the victims of the nuclear holocaust at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and yet spearhead the government's decision to go ahead with the nuclear tests in May 1998.

It is said that as early as the 1950s, Vajpayee publicly said that one could live with half a piece of bread (adha-roti) but India must have its own atomic bomb to earn the respect the country deserves in the comity of nations.

An occasion on which Vajpayee created a bit of a flutter in political circles was when he described Indira Gandhi soon after the 1971 war with Pakistan as Durga, a reference to one of the most popular mother goddesses in the Hindu pantheon.

Just a few years later, during the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 1975, he was jailed as were most prominent Opposition leaders.

There is also a relatively trivial controversy surrounding Vajpayee's age. Official records say he was born on December 25, 1926. Vajpayee's own article, quoted earlier, bears this out. So too does the hagiography of Vajpayee written by Thakur and Sharma. However, his confessional statement of September 1, 1942 records his age as 20, by which logic he should have been born in 1922.

In recent years, his supporters have taken to celebrating his birthday, Christmas Day, with great fanfare. Special supplements were brought out in leading national dailies on his 75th birthday, both in 1997 and in 1998.

Interestingly, there were posters on Delhi's walls again in December 1999 announcing celebrations of the prime minister's 75th birthday, till newspapers reported that Vajpayee had decided not to celebrate his birthday as a gesture of solidarity with those being held hostage on a hijacked Indian Airlines aircraft at that time.

In the middle of 2000, Vajpayee's knees were operated on. Many felt that by then he had lost the metaphorical spring in his step. He seemed to be smiling less and his famous wit and oratory skills were less in evidence.

His critics claimed he had started resembling former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao who would often make a virtue out of inaction.

To many, Vajpayee remained more than a bit of an enigma. The same man who described himself as a swayamsevak to a gathering of non-resident Indians at Staten Island, New York, would in his 'Musings from Kumarakom' talk of the Ram Mandir problem as an issue of 'cultural nationalism,' even as he asserted that the verdict of the courts would be respected in the case of the Ayodhya temple.

Vajpayee revelled in trying to be everything to everybody. He would seek to placate the hawks in the RSS by stating that the writing of history should not be one-sided.

At the same time, he would project a moderate 'Nehruvian' image of himself as the archetypal liberal politician who would strive to attain a balance between conflicting viewpoints.

While the media would often highlight the differences between the two 'camps' in the BJP, one led by Vajpayee and the other by L K Advani, Vajpayee himself would periodically attempt to paper over such alleged differences by suddenly dropping in, unannounced, to Advani's home for lunch. Advani too would from time to time assert that Vajpayee was his senior and leader and that there was no man he admired more.

Nevertheless, the differences in their styles were apparent to all observers of the Indian political scene: Vajpayee's approach was indeed laidback and conciliatory. He loved his good food and his jokes.

Advani, on the other hand, was the man who was in charge of things, a 'modern-day Sardar Patel' who would not fight shy of controversy in stating his positions. His lifestyle, unlike that of Vajpayee, was spartan, almost puritanical. The two were a study in contrasts.

It is clear that Vajpayee has never quite adhered to the ascetic and austere image that many other leaders from the Sangh Parivar have sought to project. For instance, he makes no bones about the fact that he is a bachelor and not a brahmachari (celibate).

He told a group of children in a jocular vein that he hadn't married because no woman was willing to marry him. His love for poetry, music and cinema has only added to his image as a charming and multi-dimensional personality.

It was reported that Vajpayee was not in favour of the 14th general election being held roughly four months ahead of schedule in April-May 2004. He, however, had to go along with the rest of the BJP and the National Democratic Alliance. It will perhaps never be known whether his reluctance to bring forward the election schedule was on account of him anticipating a electoral setback for the coalition or whether he was of the view that his government 'India Shining' had not really worked.

He was graceful in accepting defeat and slipped quietly into the shoes of the 'elder statesman.'

Excerpted from Divided We Stand: India in a Time of Coalitions, Sage Publication, 2007, with the authors' permission.

Written with Shankar Raghuraman