Politics

When Vajpayee Failed to Stand Up to Modi in 2002, He Changed the Course of Indian History

Most of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's supposedly chameleon-like behaviour, and his failure to act decisively at critical moments, stemmed from his conviction that the battle against Hindu extremism could only be fought from within the Sangh parivar.

There is no limit to the lengths to which politicians will go to deceive the public. Facing a general election that they can lose, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have got the jitters. So they have suddenly developed a profound admiration for Atal Behari Vajpayee. Ministers in the Uttar Pradesh state government went out carrying urns containing his ashes for immersion in the 16 rivers of Uttar Pradesh. But it is this same party that rejected each and every tenet of government that Vajpayee had espoused, carried out an internal coup d’etat against his successors L.K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, rejected Advani’s nominee for leadership of the party, Sushma Swaraj, and handed the baton to Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. And it is Modi who has handed over Vajpayee’s BJP, which was a mildly right-wing, only culturally Hindu party, to the RSS. That is what has wrecked the Indian economy, and turned India into a county ruled by vigilantes.

What has given Modi and Shah the opportunity to turn Vajpayee’s death into an apolitical circus? It is the English speaking, Left-leaning, secular intelligentsia of this country. Instead of remembering Vajpayee for his contributions to peace and communal harmony, one writer after the next has delved into his motives, with the purpose of showing that he was either ‘the right man in the wrong party’ or a wolf in sheep’s clothing. That was all that Modi and Shah, with their so far infallible killer instinct in politics, needed.

What our secular intelligentsia missed, or did not wish to acknowledge, is that it was not Vajpayee who changed during the 65 years between his joining the RSS in 1939 and his resignation from prime ministership in 2004, but the world around him. Most of his supposedly chameleon-like behaviour, and his failure to act decisively at critical moments, stemmed from his conviction that the battle against Hindu extremism could only be fought from within the Sangh parivar. His ambivalence resulted from the compromises this harsh truth imposed upon him.

It must be remembered that Vajpayee joined the RSS in a completely different world. It was a year before the Muslim League had even committed itself to the creation of a separate Muslim state at Lahore. At that point the RSS was still headed by K.B. Hedgewar, who was a Hindu nationalist, but not virulently anti-Muslim. In his youth, Hedgewar had belonged to the Anushilan Samiti, a revolutionary group that counted Shri Aurobindo and Bankim Chandra among its members. Hedgewar founded the Hindu Mahasabha, which became the parliamentary wing of Hindu nationalism. The extent to which it was part of the nationalist mainstream is reflected by the fact that Jawaharlal Nehru asked its leader Syama Prasad Mookerjee to join his cabinet, and Mookerjee accepted.

All that changed, of course, with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. We know very little about how this affected Vajpayee, who was a very junior member of the RSS, having become a pracharak only six months earlier. But an essay he wrote many years later suggests that one of the things that had attracted him to the RSS and possibly made him decide to stay in it was its explicit rejection of caste within its cadres. His brother had joined the Sangh before him, and at its first training camp had refused to share food from the common kitchen. Vajpayee wrote, not without a touch of humour, that it had taken the Sangh only 44 hours to make him change his mind.

Also read: Let Us Not Forget the Glimpse We Got of the Real Vajpayee When the Mask Slipped

But there can be little doubt that on other issues, Vajpayee found himself increasingly at odds with the RSS as it developed under Hedgewar’s successor, M.S. Golwalkar. The key issue, that Ramachandra Guha has so succinctly described, was Golwalkar’s virulent hatred of Muslims. For, in the same essay, Vajpayee wrote:

“The RSS has a two-fold task before it. One is to organise the Hindus. To build a strong Hindu society, well-knit and rising above caste and other artificial differences. Some differences will persist but then variety is the spice of life. Like, we have the differences of the language. We don’t want to destroy this diversity. The other task is to assimilate the non Hindus, like Muslims and Christians in the mainstream. They can follow the faith of their own conviction. No one can object to it. We worship trees, animals, stones, and what not. We have hundreds of ways of worshipping God. They can go where they want. But this country must be looked upon as the Motherland for them.”

It was Islam, not Hinduism, Vajpayee went on, that found it difficult to come  to terms with religious pluralism, because of its Messianic origins.

This statement is of profound significance because it defines the limits of his “Hindutva” and explains his growing distaste for the direction in which the RSS was trying to drag the Hindu community, which is Hindu majoritarianism. For while his observation was probably true for the Muslims who wanted Partition and left India in its aftermath, it was not true for the 45 million who did not leave, and showed, with their feet, their trust in free India.

Narendra Modi, A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. Credit: PTI/Files

Narendra Modi, A.B. Vajpayee and L.K. Advani. Credit: PTI/Files

In the decades that followed, Vajpayee could not but have noticed what the RSS so studiously chooses to ignore – that while sectarian strife continued and became more entrenched in Pakistan, there has not been a major Sunni-Shia riot (an annual feature in British days) in India in the half century since independence. What this showed him was that the Hindu ethos of “Sarva Dharma Sambhava”, enunciated explicitly by Swami Vivekananda at Chicago in 1893, and explicitly rejected by Muslims in Pakistan, had been increasingly internalised by the Muslims of India.

This was the understanding of India that Vajpayee brought to the BJP, and when the chance finally came, to government. It explains why he did not speak, at least publicly, at moments of crisis like the destruction of the Babri Masjid, or after the Gujarat riots. For the dilemma he faced is perhaps the oldest in politics: “Will I achieve more by resigning, or by staying in office and waiting for an opportunity to repair the damage?”

It explains why he took the BJP into a merger with the Janata Party in 1977, instead of simply lending support from the outside. It explains why he initially opposed the party’s withdrawal from it. It explains his distancing himself from Advani’s Rath Yatra; it explains his determination (shared by Advani) to broaden the base of the BJP by opening its doors to scholars, journalists, retired administrators and army officers who had had nothing to do with the RSS. It explains his willingness to jettison core elements of the RSS’s agenda, such as the imposition of a uniform civil code, and the revocation of Articles 370 and 35(a) of the constitution to abolish Kashmir’s special status within India, and a tacit decision to put Ayodhya on the back burner where there was neither a mosque nor a temple but, by implication, every one was free to worship whomsoever they wished.

Vajpayee’s true nature surfaced when he became the prime minister in 1998. He began by not including a single member of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in his cabinet. The VHP took its revenge by raping Christian nuns, burning churches and killing missionaries in the Dang region of Gujarat, and thrusting him right back into the dilemma that he thought he had escaped. Vajpayee responded by repeatedly demanding that the BJP state government control the situation. When it did (not could) not, he went on a fast unto death. Given his love of good food and drink, it is doubtful that he would have sustained it for long, but it had the necessary shock effect on the state government, and the attacks on Christians stopped.

Also read: The ‘Laboratory of Hindutva’ Began Experimenting During Vajpayee’s Reign

Four months later, Vajpayee muzzled the zealots in the Sangh parivar by hammering out an agreement with his coalition partners to control the extremists in the Sangh parivar if they stopped criticising the BJP in their public utterances. To implement this, he created a coordination committee with defence minister George Fernandes as its convener. When the Ahmedabad riots broke out and Modi refused to take Vajpayee’s frantic phone calls through the morning of February 28, it was George Fernandes whom he sent to Ahmedabad to call out the army late that afternoon.

As has been extensively described, Vajpayee’s vision of peace extended beyond the boundaries of India and encompassed Pakistan and the whole of South Asia. It is difficult not to conclude that he chose to swallow the personal insult of the Kargil war, declared a unilateral ceasefire in Kashmir in 2000, and extended the hand of friendship to Pakistan from Srinagar in April 2003 because he understood that Indian Muslims would remain a threatened species so long as India-Pakistan tensions continued. Finally, while his overtures to Kashmir and Pakistan are well remembered, no one has commented on the way in which he blocked the dispatch of Indian troops to Iraq at a meeting of the cabinet committee on security in July 2003, hours before they were scheduled to board the ship for Basra, after this had been agreed to by both Advani and Jaswant Singh during their visits to the US.

Vajpayee's Asthi Kalash Yatra in Allahabad. Credit: PTI

Vajpayee’s Asthi Kalash Yatra in Allahabad. Credit: PTI

For me, however, Vajpayee’s finest hour was the way he accepted the NDA’s defeat in the vote of confidence in 1999, and submitted his government’s resignation to the president, when he knew that the vote had passed only because Giridhar Gamang, who had already taken over as chief minister of Odisha, had come back  to vote against Vajpayee because he had not yet submitted his resignation from the Lok Sabha. It was not only his, but Indian democracy’s finest hour.

Such a long career in politics cannot be without its blemishes and Vajpayee is no exception. The two that stand out in my mind is his staying on in the RSS after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and his ringing endorsement of Modi at the Goa meeting of the BJP’s national executive in April 2002, when the killing and post-riot persecution of Muslims had still not ended.

Speaking for myself, I can try to understand the first, but cannot condone the second. Vajpayee knew from intelligence reports that Modi had ordered the corpses of the Godhra victims to be sent to Ahmedabad because the RSS and VHP had well laid plans to start a pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat. It is now common knowledge that he intended to sack Modi at the national executive meeting in Goa two months later. So when he was checkmated by, among others, Arun Jaitley, who brought and presented Modi to the assembled members as the hero of Gujarat before Vajpayee’s address, why did he not assert his pre-eminence and explain to the audience why Modi had to go inspite of having won the Gujarat assembly elections? Worse, why did he go on the dais and put the blame for the riots in Ahmedabad on a still-to-be-proven Muslim conspiracy in Godhra?

Also read: ‘Wherever Muslims Live…’: Text of Vajpayee’s Controversial Goa Speech, April 2002

The truth is that this single failure of nerve has set off a chain of events which today jeopardises India’s very future as a viable nation state. Its first victim was he himself. As both Ram Bilas Paswan and Chandrababu Naidu said while leaving the NDA after the 2004 election defeat, they and the coalition paid the price for Ahmedabad in the 2004 elections. Its second victim was the moderate, forward-looking BJP that Vajpayee and Advani had fashioned in the years after 1991. The RSS pinned the blame for the defeat on “the Vajpayee line” of cosying up to the opponents of a Hindu rashtra, staged an internal coup within the BJP and reimposed hardline Hindutva upon the party.

Vajpayee’s evasion thus changed the course of history, for had the NDA won in 2004 there would not have been the revolt in the RSS against Vajpayee and Advani’s attempt to modernise and civilise the BJP. Narendra Modi would have remained in Gujarat; Amit Shah would probably have been in jail for murder; the Kashmir dispute would have almost certainly been resolved; and the economy would not have collapsed, robbing 40 million youth of their future, after 2011. Most important of all, India would have remained a country governed by law instead of vigilantes posing as saviours of Hinduism

Today, the budding opposition alliance does not have to take on the Modi government’s performance point-by-point to prove its ineffectiveness and its contempt for the canons of democracy. All it has to do is to hold up the mirror of the Vajpayee government’s performance to Modi’s face, and let the public see the image it reflects.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of several books.

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