Vajpayee Proved That a Liberal Attitude and Illiberal Politics Are Not Binaries

Liberals wistfully look back to Vajpayee as the last of the liberals among the illiberals, while the illiberals look to his legacy as a testimony of the human values of illiberalism.

Images are to be treated with great caution. They have the potential to affect us in ways both positive and negative. Our collective experience with images is marked by conflict over how we receive them. Thus, the image of an advocate of peace with Pakistan launched by a bus journey or of a person sharing cordial relations with allies and members of the opposition conditions our assessment of that person. Such images even impact the way we assess the age that such political personalities inhabit.

The last phase of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s journey took place amid fading liberal atmosphere and India’s march towards bigotry – a phase which has now culminated in placing India firmly on the path to a right-wing fundamentalist destiny.

Ironically, the liberal image of Vajpayee would not have been possible without Lal Krishna Advani’s rise and his categoric attack on secularism. Advani’s actions set off scores of riots in the early years of the last decade of the last century, which in turn helped BJP consolidate and increase its ranks. Yet this consolidation and expansion under a parliamentary democratic set up required the perfect image of a reasonable party – in other words, a mask for a hawkish face. The historic image that was needed to neutralise the image of a mob launching a religious crusade and bringing the nation back to governance was that of an uneasy liberal who, as the nation was assured, always paid attention to the middle ground.

Even though during most of his political career Vajpayee had proclaimed himself as an ardent Hindu and a diehard sanghpracharak, his legacy in the aftermath of his demise was projected to be that of a liberal. Political flexibility and the capacity to manage allies and keep an alliance around right-wing fundamentalism became the hallmarks of this liberal image. In the fractious times that followed the Vajpayee era, he came to symbolise ‘acceptability’ – apparently a great virtue in the neo-liberal age.

One can interpret the much-discussed value of acceptability from another angle: The Vajpayee era was an interregnum between the liberal time that continued up to the eighties and the hard neoliberalism of today. During the Rajiv Gandhi era, seeds of neoliberal reforms had been sown, the two Aruns and the Pitrodas had held up the virtues of economic reform, and the Narasimha Rao government had demonstrated that appeasement of forces of religious intolerance could go hand in hand with neoliberal reforms.

Vajpayee combined in him all these trends. His era marked the uneasy passage from a postcolonial polity to a neoliberal, authoritarian rule. The Gujarat riots, the frantic disinvestment programme led by Arun Shourie, the saffronisation of national cultural institutions, along with various neoliberal reforms such as auction of national resources – took place amid an atmosphere marked by poetry, oratory and the evolution of an acceptable idiom to push through a neoliberal as well as an illiberal agenda.

Today, liberals wistfully look back to Vajpayee as the last of the liberals among the illiberals, while the illiberals look to his legacy as a testimony of the human values of illiberalism. This is a classic case of how these two trends have fashioned popular imagination. We want to be both liberal and neoliberal, we want to be liberal and illiberal at the same time, and our imagination of a person as symbolising the two became a constitutive practice for nurturing our neoliberal self. Vajpayee showed that liberal attitude and illiberal politics were not binaries. They were not absolute opposites. Indeed, this paradox may well define freedom. The Indian middle-class, whose imagination was shackled to the Nehruvian image, now got a different anchor.

Paradoxes of imagination

The interesting parts of imagining Vajpayee’s persona come through the deployment of active, judicious images, through the recollections and reminiscences of his personality by colleagues, fellow parliamentarians, opposition leaders, and not to be left behind, media writers and television personalities. The imaginative act was collective, and it appealed to the middle-classes who yearned for the bygone days of a liberal-illiberal continuum that has ruled the polity since independence. Imagination thus had a double function: it created images of a man; and it served to perpetuate the mythical and mixed liberal-illiberal world of politics and society. This kept the citizens satisfied and happy.

Silence in Vajpayee’s repertoire was more political than intellectual. Credit: YouTube screengrab/BJP

The funeral speeches and memorial functions after Vajpayee’s death created a series of images of a liberal world led by a liberal politician. The process catalysed the desire for a lost world. Yet this very desire was also an embarrassment to the present political authorities that have made the choice – a choice that Vajpayee avoided or thought was unnecessary. Even the opposition leaders who wanted to pay formal respects to the departed leader found the paradox unsettling, and hence chose to keep to a minimum their participation in government – and ruling party-sponsored memorial events.

Politicians are thus faced with subjects who imagine as well as relegate to the margin certain images that form the basis of a political regime. This is the constitutive as well as destructive power of images created by a collective practice of imagination. We can be reasonably sure that poll advisers in India have not yet found an adequate formula to engage with the power of imagination in politics.

The memory of images, of a Vajpayee reciting poetry or speaking in eloquent metaphors when India was yet to recover from the horror of post-Babri Masjid riots, and was again plunged into the horror of the Gujarat riot, now survives as the double figure of literature and nightmare. Imagination thus has to be tailored to popular consciousness. Perhaps this contradiction rested at the heart of colonial liberalism as well. As Tagore noted before his death, colonialism gave India poetry, art, literature, Shelley, Keats and Byron, and along with these, famines, rule of law and millions of perished lives.

Pregnant silence

Against the backdrop of images of Vajpayee circulating after his death, what clamour for attention are the moments of silence around political personalities. A silent Nehru was the image of an eloquent but thoughtful person. Vajpayee’s silent moments did not appear as pure moments of thinking, but rather as moments of lull before resuming eloquence. Silence in his repertoire was more political in nature than intellectual.

Right up to the Vajpayee era, the RSS was mostly silent about caste as an organising principle of ‘Hindu’ society. The BJP was known as a party of the forward castes, land owners and traders. Of course, there were the usual disturbing noises about conversions, but by and large, the BJP led by Vajpayee was silent on the issues of Dalits, OBCs, etc. Yet we saw OBCs emerge as the muscle of the Hindu brigade during the Ram janambhoomi movement, which also saw the participation of Dalits and Adivasis (evident in Orissa, Jharkhand and Gujarat). Vajpayee desisted from theorising this new chapter of religious fervour. He remained silent about the changing caste configuration of the Hindu army – as if his liberalism was not ready to recognise this. From this angle, too, later developments showed why and how BJP made choices that Vajpayee was reluctant to make. Today, popular discourse has sought to incorporate Ambedkar’s legacy even as cow vigilantism dominates different parts of the country.

The silent pauses, punctuated with eloquence, apart from being Vajpayee’s style, paradigmatically conveyed the image of a civilised politician who was now a statesman. The silence was a performative act. It stood for the ability to assure the subjects of security in a time of anarchy, riots and violence. It projected the efficacy of an image of a protective guardian, who had rajdharma at heart. Vajpayee perfected the style.

The murderous riots, Kargil war, nuclear test at Pokhran, bus journey to Lahore, discomfiture over Babri Masjid demolition, Gujarat riots and frenetic disinvestment of state resources were all compressed into a single image of a thoughtful, quasi-liberal politician and his age. It laid the perfect groundwork for succeeding regimes to proceed towards a neoliberal polity and economy.

Ranabir Samaddar is Distinguished Chair in Forced Migration studies, Calcutta Research Group. He can be contacted at [email protected].