Legacy Explained: Introducing Atal Bihari Vajpayee

Atal Bihari Vajpayee dead: For those who will vote for the first time in 2019, a primer on why Atal Bihari Vajpayee matters, in life and in death.

Written by Sushant Singh | New Delhi | Updated: August 17, 2018 10:01:08 am
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Atal Bihari Vajpayee was one of India’s 15 Prime Ministers. What was so special about him?

Often described as a “right man in the wrong party” for his moderate views, Vajpayee was the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a full term in office. After he lost a vote of confidence in 1999, he was re-elected with a larger majority in the general elections that followed, a first in India’s history. He entered Parliament when Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister, and he worked with the current generation of younger political leaders. He was the bridge that spanned generations — and as he moved from fiery young orator to elder statesman, he gathered along the way admiration and respect across parties and political divides. He was a poet and a thinker, a man of an open mind and pioneering ideas, a statesman in both words and deed.

When did Vajpayee come to be associated with the RSS?

Vajpayee was born on December 25, 1924. His father was a schoolmaster in Gwalior. He joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) as a teenager in 1939, and became a full-time worker in 1947.

6 October 1977: Addressing UN General Assembly

Where was he during the freedom movement?

After becoming a dedicated and active member of the RSS, Vajpayee followed the Sangh’s dictum of staying away from the freedom movement, and did not participate in the Quit India Movement as a “freedom fighter”. In his own characterisation recorded in an interview to Frontline magazine in 1998, he said that when some violent incidents took place in his home village of Bateshwar on August 27, 1942, he went along to witness them as “a part of the crowd”, but played no other role. An article by Vajpayee published in Dainik Jagaran on August 15, 1997, gave an account of what happened at Bateshwar: “Indiscriminate arrests were made. The leaders of the movement went underground and the police could not lay their hands on them. Those arrested were sent to Agra jail. I was amongst those arrested and lodged in jail.”

How did he make the transition to electoral politics?

In 1951, the RSS deputed Vajpayee and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), which was formed that year under the leadership of Syama Prasad Mookerjee. Vajpayee became political secretary to Mookerjee, and was then appointed as national secretary in charge of the northern region, based in Delhi. The BJS remained in existence until 1977, when it merged with the Janata Party. It was reincarnated as the BJP in 1980.

Vajpayee was nominated as the BJS candidate in the 1955 bypoll for the Lucknow Lok Sabha seat, which had fallen vacant following resignation of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. He finished third. Two years later, he was the BJS candidate for three Lok Sabha seats in the second general election. He won from Balrampur, finished runner-up in Lucknow, and lost his deposit in Mathura.

16 May 1996: The first government, lasted 13 days

For how long did he remain in Parliament?

Vajpayee’s remarkable oratorical skills were noticed by Jawaharlal Nehru who, while introducing him to a visiting foreign dignitary, once said “This young man one day will become the country’s Prime Minister.” Vajpayee remained a Member of Parliament for 47 years, elected 11 times to Lok Sabha, and twice to Rajya Sabha.

12 May 1998 | Pokharan: India changed forever

Where was he during the Emergency and afterward?

After the declaration of Emergency in 1975, Vajpayee and L K Advani were arrested in Bangalore on June 26, and kept in prison there. Days later, Vajpayee was admitted to the city’s Victoria Hospital, where he was operated for appendicitis. He subsequently developed septicaemia, and was admitted in AIIMS. Because he was bedridden, Vajpayee was granted parole to stay at home.

The BJS was part of the opposition led by Jayaprakash Narayan to Indira Gandhi. Following the lifting of the Emergency in 1977 and declaration of general elections, BJS merged with other parties into the Janata Party. Vajpayee became Foreign Minister in the government of Prime Minister Morarji Desai. The Janata Party eventually collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions, whereafter the BJS reincarnated itself as the BJP.

21 February 1999: The bus ride to Lahore

What was Vajpayee’s role in the rise of the BJP in the 1980s?

Vajpayee became the founding president of the BJP at its inaugural session in Bombay in 1980. He espoused the principle of “Gandhian Socialism”; however, it failed to produce electoral dividend as the party could win only two seats in the 1984 Lok Sabha election. Advani took charge of the party in 1986, geared it fully to the Ramjanmabhoomi movement, and presided over its growth to 85 seats in 1989, and to 120 in 1991.

What role did Vajpayee play in the Ayodhya movement?

In 1992, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, Vajpayee described the incident as “unfortunate” in a television interview, and said that it “should not have happened”. He apologised for the demolition: “We tried to prevent it, but we could not succeed,” he said. “We are sorry for that.”

Although he was not in Ayodhya on December 6, Vajpayee had, a day earlier, made a speech in Lucknow strongly arguing for reclamation of the site for Hindus. “There were sharp stones that came out, no one can sit there,” he had said amid cheers. “The ground has to be levelled, it has to be made fit for sitting.”

His dynamic with Advani was complex, borne out of a long personal association, shared ideals, but a distinctly different approach to politics. But many also saw the two working in tandem — with Advani’s strident and aggressive political approach being made possible, if not enabled by, Vajpayee’s moderate image.

15 July 2001: The disappointment at Agra

When and how did he become Prime Minister?

In a surprise move at the BJP’s plenary in Mumbai in 1995, Advani declared Vajpayee to be the party’s PM candidate, acknowledging that the latter had greater political acceptability to forge a coalition. The BJP emerged as the single largest party in the 1996 general elections and was invited to form the government. Vajpayee was sworn in as the PM. He however, failed to attract any new allies, and the government lasted for just 13 days.

The situation changed two years later, when the BJP won more than 180 seats and formed the government as the leader of the National Democratic Alliance. Vajpayee lost the confidence vote in Lok Sabha by a single vote on April 17, 1999, as the AIADMK withdrew support. India went into the Kargil War with the caretaker government under Vajpayee in charge. Following the victory, the NDA came back to power in 1999. Five months before the end of his full term in 2004, Vajpayee called general elections, which he lost to the Congress-led UPA.

Some people call him a “dove”, others a “mukhauta”. Who was the real Vajpayee?

At a meeting with three British diplomats, former BJP general secretary Govindacharya reportedly called Vajpayee the party’s mukhauta (mask). “The real leader is party president L K Advani,” he is reported to have said. It made Vajpayee angry, but this view was, in fact, held by many. While Vajpayee was the “face” the BJP needed for greater acceptability among allies, as an RSS worker, he had no real difference of opinion with other hardline leaders on any of the core issues. However, once in Parliament, he acknowledged that he wasn’t pursuing the party agenda of Ram Mandir, Article 370 or uniform civil code because his party didn’t have the mandate to do so.

But he was a dove in many respects. His constant attempts to pursue peace with Pakistan, against all odds, be it through the Lahore Bus Yatra, the Agra Summit after the Kargil War, or backchannel negotiations with Musharraf after Operation Parakram, were certainly not in line with the BJP’s hard line towards that country. Even on Kashmir, he announced a unilateral ceasefire with the Hizbul Mujahideen, and held talks with the separatist Hurriyat Conference, besides agreeing to a longstanding ceasefire on the Line of Control.

14 May 2004: End of the Vajpayee era: UPA wins

Where is Vajpayee’s imprint the most visible in today’s India?

At one point, he headed a coalition of 24 parties which lasted a full term. It is his legacy that even today, despite having a majority on its own, the BJP wants to have more coalition partners in the ruling alliance, as it denotes greater acceptability. His initiatives in the form of a Golden Quadrilateral of roads, the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna, the Kisan credit cards continue to touch the lives of millions of Indians. He conducted the nuclear tests in 1999, making India a declared nuclear weapon state which fundamentally altered the national security paradigm. The ceasefire on the LoC of 2003 continues to be reiterated even today, as does his offer of a solution to Kashmir in the framework of Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat.

And what imprint has he left on BJP?

Vajpayee was not an organisation or a party man. He was renowned as an orator and as a parliamentarian. His imprint on the party, if any, appears to have been discarded by the harder, aggressive, exclusionary path that it has chose after 2014.

Where are his NDA-I allies today?

Many of those in Vajpayee’s NDA remain part of Narendra Modi’s NDA — among them the Shiv Sena, Akali Dal, JDU, and LJP. But many others, such as the TDP, TMC, NC, BJD and DMK, which are major regional players, have moved on to a more neutral space, or positioned themselves firmly against the BJP.

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