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Monday, September 20, 2021

Rear View: When India did not shine

The BJP — and the Congress — were caught off-guard by Vajpayee’s defeat in 2004.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
Updated: August 24, 2015 12:00:54 am
Narendra Modi, general election 2004, BJP, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, NDA, Indian GDP growth, Congress, Indian express the saffron party was relying on the enormous respect the country had for Vajpayee, even among those who were totally opposed to the BJP.

As the first general election in the new millennium due in 2004 drew near, the main feature of the Indian political scene was the supreme confidence of the BJP and its allies that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government would be back in power without any difficulty or hitch. “India Shining” was the sheet-anchor of the ruling NDA. After all, hadn’t the Vajpayee government transformed India into a declared nuclear-weapon power and yet persuaded the US to start withdrawing the sanctions it had angrily imposed on India after the 1998 series of nuclear tests? Indeed, “next steps” in improving the strategic relationship between the most powerful and most populous democracies were already on. Moreover, who had made short work of Pakistan’s perfidious Kargil War in 1999? Under the Vajpayee government, GDP growth had also risen well above what used to be mocked as the “Hindu growth rate” of 3 per cent. It is a different matter, of course, that the Congress-led UPA was to do much better in this respect later.

Above all, however, the saffron party was relying on the enormous respect the country had for Vajpayee, even among those who were totally opposed to the BJP. Moreover, it was something of a surprise that the Congress, which had ruled the country for over four decades during the half century since Independence, was making no loud claim that it would wrest power back from the NDA. In addition, the BJP’s new campaign managers, led by men like the late Pramod Mahajan, tried to modernise and invigorate the campaign style. However, what they did wasn’t a patch on the virtual miracle Narendra Modi wrought a decade later. Yet, I still remember that for the first time during the run-up to the elections, I, like almost everyone on the electoral rolls, received a recorded telephone message that began “main Atal Bihari Vajpayee bol raha hun”.

No wonder, there was consternation across the country and fury in the BJP ranks from bottom to top when election results came in and the Vajpayee government was vanquished. Eleven years after the event, A.S. Dulat has said in his much-cited book that when he went to the PM to inquire what had happened, Vajpayee had first burst into a hearty laugh and added that “even they do not know” what has happened to catapult them to power, or words to that effect. Then, after a brief silence, he said: “Gujarat was not handled rightly.” This was undoubtedly the key. Barely two years after the riots in Gujarat, the ghastly killings had alienated a very large number of voters from the BJP. It is no secret that Vajpayee wanted to take action against Gujarat’s then chief minister and indeed planned to relieve him of his post. But he failed to do so because powerful and more extreme leaders in the Hindutva fold, including L.K. Advani, RSS stalwarts and many more, were arrayed against the PM. The strategy the opponents followed was well-crafted. At the Goa meeting of the ruling party’s national executive, Modi took the initiative and offered to resign. It was drowned in shouts of “No, no”, and there the matter ended.

With the passage of time, things do change. In this case, Modi used all his skills — political, administrative and oratorical — to ensure that the required change took place rapidly. The spectacular result was obvious in May 2014.

To revert to 2004, no senior or responsible leader of the defeated party spoke of Gujarat. Most had suddenly convinced themselves that the Congress had somehow “usurped” power. They wanted this monstrosity to be rectified as speedily as possible. Several friendly astrologers comforted them by telling them that, according to their reading of the stars, the new Congress-led government would not last long. There was also concern that the foreign-born Sonia Gandhi would become PM. Sushma Swaraj, the rather troubled foreign minister today, even vowed that she would tonsure her head, wear only a white sari, eat only parched grams and sleep on the floor should Rajiv Gandhi’s widow and the Congress president who had led her party to power after eight years in the wilderness be sworn in as PM. In any case, Swaraj was saved a lot of bother and discomfort, because Sonia, in response to her “inner voice”, refused the office of PM and appointed Manmohan Singh to this post. (According to one-time confidant of Sonia, K. Natwar Singh, it was her son Rahul’s intense pressure that dissuaded her from becoming PM.)

Whatever the reasons for Sonia’s self-abnegation, it won her kudos from the public. But the BJP had no use for a Congress-led government, irrespective of who headed it. So, in the firmly established political tradition in the world’s largest democracy — that every party behaves and acts one way when in power and in exactly the opposite manner when in opposition — the BJP boycotted Parliament’s budget session because there were some “tainted” members in Manmohan Singh’s council of ministers. The annual budget of a billion-plus people was passed without a single minute’s discussion. Arun Jaitley propounded the doctrine that obstruction of proceedings was a “legitimate” parliamentary method. Now, the boot is on the other foot.

Though the Congress tally in the Lok Sabha was reduced to just 44 in 2014 from nearly five times that number, it has used its strength and that of its allies in the Upper House to disrupt the proceedings in both Houses resulting in the “monsoon session washout”. If our major neighbour in the north has “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, we are practising democracy, Indian style.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.

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