With Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s death on August 16, 2018, a long chapter in Indian history has come to an end. It is customary to say good things about somebody who has recently passed away, so national and international messages sent to India mostly highlighted the positive things Vajpayee did.
But for a dispassionate review of his personality and politics, we must look at the broader picture in which he stood out. No doubt, he was a brilliant orator, sagacious statesman and a diehard Hindu, all at one time.
Before discussing Vajpayee, let’s have a look at the good and the bad of the Indian politics in the second half of the 20th century. The good – as represented by the Indian National Congress was mostly dominated by leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad – lasted till the mid-1960s. It was good because the Congress introduced a secular constitution to the Indian polity and tried to minimise the impact of a religious divide in India. Those were trying times, and the wounds of Partition were still bleeding. Pakistan was on its way to becoming an Islamic republic.
There was pressure within India to declare it a Hindu state; as Muslims had demanded and achieved a separate homeland for Muslims. This pressure was exerted by the bad in Indian politics, represented by the RSS. Earlier, both Gandhi and Jinnah had used religion for their political purposes, but the way the RSS wanted to use it was an anathema to the Congress. Under these circumstances, a young man from Gwalior emerged on the scene and joined hands with the RSS. Vajpayee’s love affair with this extreme-right Hindu outfit was not new, he and his father had been active in the Arya Samaj movement – the mother of many Hindu chauvinist and fundamentalist groups.
In 1957, Vajpayee was elected to parliament as a member of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS), a forerunner of the BJP. The BJS had been established in 1951 as the political wing of the pro-Hindu group, the RSS, by S P Mukherjee. When Vajpayee joined it, the BJS was already advocating the rebuilding of India in accordance with Hindu culture and called for the formation of a strong unified state (Akhand Bharat). By the mid-1960s, the good in the Indian politics was already on the decline and the bad was gaining momentum.
Two factors contributed to this development: the death of Nehru in 1964 and the Indo-Pak war of 1965. Nehru was a declared secularist and believed in the supremacy of the Indian secular constitution, irrespective of the religious composition of India. His death prompted the Pakistani dictator, Gen Ayub Khan, to launch Operation Gibraltar in Kashmir that resulted in a disastrous war in September 1965. Despite their victory claims, both countries suffered a lot, as the relationship between the two could never reach the pre-1965 level. The right-wing elements in both countries capitalised on this.
By 1967, the BJS had gained a substantial foothold in the Hindi-speaking regions of northern India. Within 10 years, it defeated the Congress rule and replaced it with the Janata Party government in 1977. The 11-year rule of Indira Gandhi (1966-1977) had debilitated the good in Indian politics and, while trying to suppress the right-wing elements, had ended up strengthening them. Vajpayee was a valiant fighter against Indira’s Emergency. The elections in 1977 witnessed a total rout of the Congress Party and a clear win for the Janata Party that formed the government with A B Vajpayee as its foreign minister.
After 30 years of active politics, Vajpayee was finally at the ruling side and initiated the Indian drift towards the US, as opposed to the pro-USSR policy of the Congress government since 1947. The then US president Jimmy Carter visited India in 1978 and had a bonhomie with Vajpayee. The sojourn was short-lived as, plagued by factionalism and internal disputes, the Janata-Party government collapsed in July 1979. One of the reasons for the break-up was that some leaders in the Janata coalition objected to elected BJS officials participating in the RSS.
The RSS was, and still is, a Hindu religious and extremist organisation as one of its members had assassinated Mohandas Gandhi in 1948. As an active member and supporter of the RSS, now Vajpayee played an instrumental role in establishing the BJP, formally set up in 1980. In other words, the BJS subsequently reorganised itself as the BJP under the leadership of Vajpayee, L K Advani and Murali Manohar Joshi. Vajpayee and his comrades in arms openly advocated the ideology of Hindutva (Hindu-ness) that sought to define Indian culture in terms of Hindu values.
Vajpayee was already almost 60 years old, and all along he had been highly critical of the secular policies of the Congress Party. If secularism represented some good in Indian politics, Vajpayee was on the other side of the fence, representing the BJS and RSS, or the bad in Indian politics. Again, in the 1980s, at least two factors contributed to the nurturing of the BJP: the rise of Sikh militancy and the Islamisation programme of General Ziaul Haq in Pakistan. If Sikh militancy and separatism was intensifying Hindu feelings, the Islamisation in Pakistan provided an excuse for the BJP to demand a similar Hinduisation of India.
The assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984 drew sympathy votes for the Congress Party, otherwise the BJP could have emerged as a serious contender for power in the mid-1980s. The BJP began to gain electoral success in 1989 when again two important developments took place. One was the re-emergence of militant groups in Kashmir, allegedly helped by Pakistan, and the other was a hostile reaction in Pakistan when then Indian premier Rajiv Gandhi visited Pakistan for the Saarc conference. Though Benazir Bhutto was keen on having good relations with India, the religious right in Pakistan played almost the same role as the Hindu religious right was playing in India.
Then the BJP started exploiting anti-Muslim feelings by calling for a Hindu temple to be constructed in Ayodhya. By 1991, the BJP had increased its appeal to capture 117 seats in Lok Sabha and took power in four states. Hindu right-wing politics gained further momentum from the demolition of the Babri Masjid, in December 1992, by groups associated with the BJP. As right-wing politics thrives on violence, more than 1,000 people died in subsequent riots. The good as represented by secularism was on the decline and the bad from the BJP was on the ascendancy in the 1990s.
The BJP’s leaders undertook a series of ‘ratha yatras’ (journeys on the carriage) in which Hindu God Rama was invoked. As a result, in the 1996 elections, the BJP emerged as the single largest party in Lok Sabha. Vajpayee became the PM for two weeks, but could not form a government. In 1998, Vajpayee assembled a majority and became prime minister for 13 months. In the 1999 elections, Vajpayee became the PM for the third time, and the first non-Congress PM to complete a five-year term in 2004. From 1998 to 2004, Vajpayee’s worst decision was to initiate a nuclear race in South Asia.
He was already in his mid-1970s but insisted on Indian nuclear supremacy, which he could never achieve. All his peace overtures – such as the bus journey to Lahore and a warm welcome to Gen Musharraf – were overshadowed by his nuclear adventure that tarnished his image internationally – though he was able to achieve some economic success domestically. He did go an extra mile to normalise relations with Pakistan, but it was too little too late in his long life that was mostly devoted to promoting Hindutva in India.
The writer holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK and works in Islamabad.