Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Truly moderate BJP leader or expedient mask for Hindutva ideology?


Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who died on Thursday is credited to have transformed the BJP into a serious national political outfit that it is today. If the BJP is governing in 20 states either alone or in alliance with other regional parties, it is because he along with his trusted lieutenant LK Advani tirelessly worked in 80s and 90s to expand the saffron party’s base across India.

Vajpayee, who was in active electoral politics for over six decades, was presented the Bharat Ratna award by the current Narendra Modi government in 2015. He became India’s only non-Congress prime minister to last a full five years in office as he headed the government between 1999 and 2004.

In 1998, Vajpayee stunned the world by making India a declared nuclear state and then almost went to war with Pakistan before making peace in the most dramatic fashion. Always seen as a moderate in a party where some other leaders espoused Hindutva ideology, the bachelor politician was often called the “right man in the wrong party.”

His first entry into parliament was in 1962 through the Rajya Sabha. It was only in 1971 that he won a Lok Sabha battle. He was elected to the Lok Sabha seven times in all – and to the Rajya Sabha twice.

Like many other non-Congress leaders, Vajpayee too had to spend months in prison when Indira Gandhi imposed Emergency Rule in June 1975. He became the country’s foreign minister when the Janata Party took office in 1977, defeating the Congress.

One of his lowest point in his political career was in 1984, when he lost the lOk Sabha election from his home town Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. Worse, the BJP ended up with just two seats in the 545-seat Lok Sabha. This was the period when Advani began to rise in prominence with his hardcore Hindutva politics.

Although they were the best of friends publicly, Vajpayee never fully agreed with Advani’s advocacy of Hindutva. Several commentators have pointed out that Vajpayee was personally hurt by the razing of Babri Mosque on 6 December 1992. He had reportedly called it the “worst miscalculation”.

Career as Prime Minister

Vajpayee became India’s prime minister first time in 1996, but he could remain in office only for 13 days. His second stint as PM was for 13 months, from March 19, 1998. He completed the full five years in office in his third attempt between 13 October 1999, and May 2004.

His government tested a nuclear device in May 1998, a little over a quarter century after the first such explosion when Indira Gandhi was prime minister. In doing this, and despite global censure, he thrust India into the nuclear club – until then restricted to a privileged few. It was an action that finally resulted in the path-breaking India-US nuclear deal of 2008.

In 1998, he also traveled to Lahore in a bus as part of his efforts to improve ties with the neighbouring country. The service was  suspended after the 2001 terror attack on Indian parliament that nearly led to war between India and Pakistan.

Vajpayee had reportedly expressed his displeasure on the inaction by the then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi during the 2002 Gujarat riots that killed more than 4,000 people, mostly Muslims. He was, however, condemned for not dismissing the government in the face of rampant massacre, which many dubbed as a state-sponsored terrorism. Vajpaye even defended Modi in a party meet days later.

It’s this perceived duplicity that allowed many to allege that Vajpayee was only an expedient mask for the Hindutva ideology his party espoused.

(With additional inputs from IANS)