1924-born Atal Bihari Vajpayee saw a long and illustrious political career for about 60 years, of which his Parliamentary stint spanned nearly half a century.
His role in making Sangh ideology palatable to India beyond its core supporters is what made his contribution crucial. His comrade-in-arms, LK Advani, never had time to get off the Rath, as he went about pushing the frontiers of the Jan Sangh and then the BJP. It was Vajpayee’s amiability and political skills at widening support for their ideas that worked as the perfect counterfoil to the more brusque Advani routine.
In what Vajpayee said about India’s first PM, Pandit Nehru on his death, lay seeds of how he chose to fashion himself, and his relationship with his political opponents. Speaking after Nehru’s death in 1964, he said in the Lok Sabha, that in Nehru’s life; “we get a glimpse of the noble sentiments to be found in the saga of Valmiki”. For, like Ram, Nehru was “the orchestrator of the impossible and inconceivable, not afraid of compromise but would never compromise under duress”. He spoke of Nehru as one whom”no one can replace”. No-one in the BJP today would be able to boast of being able to walk across the aisle and so far.
Later, even when politics became bitter, for example in 1991, he spoke openly, after Rajiv’s assassination of how he was “alive” because of then PM, Rajiv Gandhi suggesting that he go as part of the state delegation to New York and attend to his kidney trouble.
Vajpayee enjoyed the sparring in the political arena and held his own forcefully. But, to him, the Opposition was not about an enmity or winning elections about capturing territory. Amiable ties across party lines were always maintained by him.
With Sonia Gandhi, his party’s relationship often degenerated to unpleasant barbs. Not so, with Vajpayee. Even when Sonia Gandhi moved a no-confidence motion against the NDA in August 2003 and termed Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s projected rate of growth of 8 per cent as “Mungeri Lal ke haseen sapne”, Vajpayee was angry, but the repartee was parliamentary. When his senior Minister Pramod Mahajan was said to have made uncharitable references, taking the name of Sonia Gandhi in the same breath as Monica Lewinsky’s, Vajpayee stepped in and asked Mahajan to dissociate himself.
Even in institutional terms, best practices like all-party meetings, briefings across political party lines on matters of vital national interest, Vajpayee took care to keep rival political leaders in the loop.
The Jan Sangh in the 1950s and the BJP in the 1990s, was on the backfoot, as it was the bearer of a legacy that suffered by being associated with the Mahatma’s assassination (the RSS having been banned after his killing) and a narrow social base. So, if Vajpayee did not exist, he would have had to be invented. His personal charisma and abilities, helped to make the BJP and its ideology more acceptable and wield power, win allies in a coalition necessary to rule at the Centre.
Other than political rivals like the Congress and the Left, NDA allies, who flitted back and forth, like JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar, TMC’s Mamta Bannerjee and BJD’s Naveen Patnaik and the late J Jayalalithaa of the AIADMK found it easier to associate themselves with someone like Vajpayee at the helm. Others, once virulently opposed to the BJP, like Karunanidhi and Chandrababu Naidu, also found it easier to explain their ‘change of heart’ as Vajpayee’s leadership helped provide the glue of amiability, and the spoonful of sugar that made the medicine go down.
In effect, Vajpayee brought a more expansive understanding of Parliamentary democracy and the role of diversity in it – indispensable for the Jan Sangh/BJP when it needed to blossom and grow.