Atal Bihari Vajpayee, more than a rare 'Ajatshatru' in Indian politics

Former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the former President of India, the late A P J Abdul Kalam. File photo
In his preface to a biography of Atal Bihari Vajpayee published in 2016, Home Minister Rajnath Singh described the leader as a rare ‘Ajatshatru’, a man without enemies, in Indian politics.

 

Eulogies tend to ignore the inconvenient. While Vajpayee was indeed one of the craftiest yet endearing politicians of contemporary Indian politics, he also had his share of enemies.

 

Interestingly, nearly all his known enemies were from the Sangh Parivar. At different junctures in Vajpayee’s political career, Balraj Madhok, Nanaji Deshmukh and Subramanian Swamy emerged his foremost critics or rivals. Vajpayee was a man known to be generous to a fault, but he could never forgive Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general secretary K N Govindacharya, who had once described Vajpayee as an RSS mukhauta, or mask.

 

Not one of these four men could ever get rehabilitated in the Sangh Parivar as long as Vajpayee was in active politics.

 

Vajpayee climbed quickly in the Bharatiya Jana Sangh hierarchy. The Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP, was founded in 1951. First, Syama Prasad Mookerjee, and after his death in 1953, Deendayal Upadhayaya, seven years older to Vajpayee, found him to be a talented speaker. By 1952-53, Mookerjee and Upadhayay started sending Vajpayee to deliver speeches across India, particularly to Maharashtra. Since Vajpayee had grown up in Gwalior, he was fluent in Marathi and delivered his speeches in that language there.

 

In 1955, Vajpayee contested his first Lok Sabha elections – a by-poll when Vijayalakshmi Pandit, the younger sister of Jawaharlal Nehru, vacated her Lucknow seat. Vajpayee lost. He contested from three seats in the 1957 Lok Sabha polls, including from Lucknow. Vajpayee lost from Lucknow, forfeited his security deposit in Mathura, but won the Balarampur seat. It was one of the four seats that the Jana Sangh won in 1957.

 

But in 1962, Vajpayee couldn’t retain the Balarampur seat, losing to the Congress party’s Subhadra Joshi by a mere 2,000 votes. His party sent him to the Rajya Sabha. Interestingly, Vajpayee tabled a private members’ Bill that year to amend the Companies Act, 1956, calling for a ban on political donations by corporate entities.

 

After Upadhyaya passed away under mysterious circumstances in 1967, Vajpayee became Jana Sangh’s frontline leader. His rivalry with Madhok also came to a head. Madhok shot off letters to RSS chief M S Golwalkar to complain about Vajpayee. The letters were full of insinuations of a personal nature, as to how Vajpayee was misusing the Jana Sangh office. Madhok found himself thrown out for anti-party activities.

 

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Bharatiya Janata Party president, talking to the party’s then general secretary L K Advani at the party’s rally at Ramlila Grounds in New Delhi in April 1980

In the Emergency years, the RSS thought of Swamy as a potential future leader of the Jana Sangh. But Swamy couldn’t continue with the party. He first gravitated towards socialist leader Chandra Shekhar and later became close to Rajiv Gandhi, but continued to blame Vajpayee for engineering to drive him away.

 

Swamy had become somewhat of a hero during the Emergency years, and believed Vajpayee couldn’t stomach it. In 1997, Swamy wrote a series of articles about Vajpayee in a Tamil publication. He didn’t spare the BJP leader’s personal life. Swamy had his revenge when he played a key role in the downfall of the 13-month-old Vajpayee government in 1999. Deshmukh, another potential rival, also quit active politics and took to social work.

 

But these four men were exceptions to the legion of friends, followers and admirers Vajpayee had across the political spectrum. When the National Integration Council was set up in 1961, Nehru insisted that Vajpayee be included in it. Vajpayee was the external affairs minister in the Janata Party government and he famously ensured that Nehru's portraits were not removed from South Block.

 

H K Dua, who was prime minister Vajpayee’s media advisor, remembers his sharp sense of repartee. On a hot summer day in 1968, Dua was on his way on a two-wheeler to the Jana Sangh office at V P House to cover a press conference. He saw Vajpayee waiting for a taxi at the corner of his residence at 1, Ferozeshah Road. Dua offered Vajpayee a lift, which Vajpayee gladly accepted and rode pillion. As they reached the party office, Jana Sangh leader J P Mathur said next day’s headline would be “Vajpayee rides Dua’s scooter”. “No. It could be ‘Dua takes Vajpayee for a ride’,” Vajpayee replied instantly.

 

In mid-1990s, Dalit leader Sanjay Paswan joined the BJP and organised a public rally where he invited Vajpayee. Addressing the rally, Paswan frequently raised the slogan ‘Jai Sri Ram’. According to him, an upset Vajpayee told him that the BJP had enough leaders to raise the cry of ‘Jai Sri Ram’. “You are here to take our message to the Dalit community. Please continue raising your slogan of ‘Jai Bhim’,” Paswan reminisces, pointing at not just Vajpayee’s understanding of Dalit politics but also his vision of an inclusive BJP.

 

When a senior leader became upset that he was excluded from the BJP parliamentary board, the highest decision-making body of the party, which would become embarrassing since he had to brief the media on the meeting, Vajpayee quietly advised him to keep entering and exiting the meeting room at regular intervals on the pretext of passing him messages. That way, Vajpayee told this leader, you would understand the proceedings of the meeting.

 

After the 9/11 attack, there was immense pressure from the Americans on the Vajpayee government to put Indian boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Some in the Vajpayee Cabinet were also in favour and the prime minister himself couldn’t be seen to be opposing the US, particularly after tensions and sanctions when the Vajpayee government's Pokhran nuclear tests and the subsequent thaw in relations.

 

The Left parties were the most vociferous in opposing the move. A Parliament session was on the anvil. Vajpayee, who understood the ramifications of sending Indian troops to Afghanistan, engineered to have a meeting with the Left leaders. The Left had wanted to raise issues related to the Vajpayee government's economic policies, and it surprised Harkishan Singh Surjeet, A B Bardhan and others that the PM had so readily agreed to a meeting with them in the run-up to the session.

 

The issue of sending troops to Afghanistan also came up during the meeting. To the further surprise of Left leaders, Vajpayee said he couldn’t possibly start dictating what Opposition parties should do on the issue, and asked how could he dissuade the Left parties if they were to organise protests outside Parliament during the course of the session? That was enough of a hint for the veteran Left leaders. Protests were organised and Vajpayee pointed at these to convince members of his Cabinet, as well as the Americans, how it would be a political hot potato for him to send Indian troops to Afghanistan.

 

In the 1990s, Vajpayee once attacked the then finance minister Manmohan Singh’s performance in Parliament. Singh was so upset that he offered to quit. P V Narasimha Rao, who was the prime minister, didn’t want to let go of his finance minister and phoned his old friend for help. The old friend was none other than Vajpayee. The BJP leader understood that Singh wasn’t a career politician and didn’t possess a thick skin. Vajpayee phoned Singh and convinced him not to quit.

 

Unlike other BJP politicians and RSS workers, Vajpayee never made any secret of his peculiar domestic arrangement, his love for alcohol and meat. “Kunwara hoon, brahmachari nahin hoon,” Vajpayee once said famously. As senior BJP leader L K Advani has written in his autobiography, My Country My Life, the two of them were also fond of watching movies. Advani says after one severe defeat, the two of them headed to New Delhi's Regal Cinema to watch Raj Kapoor's Phir Subah Hogi. Vajpayee would also be long remembered for his oratory and poetry. “Ab savera ho gaya hai, deepak bujhane ka waqt aa gaya hai,” Vajpayee wrote when the Emergency was lifted.

 

Vajpayee may have lost his first Lok Sabha election from Lucknow, but won that seat in successive elections from 1991 to 2004 and retained a strong bond with the city. It was at Lucknow’s Kalicharan College that Vajpayee once recited one of his favourite poems: “Hindu tan man, Hindu jeevan, rag rag Hindu mera parichay.”