A Hero Forever


Over the years, Atal Bihari Vajpayee remained a pendulum between his innate liberalism and bowing to the pressures of rabid Hindu fundamentalism



Reeta Singh is a senior journalist with over 30 years’ of experience in print and electronic media. She is also a social activist, working on gender issues for an NGO – ‘Mass Education and Development in Asia’. She is a co-founder of ‘Parliamentarian.

India’s first non-Congress Prime Minister to have completed full five-year term in office, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, was a true statesman who always had grand vision of the country as well as life. He visualised schemes like highway connectivity, telecom connectivity, river-linking as well as Indo-Pak peace talks and resolution of vexed Kashmir issue. However, he always used a vast canvas but never had an eye for the detail. He didn’t bother about the nitty-gritties of such grand schemes, leaving them for his colleagues to sort things out. But, was this image correct, or was there more to it than meets the eye?

He started as a Sangh pracharak, a staunch pro-Hindutva organisation known for its discipline and rabid views but was a liberal at heart. These two streaks often reflected in Vajpayee’s personality throughout his 93-year life. He was an excellent orator and a poet. He was the only crowd-puller in his party Bhartiya Jana Sangh and later Bhartiya Janta Party. He was the face of the party, a mask which could conceal all its warts. But sometimes the mask slipped.

Moderate RSS

The party and its ideological ally, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), were known for their rabid nationalism and Hindutva views. But Vajpayee was always considered a moderate – the right person in the wrong party. Soon after Vajpayee became Prime Minister in 1998, the country was gripped by a spate of communal violence directed against Christians. Couple of nuns were raped in Jhabua (Madhya Pradesh); Graham Staines was burnt to death in Odisha and churches were torched at various places in the country.

Vajpayee was under pressure from both sides. Christians wanted firm action against RSS hawks and their foot soldiers. At the same time, his ideological allies wanted him to look the other way while they ‘taught missionaries a lesson’. Both RSS and missionaries compete in fields of education and tribal welfare. Missionaries, with liberal funding from the West, have proliferated and grown exponentially. The RSS accused them of proselytising the tribals and poor lower class Hindus, whom RSS considers its own people.

In the last week of December 1998, Vajpayee with his family and staff went on a holiday to the Andamans. On the way in Bhubneshwar and during return journey at Bengaluru, delegations of Christians called upon the Prime Minister.

Vajpayee could have given an excuse that law and order is a state subject and hence the Prime Minister of a federal republic had his limitations. But, he stood firm in his commitment to secularism, or so it seemed. He assured the community of ensuring peace and prevent their recurrence. The mask remained intact.

“Levelling the Ground”

But, on December 5, 1992 a day before Babri Mosque was razed to the ground by Hindu zealots, Vajpayee addressed a rally at Lucknow’s Begum Hazrat Mahal Park. Standing barely 120 kms from the epicentre of the coming communal flashpoint, Vajpayee told the massive crowd of karsevaks (Hindu volunteers): “There is no question of stopping kar seva at Ayodhya even as situation had turned tense and a mishap is not ruled out. Sharp and pointed stones have come out at the place where kar seva has to be performed and a grand Ram Temple built. No one can sit there. The ground has to be levelled. It has to be made fit for sitting. Arrangements for a yagya will be done, so there will be some construction.”

The mask had slipped a little. But, back in Delhi after demolition of the mosque, Vajpayee claimed: “It is the saddest day of my life!” The mask returned to its place.

Later, on 12 April 2002, Vajpayee, addressing BJP’s national council meeting said: “We should not forget how the tragedy of Gujarat started. The subsequent developments were no doubt condemnable but who lit the fire? How did the fire spread? Wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in coexistence with others, they don’t like to mingle with others; and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats. The world has become alert to this danger.”

Obviously the constituency had changed. The audience comprised of BJP leaders, mostly Swayamsevaks. So, Vajpayee decided to do away with the garb of a secular democratic leader. He spoke like a true swayamsevak. The mask was not required here.

Mask Returns

But Vajpayee speaking in Lok Sabha a month later said: “I accept the Hindutva of Swami Vivekananda but the type of Hindutva being propagated now is wrong and one should be wary of it.” So, which Vajpayee should one believe the one at BJP national executive or the one speaking in the Parliament?

Ten years later, in the wake of one of the worst communal riots in Gujarat, Vajpayee as a Prime Minister advised then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi to follow ‘Rajdharma’ (rules set for a king - of treating everybody equal and protecting each one of his subjects). It was seen as a major rebuke to the person who 12 years later would become Prime Minister of India. The mask remained intact.

But, when Modi sitting by Vajpayee’s side intervened by saying, “I am trying to do that only”, Vajpayee acquiesced: “Yes, yes. I believe the chief minister is doing the same.” The Swayamsevak within Vajpayee apparently surfaced and the mask reappeared.

Igniting Assam

An encore was done by Atal Bihari Vajpayee at an election rally in Assam, where he hit out at illegal migrants from Bangladesh. “Foreigners have come here and the government does nothing. What if they had come into Punjab instead? People would have chopped them into pieces and thrown them away,” he said. Was it the moderate Vajpayee we have known all along? Or the Sawyamsevak? Obviously, the mask kept slipping and coming back as per convenience.

Soon after his speech violence erupted in Nellie in which over 2,000 suspected Bangladeshi immigrants were hacked, chopped and brutally murdered. Vajpayee had by then returned to New Delhi. Next day, in a hard hitting statement, Vajpayee condemned the Nellie massacre. The mask had returned.

There were many more instances when people had a hard time in fathoming who is the real Vajpayee. After the 1996 Lok Sabha polls, Vajpayee announced that the BJP has decided not to stake a claim to form the government, as they did not get the required number of seats. Next day, he along with senior party colleagues, went to meet President Shankar Dayal Sharma to convey their decision. Coming out of Rashtrapati Bhawan, Vajpayee sprang a surprise by claiming that they had accepted President’s offer to form the government. What changed during those crucial 13-14 hours? Vajpayee was apparently prevailed upon by the hawks within the party who wanted to have a go at government formation and then try to woo other parties. Or may be he too decided to be part of the herd. Else, he could have put his foot down.

Volt Face

Of course, no other party crossed over to support the BJP and within the next 13 days Vajpayee had to resign without facing a trust vote. And Vajpayee covered up ably for the folly during his speech in the parliament. In his inimitable style he told the parliament, “What should have I done at the President’s offer? Should I have left the field? Should I have deserted my responsibility? Instead, I decided to forge an alliance of parties on a common minimum programme. The President had asked me to prove the majority by 31st May. Today is only 28th. We could not muster support. So I won’t wait even till 31st. I don’t hanker for power. Don’t doubt my intentions. I haven’t played games. I won’t play them today either. I am going to Rashtrapati Bhawan from here to submit my resignation.” That is how Vajpayee salvaged the situation for the BJP by showcasing his credibility and integrity.

Non-Sanghi Lifestyle

Yet, there were shades of his personality which were completely unpalatable to the straight jacket organisation like RSS. His eating (non-vegetarian) and drinking (alcohol) were anathema to the saffron organisation. On the one hand, RSS talked about protecting cows and on the other Vajpayee relished beef. They were never happy about Vajpayee living with the family of another man (Prof Kaul of Delhi University), adopting the entire family after Dr Kaul’s death. But they had to accept him in totality because of his immense popularity.

Vajpayee had a hard time in the Prime Minister’s office because of the antics of RSS and its affiliates. They started calling for policy changes to suit their ideology. Vajpayee was in a quandary. He tried to reason out with them that it was not the BJP government but a coalition of parties of various hues from Dravidian to Kashmiri, from Dalit to Brahmanical, but, when the interference became unbearable, Vajpayee had to publicly rebuke them at a party conclave in Bengaluru in January 1999. In a written statement he directed, “Free exchange of ideas between party organisation and the government on all issues is fine and desirable as well, but in matters of governance, Prime Minister’s word will be final.” But the RSS didn’t get the message. It kept on needling him by opposing the disinvestment policy, foreign policy, labour policy, besides scores of other decisions. Twice they tried to unseat him first in 2002 by offering him to become President of India, to which he countered by proclaiming - “(I am) neither tired, nor retired. (You are free to) conquer polls under Lal Krishna Advani.” Then again RSS did it in 2003 by requesting him to let Advani lead the election campaign.

Unfailing Sense

By then he had really tired. Alzheimer’s had started affecting his senses.

Waiting for the results of 2014 elections, Vajpayee asked a visiting journalist, “How do you fancy our chances?” The scribe replied, “I feel BJP will win around 230-240 seats. You would need support to form the government”. Vajpayee shot back,

“You are being too optimistic. We won’t get so many seats.” And the results proved that despite the opposition from outside and inside, besides Alzheimer’s, his political sense was absolutely intact.


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