The day after India’s 72nd Independence Day, former Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, died at the age of 93. His death is being widely mourned in India across party lines. Vajpayee’s party, the BJP, is doing everything to gain politically by organising the immersion of his ashes in election-bound states.
His political opponents and liberal commentators have been effusive in praising him while writing his obituary. No doubt, he was a charismatic leader and a great orator like Narendra Modi, moreover, he was also affable, mild-mannered and consensus-seeking.
While Sangh Parivar and its supporters see him as a Swayamsevak, who went on to become the prime minister of the country, the secular-liberal group finds him as an ideologically moderate and civil in mannerism compared to what they have got now in the form of Narendra Modi.
Before his death, Vajpayee was ailing for long and was bedridden since 2009. To a large extent, he was fortunate to not go through the similar public humiliation, which his long-time colleague LK Advani has been subjected to by Modi and his trusted lieutenant Amit Shah in recent years. Modi is now traveling extra miles to show his respect and admiration for Vajpayee, but considering what he has done to his ‘mentor’ Advani, it is of anyone’s guess how he would have treated his ‘tormentor’ Vajpayee, if he would have remained politically active till his last breath.
The death of Vajpayee has given an opportunity to Modi to use it in a way that he can be able to deflect growing charges against him that he is being brutal against party’s senior leaders, who had built the BJP from scratch.
While Modi’s new-found love for Vajpayee is understandable, it is not easy to grasp the reasons for several liberal-secular politicians and commentators painting Vajpayee as a saint after his death. Of course, basic decency asks for not to be nasty to someone immediately after her or his death. No one also expects them to write about Vajpayee’s love for non-vegetarian food and good scotch-whiskey or his live-in relationship, in spite of the fact that he was not following at home what his party was preaching for the country.
But, glorifying someone after his death should not be part of the rewriting the history project. Vajpayee was probably a moderate- democrat at heart, but he was the one who was heading a party for decades, which subscribes to majoritarian fascist values. Vajpayee was probably not happy with the demolition of Babri Masjid at Ayodhya but he was the one who had asked the frenzied supporters of his party to flatten the ground of the disputed site.
Vajpayee was probably angry with Modi for not following the elusive raj dharma in 2002, but he was the one who had blamed Muslims for instigating their mass killing. Vajpayee was probably believing that he was the prime minister of a secular country, but he was the one, who had openly declared himself as a Swayamsevak and Sangh was his soul. Not to forget his famous speech declaring India a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation).
Vajpayee has also being hailed by many in the last few days for his fearless leadership in
giving approval for five test nuclear explosions in 1998, winning ‘Kargil War’ vis-à-vis Pakistan in 1999 and pursuing a policy of insaniyat in Kashmir. The only issue Vajpayee deserves the credit is his willingness to pursue a process of dialogue in Kashmir, with the stakeholders within and outside the Valley. He was somewhat successful in bringing a certain degree of normalcy in the troubled Valley, but at the same time, he had failed to pursue that progress further as he willingly relinquished the authority of the prime minister to the RSS and LK Advani while negotiating with General Pervez Musharraf at Agra in 2001.
In May 1998, when Vajpayee was the Prime Minister, India conducted its second nuclear tests. There is serious question mark over the usefulness of that provocative test, particularly when India had successfully conducted its first nuclear test in May 1974 and the world had known about its nuclear capabilities.
Pakistan’s progress in nuclear bomb-making was an unknown factor and that ambiguity was helping India’s strategic interest as India does not need a nuclear bomb to secure itself against Pakistan because of its superiority in conventional weapons. But, the Indian test gave the legitimacy to Pakistan to go ahead with its own nuclear tests and to bring
a parity of power vis-à-vis India. There is no sane leader or commentator in India will ever argue in favor of using the nuclear weapon as the first strike against China.
Moreover, there are reports that India’s hurried May 1998 nuclear tests were not that successful as the yield of the thermonuclear explosion was much below than it was being predicted and claimed. Vajpayee’s decision to go ahead with the nuclear tests had brought political benefits to him and his party, but at the same time, it provided legitimacy to Pakistan to claim the status of a declared nuclear power.
Those who are giving credit to Vajpayee for winning the ‘Kargil War, also conveniently forget that when he was the Prime Minister, Indian security establishment had failed to notice the presence of thousands of foreign fighters in its controlled territory for months. India won back most of the territory thanks to the power of much-maligned Bofors guns and losing 527 of its soldiers.
Kargil is not the only case of a serious failure on the national security front by the
Vajpayee government. Under his leadership, India had terribly mishandled the IC-814 flight
hijack crisis in 1999. His indecision had led the hijacked Indian Airlines plane with 178
passengers and 11 crew members be able to leave Indian territory after five hours of being
parked at Amritsar airport, first flying to Lahore, then to Dubai and finally reaching Taliban
That led to the release of three dreaded terrorists and one of whom masterminded the murderous attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001.
Vajpayee was an amiable man, a good public speaker, a popular leader, a mediocre poet and a person who had a good sense of humor. At the same time, he was also an ardent follower of Deendayal Upadhyaya and Syama Prasad Mukherjee and believed in majoritarian chauvinism of Hindutva.
There is no doubt Vajpayee used his pleasant persona to provide acceptability to a
party, which thrives on bigotry and hatred. He was a likable mask to an organization, which was being disliked by the majority population of the country for its dubious role in the freedom movement and its alleged role in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi.
He was a genteel cover to rebrand a party, which was notorious for organising riots to a party capable of ruling the country. The BJP was able to get its own majority in the Lok Sabha in 2014 not out of thin air. Modi owes a great deal to Vajpayee for giving his majoritarian party, which believes in Hindu chauvinism the much-needed acceptability among people and political parties of the country.
Vajpayee was never a saint nor history will judge him in that way. If anything, the growing threat to the secular and inclusive value of India since 2014 is only Vajpayee’s lasting legacy.
(The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden. He can be reached on Twitter via @ashoswai)