Of the many stories of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s remarkable ability to win friends and influence people, there is one that stays in the mind. The prime minister was in Lahore on his audacious bus yatra to Pakistan when reports filtered in that the back-channel diplomatic negotiations to frame a joint statement had hit a roadblock. As journalists covering the trip, we rushed to the Lahore fort where Vajpayee was at a grand banquet being hosted by his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif. As soon as we spotted the Indian PM walking out, we shouted to find out whether there had been any fresh tension in the relations. Atalji looked at us, paused (the famous Vajpayee pause) and then smiled: “I don’t know about tensions, but I promise you that the best gajar halwa in the world is in Lahore, even better than in Purani Dilli (old Delhi),” and then turned to his host, also a foodie, “Kyon Mian saab, sahi hai na!” Suddenly, the strain of an Indo-Pak meet seemed to lift and everyone had a smile on their face.
That Atalji could find a way to spread goodwill among even his political adversaries might explain why his ‘enemies’ could be counted on the finger of one hand. It almost certainly explains why he was such a successful politician in the era of political coalitions. Until Atalji completed his five-year tenure as PM of NDA 2, coalitions in India had a terrible reputation of being rickety alliances of convenience that were inherently unstable and against the notion of good governance. It was Atalji’s reassuring presence that made coalition politics acceptable at the Centre; even more crucially, he made the BJP a nationally acceptable alternative to the Congress.
Atalji’s first shot at power in 1996 had ended in a 13-day debacle, the ideological isolation of the BJP seemingly complete. The ghosts of the 1992 Babri Masjid demolition still haunted the BJP, making the party a seeming “untouchable”. Vajpayee had shrewdly distanced himself from the act, calling it “unfortunate” and “one that should not have happened”. At a time when the Sangh parivar wore the demolition as a badge of “Hindu pride”, Vajpayee was able to offer a counterpoint. Whether it reflected his liberal Hindu impulses or was simply a politically strategic decision, it ensured that Atalji would always be viewed with less hostility than his party companion LK Advani. Where Advani, the Ram rath yatra charioteer was branded as the face of militant Hindutva, Vajpayee was positioned as the more inclusive leader.
Without Advani at the helm in the late 1980s and early 90s, the BJP might have struggled to offer a political and ideological challenge to the dominant Congress. But without Vajpayee as their prime ministerial candidate, the BJP may have never been seen as a party of governance. Where Advani gave the BJP muscle and energy, Vajpayee as the romantic poet-politician provided the party a tolerant and accommodating spirit that could win over a range of parties who had been discomfited by Hindutva politics. When the NDA was forged in 1998, I asked the socialist George Fernandes, who would later become NDA convener, whether he was comfortable with the idea of aligning with the saffron right. “As long as Atalji is there, I don’t think we should be concerned,” was his forthright response.
In a sense, if Advani was the ideological mascot of a resurgent Hindu right, Vajpayee became a symbol of a distinct political pragmatism that recognised that governing India was about moving away from all extremities. Atalji appeared to locate himself in the political centre: yes, he was a swayamsewak, and proud to be one, as he publicly admitted, but he was also someone who was never going to allow his origins in the Sangh to constrain his inherent commitment to a plural constitutional democracy. Which is why he relished the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate or the opportunity to lead a multi-party Indian delegation to the United Nations to argue the country’s case on Kashmir.
Perhaps, this is because Atalji was a unique political figure: a swayamsewak who was once accused of hate speech during the Bhiwandi riots in Mumbai in the 1970s, but he was also a politician who was infused with the spirit of the Nehruvian age. This was a period — with the unfortunate exception of the Emergency years — where politicians across party lines did not speak of ‘eliminating’ their rivals as much as contesting against them. Atalji, in a sense, was the torchbearer of a gentler political era where dissent was not criminalised and the Opposition not demonised as ‘anti-national’.
Post-script: Last week, at a book release, the Shiv Sena’s Sanjay Raut called for a return to the Vajpayee-era NDA. The BJP spokesperson Gaurav Bhatia shot back: “We also want the Shiv Sena of Bal Thackeray!” Now, both Vajpayee and Thackeray are gone and the many shades of Hindutva politics have changed forever.
A version of this column first appeared in Hindustan Times