Atal Bihari Vajpayee's most profound creative disruptions in Indian politics: A camaraderie that built a legacy

This is a story often recounted with humorous panache by LK Advani when describing the growth of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) and its successor, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It goes thus: After helming the BJS for four years since 1968, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was keen to pass the baton on to a worthy colleague to take the party forward.

The question was: Who should succeed Vajpayee? Vajpayee and Advani, along with other senior colleagues, initially identified the party's vice-president Bhai Mahavir as the successor. In fact, at Vajpayee’s insistence, Mahavir presided over the Bhagalpur national executive of the party that was to take up a critical and free analysis as the BJS had fared badly in the 1972 General Election after the India-Pakistan war. So Mahavir was considered the natural choice.

Although Mahavir initially agreed to take up the assignment, he developed cold feet after consulting his wife and family members. Then Vajpayee and Advani requested Vijaya Raje Scindia, known as Rajmata (the queen mother) of Gwalior who had defied the pro-Indira Gandhi wave and won a Lok Sabha seat from Madhya Pradesh, to take over as the president. Needless to say, she also declined the offer. Thus with the 1973 BJS national executive in Kanpur, Advani began his innings as the party president — but not without controversy. He sacked Balraj Madhok who had been taking potshots at Vajpayee and his politics for some years.

File image of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani. Reuters

File image of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani. Reuters

Thus began the cementing of a camaraderie that lasted for over five decades. As in 1973 when Vajpayee was succeeded by Advani, Vajpayee once again relinquished his presidency — now of the BJP — in favour of Advani in 1986. The context was eerily similar. After Indira Gandhi's assassination, Rajiv Gandhi rode on the sympathy wave and decimated the Opposition in the 1984 Lok Sabha election. The BJP, a newly-formed party after parting ways with the Janata Party experiment, had won only two seats in the country. Vajpayee readily accepted the blame for the debacle and proposed to undergo the punishment that the party deserved fit. The proposition was outright rejected.

However, an internal assessment carried out by a team of leaders led by KL Sharma concluded that Vajpayee's efforts to steer the party towards 'Gandhian socialism' as a guiding philosophy be replaced by Deendayal Upadhyaya's 'integral humanism'. Other suggestions included focussing on "robust nationalism and positive secularism". Of course, 'Gandhian socialism' was not discarded altogether, but included in a manner to maintain the key tenets of the Gandhian philosophy — social justice and equality — as essential to the party's core philosophy.

With the induction of some powerful pracharaks like KN Govindacharya, Advani began a political experiment that was unique. Without diluting the inclusive characteristic that the party had acquired during the Janata Party experiment, Advani focused on organisation building. He roped in notable personalities from outside the Sangh Parivar's fold and also inducted young RSS pracharaks like Narendra Modi in 1986.

Interestingly, Advani was guided by the profound political thesis on the Sangh Parivar, titled The transformation of an ideological movement into an aggregative party by American scholar Hampton Thomson Davey Jr. The scholar argued that without losing its ideological foundation, the BJP could expand its base only by aggregating different sections of society.

From 1986 to 1993, the BJP's focus on strengthening its ideological base by launching the Rath Yatra saw the marginalisation of Vajpayee as the prominent face of the party. Although Advani hogged the limelight, he never let Vajpayee play second fiddle. In one of the interviews, he told me, "I always considered him my senior and was in awe of him." That they shared a unique bond can be explained by none other than Govindacharya who mediated between Advani and RSS leader Bhaurao Deoras in order to persuade Advani to accept the post of Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha in 1991. Advani insisted that the post should go to Vajpayee as he had enough experience to do justice to the role. Advani had to resign as the Leader of Opposition after the demolition of the Babri Mosque on 6 December, 1992 and Vajpayee took over from him.

In 1993 at the Goa national executive, Advani surprised everyone, including the top brass of the RSS, by announcing Vajpayee’s name as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Unlike the decision-making process in the Sangh Parivar that requires wider consultations within the ideological brotherhood, Advani's unilateral decision was prompted by his own political understanding. "In a country like India, only an inclusive personality like Vajpayee could lead the country," Advani later explained. In several candid conversations, he explained that his relations with Vajpayee were not of "competition" but of collaboration.

Advani always looked at him as a senior whose words needed to be respected.

Vajpayee himself described his relationship with Advani in a foreword to the latter's book, My country, my life, by saying, "Yes, we have had our differences on the issues and approaches during the course of our long association as it is not possible for two individuals to always have an identical response while working together for over half a century within an organisation. However, it is not the differences, but the unity of purpose and action, that marked our relationship. Divergence of viewpoints never led to discord; neither did they become a cause for division. This is because our party, both as the Jana Sangh and the BJP, was rooted in the ethos of working together for a larger common objective. I consider that philosophy to be the primary reason why the BJP has remained united, an exception in India, where organisational fissures have sadly been a regular feature."

In Indian political history, the Vajpayee-Advani camaraderie is indeed a unique lesson. It was not marked by personal ambitions, jealousies or pettiness that broadly characterise power politics. And together they created a solid foundation for the BJP that became the principal political pole of Indian politics in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

A three-hour lunch with the Advanis

Atal Bihari Vajpayee's most profound creative disruptions in Indian politics: How Narendra Modi is furthering his mentor’s lineage


Updated Date: Aug 22, 2018 18:13 PM

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