Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s aura helped mend fences with at least three regional parties, that altered the political dynamics in Maharashtra. It is said that Vajpayee’s personal rapport with regional party leaders helped remove the political untouchability tag that was associated with the BJP in the state. Former Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray and Samata Party’s George Fernandes and Nationalist Congress Party president Sharad Pawar shared a lasting relationship with Vajpayee.
“Vajpayee’s inclusive politics, where every alliance partner’s concern was addressed and accommodated, made the NDA stronger. It helped in strengthening the Shiv Sena and BJP alliance,” Sena chief Uddhav Thackeray said. The Sena-BJP alliance that was formally stitched, complete with seat sharing formula, in 1989, has witnessed ups and downs with Bal Thackeray criticised Vajpayee for soft-peddling with Pakistan.
A senior BJP functionary said: “Although Bal Thackeray shared an excellent rapport with Vajpayee ji and L K Advani, there were moments of unease. When Vajpayee was the prime minister and engaging Pakistan in dialogue, Balasaheb (Thackeray) strongly criticised BJP and him. Yet, before the Lok Sabha elections, at a public rally held at Shivaji Park, Bal Thackeray made an ardent appeal to people to vote in favour of Vajpayee as the next prime minister.”
The video footage of the rally available with the BJP and the Sena shows Bal Thackeray saying: “What will you gain by voting these two pieces of Congress? We have to ensure Sena-BJP alliance and that Vajpayee becomes the PM again.” Although the then BJP general secretary Pramod Mahajan was the architect of the Sena-BJP alliance, Vajpayee and Bal Thackeray’s mutual admiration and respect helped.
There were times when Bal Thackeray, out of respect, ensured Vajpayee was the last speaker in public rallies. A rare gesture, as it is no secret that when it comes to public rallies, Bal Thackeray always had the last word. In Maharashtra, the BJP and the NCP have always retained their identities as political rivals. Yet, after the earthquake in Bhuj on January 26, 2001, the then prime minister Vajpayee appointed NCP president Sharad Pawar as the vice-chairman of the National Disaster Management Committee. He was given a cabinet status. Pawar was then an Opposition member in the Lok Sabha.
Later, during the 61st birthday celebrations of Pawar, Vajpayee explained his decision saying: “Elections come and go. Yes, we will contest against each other. And if people support, we will win too. But I took the decision to make Pawar, from a rival party, to head the disaster management committee because of his experience during the Latur earthquake in Maharashtra.”
Samata Party’s George Fernandes not only joined the NDA led by Vajpayee but also played a significant role in reaching out to other regional parties. A BJP political manager in Maharashtra said: “There was a phase between 1997 and 2004 when Fernandes was almost like a part of the BJP parivar.
Vajpayee would entrust all difficult task of firefighting to Fernandes, along with Mahajan. When it was difficult to get the AIADMK onboard, it was Vajpayee who reposed faith in Fernandes to reach out to the former AIADMK leader and then chief minister J Jayalalithaa. Fernandes earned the tag of Vajpayee’s troubleshooter.”