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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Rear View: Year of Atal and Sonia

In 1998, India began watching a new prime minister and a new Congress president.

Written by Inder Malhotra |
Updated: May 4, 2015 5:54:21 am
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Sonia Gandhi, Congress, Vajpayee government, Sangh Parivar, P.V. Narasimha Rao, L K Advani, indian express column, ie column Vajpayee first became Prime Minister in 1996 after four decades in opposition.

After the 1998 general election, the Lok Sabha was even more fragmented than two years earlier. Yet, it was evident that Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the moderate face of the BJP and a skilful builder of consensus, would be able to cobble together a coalition that would put him and his party in power for much longer than the famous 13 days in May 1996. Once again, his party was the largest in the Lok Sabha, with its numbers having gone up. Vajpayee’s ascension to power was therefore expected. What was utterly unexpected, however, occurred across the political fence.

Rajiv Gandhi’s widow, Sonia Gandhi, had refused to succeed her husband after his assassination. For over six years, she continued to reject any political office. She had stayed completely aloof from the 1996 polls. But in 1998, she offered to lead the Congress’s campaign. Even so, she had flatly declined to contest the election herself. In March 1998, however, she decided to accept the post of Congress president. The ouster of the luckless and enraged Sitaram Kesri was little short of a bloodless coup.

In 1996, when the Congress tally in the Lok Sabha had slumped to 140 (from 244), P.V. Narasimha Rao was blamed, pilloried and thrown out. Two years later, the party won 141 seats, but its vote share fell. Yet, Sonia was praised, and indeed hailed, as a conquering hero. Some Congress leaders argued that but for her leadership, the party’s share of Lok Sabha seats might have dwindled to a double-digit figure, something that did happen last year. Seventeen years ago, the country started watching the performance of both the new prime minister and Congress president.

At the start of his tenure as PM, Vajpayee wisely put on the back-burner some of the Sangh Parivar’s cherished plans, which were unacceptable to many, including several allies in the National Democratic Alliance. The three items were: the abolition of Article 370 of the Constitution; the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya; and the enactment of a uniform civil code. Ironically, the qualities that made Vajpayee attractive to the electorate and allies earned him the displeasure of many powerful elements within the Sangh.

It is no secret that the RSS did not let Vajpayee allocate the portfolio of finance to Jaswant Singh, who had to be given the ministry of external affairs instead. A prominent member of the RSS called the PM a “mukhota” (mask), implying that he was a mere figurehead and the real power rested in the hands of leaders like L.K. Advani who, in the mid-1980s, had replaced the more popular Vajpayee as president of the BJP, and had then led the movement for the Ram temple, as a counterblast to the reservations for OBCs as recommended by the Mandal Commission and introduced by then PM V.P. Singh. In Vajpayee’s government, Advani was home minister.

Later, again largely at the insistence of the RSS, he was elevated to the post of deputy PM. It is also widely known that the main target of the Hindutva votaries within the ruling establishment was Brajesh Mishra, Vajpayee’s all-powerful principal secretary. Repeated demands by the RSS for his removal were met by Vajpayee’s terse retort that this matter was non-negotiable. In any case, Vajpayee, a likeable man and spellbinding orator, dug his heels in, and ruled as best he could.

Since a lot of things happened during the Vajpayee years, these will be discussed in due course. A note should now be taken of Sonia’s debut in active politics that she usually claimed to abhor. The truth is that, except for some time after Rajiv’s assassination, she was not entirely out of the Congress’s affairs. Rao was not her first choice as successor to her husband as Congress president and putative PM. Moreover, Rao spent his five years as PM under “Sonia’s shadow”. However, as Congress president, she began reasonably well, even if she wasn’t yet conversant with the bewildering complexities and intricacies of Indian politics. Her first decision was not to listen to those of her loyalists who wanted her to not lose any time to bring down Vajpayee’s fragile government. The fall of the government, she believed, would be good, but the Congress shouldn’t go out of its way to bring this about. The second step she took was to have a brainstorming session of her party at Pachmarhi, a resort in Madhya Pradesh, where two decisions were taken. One, to reverse the 1991 resolve to liberalise and globalise the Indian economy and return to Indira Gandhi’s policy to champion the cause of the “poor”.

Two, the Congress conclave decided that the party would return to power on its own steam and have nothing to do with coalitions. Sonia and her cohorts continued to ride the Pachmarhi high horse for two years before they realised that they were being unrealistic.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator.

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