‘Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India’: A Ringside View of the Political Saga in 1996-1999

Shakti Sinha narrates how Vajpayee dealt with the challenges that emerged both from within his own and opposition parties, especially while running a multi-party coalition government.

Given the rich tradition of political leadership both at the national and state level, it is ironic that political leadership, as a subject, has remained understudied in the realm of India’s politics and economy whereas the study of parties, party system and elections receive a  lot of attention. This can largely be attributed to the dearth of source material that a researcher faces as leaders in India seldom write memoirs or give interviews explaining their decisions and, the few who even write, do so in a self-serving manner, leaving out important events and decisions.

Researchers have no easy access to the leaders’ private papers like their correspondence or diaries. Researchers are, therefore, constrained to rely on secondary literature including journalistic commentaries and newspaper reports, sanitised interviews or formal speeches which are mostly ghost-written. The issue with most biographies is that they are written by followers or admirers and so, not surprisingly, read like eulogies. Additionally, most focus has been on a few national leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar, leaving out many other prominent national leaders. Vajpayee is one of these under-researched leaders.

Shakti Sinha’s Vajpayee: The Years that Changed India

As Shakti Sinha mentions in Vajpayee: The Years that Changed India, Vajpayee had established himself as a national leader by the time national elections took place in 1967 – which was unusual for someone who never belonged to the hegemonic Congress. Starting out as an RSS student volunteer and then joining the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS, 1951), Vajpayee became the top leader of the party after the death of Deendayal Upadhyaya (1968) and later the Bharatiya Janata Party (1980).

Starting his parliamentary career in 1957, he received recognition for his powerful oratory and legislative skills very early as an opposition leader and was even admired by Nehru. As the foreign minister during the Janata Party regime (1977-79), Vajpayee became the first Indian leader in office to visit Pakistan (1978) and China (1979) after the 1965 and 1962 wars. Being well versed with Hindi literature and as a poet, he also had the distinction of becoming the first Indian leader to address the UN in Hindi (1977).

However, Sinha in his political treatise-cum-memoir refers to all these details in a passing manner as his focus is on presenting a ringside view of the political saga that unfolded at the national stage in three turbulent years (1996-1999) while keeping Vajpayee as one of the key sutradhars, first as the leader of opposition and then as the prime minister. Sinha narrates how Vajpayee dealt with the challenges that emerged both from within his own and opposition parties, especially while running a multi-party coalition government, his resolve to take long-term tough policy decisions despite the looming political costs, which all left his indelible imprint on the political canvas of India in the years to come.

As the title suggests, the years did witness some momentous developments like the nuclear explosions and Kargil conflict, to name only the two. Sinha, then a civil servant serving as private secretary of Vajpayee with whose foster family he was related, not only narrates meticulously the important political events like Sanjaya in Mahabharata but ever so gently brings in his own comments which helps the readers to have insights in the inscrutable persona of the leader under focus and understanding of the political constraints within which he worked, probably till 2004.

What adds to the value of this meticulous work is that in the process, one also has a good idea about the way parliamentary federal democracy actually worked on the ground in those uncertain long years of minority and coalition governments. And also how the centre-state relations transitioned with the rise of state level parties and their bosses (1989-2014).

With all his uncanny ability to connect with the masses and the marked exuberance and wittiness when in public meetings, Vajpayee comes across as an intensely private and reticent person in his personal life. Sinha also refers to a certain element of enigma about his political persona as one considers his cryptic utterances and pauses, sometimes sending different messages to different people. Given his association with ideologically rooted and cadre-based BJS/BJP, not to forget the omnipresent RSS, ideological positioning of Vajpayee would many times baffle not only his own party but even his political opponents who would call him ‘the right person in the wrong party’.

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Though critical of the policies of Nehru, Vajpayee ‘seemed overawed’ by him all his political life despite Nehru, a secular nationalist, being subjected to strongest possible criticism by the RSS or for that matter the BJS/BJP. Vajpayee also led his government to promote disinvestment and encourage greater economic reforms like in the telecom and insurance sectors rather than following the swadeshi agenda of the sangh parivar.

Steeped in the idea of ‘Akhand Bharat’, Vajpayee walked the extra mile to establish lasting peace with Pakistan before and after Kargil. He would even commit the cardinal sin of publicly accepting the accession while on his visit to Lahore. It would be a testimony to his political stature that he could get away with it unlike Advani or Jaswant Singh. He would for once give in to the RSS pressure in not appointing Singh the finance minister but very soon would induct him and many other leaders like Yashwant Sinha, Sushma Swaraj in his government who did not come from the RSS.

Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee gestures to the press at New Delhi’s Presidential palace after submitting his resignation on May 28, 1996. Credit: Reuters

While Vajpayee would be a votary of the construction of temple in Ayodhya but would publicly disapprove of Advani’s rath yatra and the demolition of the Babri Mosque by karsevaks, he would still flag off the yatra and make a speech in Lucknow a day before the fateful incident which was considered provocative. Vajpayee – who belonged to a majoritarian Hindu nationalist party would decry conversion and strongly condemn violence against the religious minorities and consider it his raj dharma to take preventive steps.

Arguably, it was this ‘moderate’ popular image of Vajpayee as the party’s prime ministerial candidate that made it possible for the BJP to become acceptable to the regional parties which would have found difficult to accept the hardliner Advani who had resurrected the party from the 1984 electoral debacle. Under Vajpayee’s leadership, the party following the coalition dharma would readily agree to dilute its core ideological positions on Ram temple, uniform civil code, ban on cow slaughter and Article 370.

Reading the political text is instructive as it shows the way the constitutional offices worked in the coalition era. While the office of the prime minister was undermined, the incumbent presidents would become assertive. President S.D. Sharma used his discretion to invite Vajpayee, the leader of the largest party, to take oath as the prime minister rather hurriedly without waiting for the opposition parties’ coalition to present their claim and then insisted on making his self-written speech in the inaugural session of the parliament unlike the established parliamentary convention.

K.R. Narayanan, the next president, asked Vajpayee to prove his majority in the Lok Sabha shortly after the AIADMK withdrew the support from the coalition government without waiting for the opposition parties to bring no-confidence motion, thus precipitating the fall of the government. Narayanan, using his discretionary power under Article 74, also asked the Vajpayee cabinet to reconsider its advice to impose president’s rule in Bihar.

There are several incidents narrated by Sinha to show how the constituent state parties’ bosses would brazenly demand their pound of flesh in return for their support to the motley coalition which was opportunistic and lacking ideological compatibility. Chandrababu Naidu, Nitish Kumar or Naveen Patnaik would demand sacking of the opposition parties’ majority government in their respective states. Even lucrative portfolios like railways and commerce would be in demand as pressure tactics would be applied. Worse, like in case of Jayalalitha, the Centre’s help would be sought to save them from the court cases. There would be occasions when ministers would criticise their own government decisions.

While Vajpayee’s remarkable ability to accommodate the allies up to a point and at the same time not letting the governance suffer, it was his ability to take momentous decisions that comes out very clearly in the text. His resolve to make India a nuclear power despite the impending international sanctions showed his leadership mettle as was his decision as a caretaker prime minister not to let the Indian armed forces cross the Line of Actual Control during Kargil war, but at the same time he was firm in not accepting ceasefire before the intruders were thrown out from Indian territory.

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That Vajpayee was a man of big ideas is reflected in his ambitious golden quadrilateral plan. His statesman like quality was evident in the way as a leader of opposition he promptly supported the defence deal struck with Russia by the Rao government once he was convinced about it being in the national interest or in his famous speech invoking ‘Insaniyat, Jamhuriyat, Kashmiriyat’ that is still remembered in the valley.

While Sinha excels in keeping the book tight, not wasting words like a vintage civil servant, he errs in devoting much space to the unfolding political saga, even mundane ones also like the toppling down of the successive governments led by Deve Gowda and Gujral by then Congress president Kesari or how the latter himself was pushed out by Sonia Gandhi loyalists.

Alternatively, he should have focused more on the leadership model of Vajpayee, his ‘political language’. How a man steeped in the traditional values and idioms by birth and association was able to develop great faith in the modern democratic traditions and practices. One also missed insights into his long-standing jugalbandi with Advani, subject of a recent book by Sitapati (2020).

Ashutosh Kumar is a professor at the department of political science at Panjab University.