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

History is replete with images of leaders walking in the street with of a sense of sheer triumphalism. For example, the people of Paris erupted with joy and gave vent to their suppressed emotions when Charles De Gaulle walked on the street to reclaim France’s freedom towards the end of World War II in 1944.

But there is hardly any precedent of a head of the state walking behind the hearse for over four miles in a sultry hot weather to pay respect to his mentor and predecessor. Prime Minister Narendra Modi leading the funeral procession of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee is bound to go down in history as an extraordinary event for a different reason. Instead of triumphalism, this walk was a profound expression of sorrow, tinged with a sense of irreparable loss.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays homage during the cremation of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with full state honour, at Rashtriya Smriti Sthal in New Delhi on Friday, 17 August, 2018. PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays homage during the cremation of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee with full state honour, at Rashtriya Smriti Sthal in New Delhi on Friday, 17 August, 2018. PTI

It was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Just when the hearse was about to leave the BJP headquarters in the afternoon of on 17 August, Modi asked officers of the special protection group (SPG) about arrangements. “Sir, the car-cade is ready,” an SPG official replied. “Let it come. I will walk behind the hearse,” was his spontaneous response that stunned the security officers into silence. There was a frantic activity to throw a ring around the prime minister as it was not an easy walk. Some ministers followed him and those who couldn't boarded their official vehicles to reach the funeral venue.

The fact that Modi did not insist on anyone following him underlined that it was his own personal decision. Modi shared a deep emotional relationship with Vajpayee right from his days as an RSS pracharak. The glimpse of this relation was evident when a collection of Modi’s poems was released by Vajpayee in 1999 at Panchvati in the prime minister’s residence. “I am learning poetry under the tutelage of Vajpayee ji by clutching on to his finger (Ungli pakadkar chalna seekh raha hun),” Modi had said while eulogising his leader. Vajpayee also responded in kind.

Few know that the decision to send Modi to Gujarat as the chief minister in October 2001 was taken by Vajpayee and only grudgingly endorsed by his number two, LK Advani. In fact, there had been uneasiness in the central leadership over Gujarat getting prominence in the news for all the wrong reasons. Chief minister Keshubhai Patel had proved himself thoroughly inept in handling the administration as there were reports of nepotism and corruption all around. More seriously, his handling of the aftermath of the massive earthquake that rocked the state in 2001, particularly the Kutch region, came in for serious criticism. Vajpayee was especially irked at the situation though Patel was considered to be close to Advani.

However, post-earthquake Gujarat proved to be politically too volatile. Given Modi’s popularity among the party’s cadre and his performance as the party’s general secretary, he emerged as the consensus choice in the party’s central leadership. Since Vajpayee was quite keen to install him as chief minister, everybody else fell in line. Modi’s elevation as the chief minister needs to be seen in the context of his relationship with Vajpayee in the past.

In 1986 when Modi made the transition from the RSS to the BJP, he soon acquired the status of a decisive strongman as the party’s general secretary (organisation) in Gujarat. Having won the Ahmedabad municipal elections against all odds and successfully strategising the BJP’s victory in 1990 in the state Assembly election in alliance with Chimanbhai Patel, Modi had already acquired a tall stature in a short time. In all these years, he closely interacted with Vajpayee and learnt the art of politics and oratory that connected with the masses. Modi was one with Vajpayee on the issue of reservation for the socially underprivileged. In the early and mid-1980s, Gujarat had been simmering with caste divides as the anti-reservation stir had turned violent at some places. Vajpayee steadfastly favoured reservation and in a meeting, he said, “Even if God tells me to do away with the reservation, I will never do it.” The BJP insulated itself from the stir as it turned into communal violence in Ahmedabad. In 1985, Ahmedabad reeled under communal violence for over six months during the stint of Madhavsinh Solanki as chief minister. Modi as a new entrant in power politics closely watched Vajpayee’s moves and learnt from him.

But Vajpayee’s most critical intervention came in Modi’s life when Shankersinh Vaghela revolted against Keshubhai Patel in 1995 and demanded that Modi, the party general secretary, be shunted out of the state. Vajpayee who mediated between the warring factions grudgingly agreed to this condition. Modi was exiled from his own state – only to return as the chief minister in 2001, again at the instance of Vajpayee.

Of course, Vajpayee directly or indirectly shaped Modi’s political career. And Modi was astute enough to build on the legacy of Vajpayee who combined flexibility in his personality without losing his ideological mooring and commitment to the party. True, he wanted Modi to resign after the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat. But he withdrew the moment he knew that any such move would not be taken well by the party’s cadre. He was particularly peeved with the inept handling of the situation but never let his personal view come in conflict with the party’s ideological position. After losing the Lok Sabha election in 2004, Vajpayee is believed to have realised the limitations of old politics and his own failing health.

In his nearly 13-year reign, Modi borrowed largely from Vajpayee’s skills of negotiating contradictions within the ideological parivar while retaining his popularity among the masses. In essence, he expanded Vajpayee’s political legacy by building a robust organisational structure for the BJP, roping in allies without compromising the BJP's organic expansion. And at the same time he captured the popular imagination.

When Modi walked behind the hearse in the unbearable heat, it was not only a silent tribute to the leader whose legacy he was furthering; it was also a determined attempt to build an unparalleled political icon in Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Contrary to the Sangh Parivar's ethos of not deifying individuals, Modi knows better than most that a party needs its own towering icons to define its futuristic political and ideological compass.

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Updated Date: Aug 22, 2018 18:06 PM

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