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Demystifying the image of a Prodigal Son of Sangh Parivar

I have a problem with these various types of tributes to Vajpayee. While surely mourning the departure of a political leader who was a prime minister for some time, and who spent his last years in a pathetic physical condition, we should not allow our emotional sympathy for him to overcome the need for a dispassionate examination of Vajpayee’s political career.

Saturday August 25, 2018 8:23 PM, Sumanta Banerjee

Atal Bihari Vajpayee

“One owes respect to the living; but to the dead one owes nothing but the truth.” – Voltaire (Lettres sur OEdipe)

Obituaries are pourng in after the death of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who is being paid respects to by all leaders across the national political spectrum. He is being hailed as a charismatic prime minister, a great orator, a ruler who invented the term 'coalition-dharma' to run governments, who held out his hands to Pakistan for friendship, and tried to reach out to the Kashmiris with his slogan of Insaniyat, Jumhariat, Kashmiriat.’

Some teary-eyed journalists and commentators recall their personal encounters with him, and how they were impressed by his recitations from his poetry in his home, and his oratory in Parliament. Some among the liberals of that generation, in a sentimental nostalgic mood, are even going overboard by describing him as a 'gentle colossus’ in the Nehruvian tradition. They recall how Nehru, congratulated this newly elected young Jan Sangh MP, on his speech in the Lok Sabha, and in his usual jocular vein patted him and wished that he would be the future prime minister! They also recall his emotional speech in tribute to Nehru after his death.

I have a problem with these various types of tributes to Vajpayee. While surely mourning the departure of a political leader who was a prime minister for some time, and who spent his last years in a pathetic physical condition, we should not allow our emotional sympathy for him to overcome the need for a dispassionate examination of Vajpayee’s political career.

When the dust settles down, can the image of Vajpayee be de-mystified? Can we look back at the contents of his speeches both in parliament and mass meetings – which are being heralded today as great examples of his oratorial skills? Can we peer into the history of his constantly changing roles – which provoked one of his comrades from the Sangh Parivar to describe him as a mask? Should we also not separate the public face of Vajpayee’s as a politician (in which role he wore several masks) from his private face in his home, where he perhaps shed those masks, to take up the responsibility of looking after the daughter of a friend of his who had died? He adopted her as his foster daughter – who finally carried out the final religious ritual of setting fire to the pyre (in violation of the traditional Hindu norm of only males being entitled to that right).

How do we explain and reconcile these different faces of Vajpayee? May be, this task should be left to future political analysts and psychologists. The latter in particular should go into his private domain, where (according to reminiscences of his friends) as a youth, he rejected marital ties which were being arranged by his parents, by escaping into a friend’s house where he kept himself locked up. And yet, in his later life, he was willing to relax such strict norms in his private space of personal relationships. Was there then this need for him in his political career to put on the mask of a brahmachari (the male virgin, lauded as a bachelor politician’ in Indian politics) to retain the support of the RSS (which he joined as a teen-ager, and the leaders of which swore by `brahmacharya’ meaning abstention from sex)? These are secret areas of future research.

Conflict between Atal and Bihari

Pending such research, let me share a few thoughts about Atal Bihari Vajpayee. To start with, the name given to him by his parents. Atal’ means steadfast. But the next word Bihari’ means one who moves around and travels. It is this basic conflict between the two roles that was assigned to him by his parents, that he had to resolve during his political career. Was he to stay atal’ in his RSS religious roots of Hindutva as a pracharak’, or move beyond as a 'bihari’ in the multi-religious political scenario of India, to move up along the ladder of parliamentary politics? He chose the latter option which enabled him to reach the top most position of a prime minister. But he kept his RSS mentors assured of his loyalty to their cause. All through his life, from his youth, he managed to successfully juggle with dual roles – one professing loyalty to his religio-political beliefs in public, and the other submitting to the dictates of the ruling powers to retract from that loyalty whenever he was put in their private custody of the jail.

It was early in 1942, when he was barely sixteen years old, and already a member of the RSS, that Atal Bihari started learning the tricks of this game. He was arrested for participation in a Quit India movement demonstration in his village Bateshwar on August 27, 1942 – a demonstration which turned violent and demolished a government building. After his arrest, in his statement made to the local magistrate on September 1, 1942, he dissociated himself from the incident saying that he did not participate in the demolition. This was fair enough! But he then added in the same breath in that statement, names of two of his friends – Kakua and Mahuan – describing them as the leaders of that demonstration who demolished the building. Following that information, one of the two was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment – while Vajpayee himself got scot-free. [For an exhaustive report and analysis of the events, see 'Vajpayee and The Quit India Movement’, by Manini Chatterjee and V.K. Ramachandran in FRONTLINE, Vol. 15, No. 03 – February 7-20, 1998.]

One can pardon a teenager for protecting himself by subterfuge – even to the extent of letting down his comrades by implicating them (unwittingly perhaps) in conspiracy cases. But an adult Vajpayee also continued to follow the same style of subterfuge in his later political career, whenever facing threats from the ruling powers. In 1942 the threat came from the then British administrators (to whom be submitted). In 1975 the threat came from the then Indira Gandhi-imposed Emergency. Vajpayee, then a leader of the Jan Sangh, was arrested and sent to a jail in Bangalore, from where he was sent to a local hospital when he complained of ailments, following which he was shifted to Delhi at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS). According to a close party colleague of his, Subramanian Swamy (now a leading BJP leader), soon after Vajpayee was shifted to Delhi, he gave a written undertaking stating that he would not participate in any programme against the government, following which he was granted parole in August-September 1975, and he spent the rest of the period till the lifting of Emergency in his home in Delhi. To quote Swami: “…for most of the 20 month Emergency, Mr Vajpayee was out on parole…” (Re: Subramanian Swamy’s article in HINDU, June 13, 2000). It is ironical – and sad too – that the same AIIMS, from which custody he was released on medical grounds in August 1975 that enabled him to get parole, became his last resting place in August 2018, where he was taken for treatment for his age-related ailments.

Paroles in Vajpayee’s political career

Vajpayee was lucky in enjoying comfortable paroles at various stages of his political career. Whenever things looked bad for his reputation as a public leader, he retreated to a parole of sorts by donning a mask. After his party’s followers demolished the Babri Masjid, he could sense the public outrage, and soon came out with a statement saying how sad he felt. The best illustration of his duplicity was his observations after the 2002 Gujarat massacre of Muslims. His statements were carefully constructed at a dual level . At the national level, he assured the larger sections of the Indian public that he was asking Narendra Modi to adhere to Raj Dharma, a slogan that was much publicized in those days through the media. At the other level of intimate interaction with his party followers, around the same time, Vajpayee addressed the BJP national executive meeting in Goa on April 12, 2002, where he said: “If a conspiracy had not been hatched to burn alive the innocent passengers of the Sabarmati Express, then the subsequent tragedy in Gujarat could have been averted…”, and then he added the ominous question: “.. who lit the fire ?” (quoted in Siddharth Varadrajan’s introduction to the book Gujarat: The Making of a Tragedy.’ Penguin. 2002). This statement of his amounted to the justification of Modi’s earlier infamous and chilling utterance that supported the Gujarat carnage, as popular reaction in accordance with Newton’s Third Law.

Coming down to brass tracks, Vajpayee remained true to the religio-political beliefs in which he was trained by the RSS. Much is being made today by newspaper commentators of his oratorial skills. I remember covering parliamentary proceedings in the 1967-69 period as a reporter of The Statesman. I found him a neck-jerking tub-thumper who was just transferring his demagogy from the `maidan’ to the floors of parliament. In fact, there were much better speakers than him, from his own Jan Sangh party in parliament – Bhai Mahavir and Sunder Singh Bhandari among others, who in measured terms used to argue in support of their political views on the floors. Among the Hindi-speaking MPs from other political parties, surely Ram Manohar Lohia and Madhu Limaye scored above Vajpayee. So, before valorizing Vajpayee as a great orator, we should get back to the recordings of his speeches in the Lok Sabha, and re-examine them.

The Prodigal Son of the Sangh Parivar

In his personal life-style, however, Vajpayee often departed from the strict code dictated by his Sangh parichalaks. He had a sense of humour – which was absent among his RSS mentors. I remember sometime in 1968 perhaps, as a reporter of The Statesman in Delhi – when there was a leadership tussle between him and Deendayal Upadhyay in the Jana Sangh. I tried to get in touch with both of them. I rang up a number given to me by a Jana Sangh contact. There was a response from the other end, in a rather gruffy voice. Assuming that Deendayal Upadhyay was my object of interview, I darted off my questions – and he gently answered them. At the end of the telephone interview, I said “Thank you, Mr Upadhyay!” From the other end of the telephone came a hearty laughter followed by the announcement: “I am Mr. Vajpayee.”

His unorthodox food habits (love for non-vegetarian dishes which are taboo for the Sangh Parivar members) were winked at by the Parivar leaders since he continued to deliver goods to the Parivar- as a parliamentarian and later as a prime minister. He also had his moment of winking. In 1977, Morarji Desai as the then prime minister made a trip to the then USSR, and happened to meet Indian students there. He scolded them for drinking. They tried explaining to him that they drank to keep themselves warm in the cold weather. Vajpayee accompanied Morarji Desai as the External Affairs Minister during that meet. On the way out of the meeting place, Vajpayee turned back to the students, winked and whispered: “Piyo, piyo” (drink, drink). [Re: THE TIMES OF INDIA, Hyderabad, August 17, 2018, p. 11.]

[Sumanta Banerjee is a political and civil rights activist and social scientist. The above article is first published by]

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