Vajpayee the 'Mukhota', Once and Always a Sangh Loyalist

Yet in stark contrast to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he was accessible – even pleasant – to journalists, including those who were critical of him.

New Delhi: Atal Bihari Vajpayee was always accessible, always the affable “mukhota” (mask) of the party, polite and pleasant to even those journalists who may have written something that he did not like and who did not share his world view shaped by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. When he did not want to answer a question put to him, he would turn it into a joke with a wonderful aside.

“You see Vajpayeeji is like a Ceylonese doll, you punch it from the right, it sways but soon stands up straight, you punch it from the left, it wobbles, but stands up straight again.” This is how a senior BJP leader once described Vajpayee’s ability to come out unscathed from any embarrassing political event that would ordinarily besmirch the reputation of even a seasoned politician.

But there should be no mistake that Vajpayee was the quintessential RSS swayamsevak who would not flinch from doing the organisation’s bidding. He was shrewd enough not to be present in Ayodhya when the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground on December 6, 1992. A day before the demolition, he spoke in Lucknow suggesting that the Supreme Court had allowed the leveling of some of the areas at the disputed site. Some people believe that he had actually instigated karsewaks to carry out the demolition the next day with his play on words.

As he himself famously said in September 2000 while addressing the Overseas Friends of the BJP on Staten Island in New York, one day he would not be Prime Minister, but “once a swayamsevak always a swayamsevak” he would remain. With that one sentence, he quelled all criticism within the Sangh parivar about his supposedly liberal ways and made it clear that he was no less than any other in his loyalty to the RSS.

This resolve had earlier been put into practice when the BJP broke away from the post-Emergency Janata Party government on the issue of dual membership of the Janata Party and the RSS. Jana Sangh members led by Vajpayee quit the government and gave up power rather than repudiate their membership of the RSS.

It is well documented that Vajpayee planned to remove Narendra Modi as chief minister of Gujarat at the party’s national conclave in Goa after the 2002 riots in the state. But he was thwarted by the deft footwork of L.K. Advani and Arun Jaitley. In a preemptive move, Modi offered to resign and Advani made sure that almost the entire national executive rose up as one rejecting this offer and backed it with a party resolution. Vajpayee had to retreat. But in doing so he appealed to the most crass anti-Muslim sentiment within the party and the RSS.

That evening, at a public meeting in Goa, he delivered the most communal speech I ever heard him make in 20 years of covering the party. Muslims everywhere make trouble and cannot live in peace with their neighbours, he said, speaking as he did after the most gruesome riots in Gujarat. His speech led to a privilege motion again him, but he turned the situation around by the explanation that he was only referring to “some” Muslims who have a “jihadi mentality”.

Former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Credit: PTI

Politicians from across the political spectrum do not tire of describing Vajpayee as the right man in the wrong party, a man who by nature was a secular humanist and a liberal but who had somehow become entangled in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a rightwing fascist organisation.

Nothing in fact could be further from the truth. Vajpayee was as much committed to Hindutva and to Golwalkar’s vision of Muslims and Christians being allowed to live in India as second class citizens at the “mercy” of the Hindu majority community as Prime Minister Narendra Modi or the current RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat are. He wrote a poem, ‘Hindu Tan Man Hindu Jeevan’, underlying his very identity – his body and soul – as being nothing but Hindu. That poem, which had been initially put on the party website after he became prime minister was quickly taken down specifically at his instruction, perhaps because as prime minister of a coalition government he did not want to court a fresh controversy.

Having said that, it is a fact that Vajpayee was accessible and pleasant to journalists, even those who were critical of him. In this he presented a stark contrast to Narendra Modi, who, it would seem, finds it hard to accept, forget or forgive criticism. Columnist and television anchor Karan Thapar has in his recent book written about the attempt made by him to get his professional relationship with Modi back on track (after a disastrous interview where Modi walked out), but to no avail. And we have the recent exit of journalists from the ABP television channel to underscore the point that Modi does not take kindly to criticism.

Of course, Modi was accessible to journalists when he was party general secretary here, just before he went to Gujarat in 2001 as chief minister. But in Gujarat he quickly did away with the regular media briefing with journalists.

A journalist once asked Vajpayee about the BJP’s foreign policy – this was before he became prime minister – and he dismissed the question with one sentence: “Bomb Pakistan, Destroy Pakistan.”

That was said in jest, but meant seriously. The indication was that his party was obsessed by Pakistan and had only one passionate foreign policy point – destruction of Pakistan. Of course, after he became prime minister, he famously wanted to extend a “hand of friendship” to Pakistan, undertook the Lahore bus ‘yatra’, and organised the Agra summit with General Pervez Musharraf that Advani made sure ended disastrously.

When the media approached him for his comments on the party’s Gujarat crisis caused by the Shankarsinh Waghela rebellion against chief minister Keshubhai Patel in 1995, he advised us to “ask Advaniji”, clearly enjoying the discomfiture of the party under Advani’s leadership.

Vajpayee knew how to bide his time when he could not have his way within the party. In 1999, he could not appoint Jaswant Singh as his finance minister because the RSS bosses objected. He accepted Yashwant Sinha, but a few years down the line brought in Jaswant Singh.

Finally, it was perhaps K.N. Govindacharya who aptly described Vajpayee – although he consistently denied authorship – as the “mukhota”, the mask that is useful to the RSS in its long march to power, a “mask” that gave it legitimacy by bringing in as allies a whole plethora of regional parties from the socialist minded Biju Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United) to the like minded Akali Dal and the Shiv Sena, and to the AIADMK and the Telugu Desam.

Vajpayee never forgave Govindacharya for that remark, but patiently waited for the right time. And then, Govindacharya was banished, never to come back. The Ceylonese doll stood upright again.

Neena Vyas covered the Bharatiya Janata Party for years for The Hindu.