Atal Bihari Vajpayee's most profound creative disruptions in Indian politics: A three-hour lunch with the Advanis

As the ashes from the funeral pyre of Atal Bihari Vajpayee remind us of the transience of human life, his memories come flooding in to reinforce the belief in an individual's ability to change the course of history. Vajpayee indeed catalysed a profound "creative disruption" in Indian politics and society.

Those who recall him him for his statesmanship, geniality and wit are missing the wood for the trees. He indeed had those admirable qualities, but they are only a few of the many facets of his personality. More than that, his story is coterminous with the journey of a political force which had begun tentatively but, towards the end of his life, established itself as the principal political force. This journey would have taken a different turn if there was no Vajpayee.

How did this happen? Let me recount certain events to emphasise the criticality of Vajpayee in shaping politics that saw the arrival of the BJP as the main party, replacing the Congress of yesteryear. There are instances when one faltering step from Vajpayee would have been fatal. But his genius was exceptional. He knew how to win people estranged by circumstance.

If you have any doubt, savour this story: It was a usual winter in 2001 when then home minister LK Advani was preparing to leave his Pandara Park residence for the North Block office and about to board his official car when his wife, Kamla Advani, came running and said, "Atalji has just called." Advani thought the call was meant for him. But she corrected him, "Vajpayeeji has called me to say that he will be coming home for lunch tomorrow." As was his wont, Advani looked at her pensively and left for the office.

File image of LK Advani and AB Vajpayee. AFP

File image of LK Advani and AB Vajpayee. AFP

Those were times when the media was rife with speculation about differences between the two top leaders over the handling of the Jammu and Kashmir issue and vesting Brajesh Mishra with the powerful twin posts of Principal Secretary to Prime Minister and national security advisor (NSA). Rumours were rife that the two were rarely talking to each other.

In the past, Vajpayee visiting the Advani household had hardly been news. He was extremely fond of the food cooked by Kamla. But this time the message was different. The tension between the offices of the prime minister and the home minister was quite palpable in the corridors of power. And that had been taking a toll on governance. No doubt, the story of differences between Vajpayee and Advani was also fuelled by a section of vested interests that was quite active in its efforts to take advantage of the possible rift.

Vajpayee defused things by making a phone call not to Advani, but to his wife, and inviting himself for lunch. This was clearly Vajpayee's way of re-emphasising the unique bond he shared not only with Advani but also with his family. Perhaps the camaraderie forged over five decades was strong enough not to let trivia affect their relations. The lunch lasted for over three hours in which everything was washed down with a good amount of Sindhi delicacies. The underlying message was that Vajpayee would never let his ego or prestige come in the way of the larger good of society.

Vajpayee’s gesture got huge media attention then as he was heading the government and Advani was the powerful No 2. But there are umpteen instances of Vajpayee sacrificing his personal ambitions for his party.

Right since 1957 when he entered Parliament for the first time as a Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) member, he endeared himself to stalwarts of those times with his sheer eloquence and tenacity. Unlike some English-speaking political elites of the times, Vajpayee was a gifted orator in Hindi. His dhoti-wearing demeanour that appeared rooted to the ground was a perfect counter to the elites who used to speak in clipped English accents on account of their foreign education and the hangover of the British Raj.

And it will not be an exaggeration to say that Vajpayee, in his mentor Deendayal Upadhyaya’s estimation, emerged more like another Jawaharlal Nehru, endowed with unique charm and charisma but deeply rooted in Indian culture. For a fledgling party like the BJS, he had the potential of emerging as a foil to the legacy of the Congress, completely devoid of any Anglo-Saxon cultural context. Although at a nascent stage, the BJS was helmed by an extremely articulate and anglicised Syama Prasad Mookerjee. RSS apparatchiks who gradually controlled the organisation through their fulltime workers were always sceptical of any anglophile leadership inherited from pre-Independence India.

In a detailed and comprehensive study of "the origins and development of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh", titled Hindu Nationalism and Indian politics (1990), political scientist Bruce Graham diagnosed the traditionalists within the party as ill-at-ease with the English-speaking leaders. "It was as though Upadhyaya and his group had placed their trust in a new generation of public men and women who had not known the British Raj except as children and as students and who would therefore draw more readily from the inspiration of Hindu culture and Hindu traditions. Put simply, the Jana Sangh had postponed its challenge to the Congress party until such time as the younger leadership represented by Upadhyaya, Vajpayee and (Balraj) Madhok had had time to consolidate its position and to define its intellectual objectives with confidence."

Upadhyaya died in 1968 under mysterious circumstances, long before he could fully articulate the party’s intellectual objectives, even though he defined the BJS’s ideological contours by aligning with Ram Manohar Lohia and propounding a guiding philosophy of 'integral humanism' that moderated the image of a party steeped in Hindu orthodoxy bordering on communalism. Madhok, another promising leader, found the BJS' veering towards the issues of social justice and egalitarianism-like support to the abolition of zamindari as an inexorable deviation from the party's ideological position. Within three years of Upadhyaya’s death, he drifted from the BJS and was sacked.

Vajpayee negotiated political and ideological landmines quite sagaciously and eventually emerged as "the right man at the right time". He did not believe in political untouchability and befriended political notables across the ideological spectrum.

Vajpayee had a unique flexibility that conformed to the Indian genius, especially his predilection for the Madhyam Marg (the middle path). He was blamed for letting the mobs run riot outside Parliament after a rally organised by a group of Hindu saints on the issue of cow protection in 1966, yet he persuaded his party to become a part of the grand coalition against the Congress. Although extremely deft at dealing with contradictions, he gradually took the BJS towards a path that was conciliatory and conformist in order to expand its base. In the 1970s, he began a long and arduous journey in which he found Advani for company. In Indian political life, this friendship is singularly unparalleled.

A camaraderie that built a legacy

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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