One of the great tragedies of modern India is the relative absence of a sense of history. In television, this is often translated into a lack of footage. Consequently, when the life of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s venerable former Prime Minister died on August 16 after a prolonged illness, it was made out that the history of the man began in May 1996. More precisely, it began from the day the 13-day Government took the historic decision to televise proceedings of Parliament, not least to give Vajpayee an opportunity to showcase his victimisation to the nation.
That spirited defence of the BJP and its right to lead the nation in the face of a ‘secular’ gang-up was, arguably, the most watched parliamentary debate in India’s history. It transformed Vajpayee from a politician of Hindi-speaking India into a respected national figure and was an important factor in facilitating the formation of the National Democratic Alliance in 1998.
Yet, the elevation to the top political position between 1998 and 2004 was only a chapter in the history of Vajpayee. The celebration of this remarkable man isn’t complete without taking into account his entire political journey that began in 1951. That year this young journalist was assigned to Dr Shyama Prasad Mookerjee by the RSS to also assist the venerable Bengali politician with his Hindi. Subsequently, Vajpayee was elected to the Lok Sabha in 1957 from Uttar Pradesh and became the foremost public face of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, and subsequently, the Bharatiya Janata Party. It is a position that, since Vajpayee’s retirement after 2004, was only filled by Narendra Modi in 2014.
Vajpayee’s speech at the confidence vote in May 1996 and the no-confidence motion brought by Sonia Gandhi in August 2003 are both legendary. They have become even more so after their endless replay on the occasion of the great orator’s death. Unfortunately, forgotten — because of a lack of footage — are the other great speeches of Vajpayee: his parliamentary intervention after the horrible Ahmedabad riots of 1969, the intervention after the Bhiwandi riots of 1970, his address at the Ram Lila Ground rally of the combined Opposition in February 1977and his poetic flourish in Bombay in 1980 on the occasion of the formation of the BJP.
Some of these speeches don’t always fit the self-serving narrative of Vajpayee, the über liberal — the proverbial right man in the wrong party — and the inheritor of the Nehruvian legacy, but they establish the complexities of a man who, despite his occasional difference with the party and the wider parivar, was quintessentially bound by a fierce sense of corporate loyalty. Vajpayee was no jaded carbon copy of a liberal. He was India’s foremost Hindu nationalist since Independence, the man who took the party of saffron from the fringes to becoming the largest political party in India, eclipsing the once mighty Congress.
Yes, Vajpayee often had differences with the party mainstream. In 1984, after the BJP suffered the humiliation of winning just 2 seats in the Lok Sabha, Vajpayee’s entire strategy of forging an anti-Congress coalition and projecting the BJP as a more wholesome version of the Janata Party was discarded as the party strove to present its distinctiveness. Vajpayee was sceptical of this political turn and, during the run-up to the 1991 general election, was convinced that the party would suffer an erosion of numbers, compared to 1989. But this didn’t prevent him from campaigning energetically all over the country.
Vajpayee was again in a minority in 2002 when the issue of removing Modi as chief minister of Gujarat after the riots came up for deliberation at the National Executive Session in Goa. Vajpayee was then prime minister and overruling him was no trivial matter. Yet he accepted the decision without demur because once again he was bound by a sense of corporate loyalty to a movement whose karyakartas had made him the tall leader he now was. On its part, the BJP never got into a tizzy when Vajpayee had sharp words during internal debates. He was always listened to with respect and even deference because he had earned the right to speak his mind without having to look over his shoulder.
Vajpayee was a great democrat but his broad-mindedness would never have found adequate political expression had the BJP itself not imbibed a democratic tradition of respecting experience and seniority. Vajpayee only mirrored the enlightened sense of samskaras and parampara that accompanies Hindutva. He was never narrow-minded but he was also not given to moral equivalence. His political values, shaped during the long and uphill struggle to establish the Jana Sangh and BJP were rooted in the movement that nurtured him. Differences over political tactics should not be equated with ideological scepticism. Vajpayee was as committed as any other party loyalist. But his commitment was also laced with individualism, a necessary luxury accorded to a poet.
Vajpayee was never a case of being the right man in the wrong party. From humble beginnings, he rose to the very top of the political pile precisely because he had the fulsome backing of lakhs of dedicated workers who took the message into different corners of India. Without his party, Vajpayee would just have been an accomplished speaker and a reputed poet. The party and movement made him a national legend. On his part, he made the BJP respectable. It was a deeply symbiotic relationship.
Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.