Pure hatred for P.V. Narasimha Rao and a conspiracy by a “Brahmin brotherhood” compelled senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Lal Krishna Advani to propose the name of his colleague Atal Behari Vajpayee as the party’s prime ministerial face shortly before the 1996 general elections. Giving his interpretation about the circumstances that led to Vajpayee’s elevation as the BJP nominee in place of Advani, who was instrumental in building up the party, Makhan Lal Fotedar, Indira Gandhi’s confidant has also highlighted his own role in influencing the decision in his political memoirs, The Chinar Leaves.
According to Fotedar, he had been exploring ways and means of ousting Narasimha Rao and found a good ally in Advani, whose revulsion for the then Prime Minister was colossal despite the fact that at one time the BJP stalwart had described him as the best PM India had ever had. Their desire to get rid of Rao had brought them close. “His immense dislike for Rao was perhaps matched by his trust in me. I could feel this emotion in a very pronounced way.” Fotedar had been working to a plan and was instrumental in floating the Congress (Tewari), which had Sonia Gandhi’s blessings. But the disclosure of names during the Jain Hawala scandal turned many Congress leaders and opposition functionaries against the Prime Minister. Advani’s name also figured on the list and he was apprehensive that Rao would try and fix him. “I would have been naive if I had not exploited the situation. But I did not want the BJP to become strong or Advani to gain power.”
One day at a meeting of Parliamentary Committee on Home Affairs, he and senior BJP leader Krishan Lal Sharma, who was extremely close to Advani, were sitting next to each other. Krishan Lal Sharma started criticising Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav and described them as “casteist leaders who were bent upon dividing the society”. Fotedar recalls that he joked with Sharma that no one could be more “casteist than us Brahmins”, at which the BJP leader clasped his hand and laughed in agreement. “The exchange had served as a bonding moment for both of us. Gradually Sharma started opening up on issues which were worrying the BJP and one such matter was how Rao wanted to fix Advani.”
Advani was the party’s supreme leader and Vajpayee was playing second fiddle to him at that point of time. However, both of them still enjoyed a close equation with each other. “During a serious discussion with Sharma, I told him that it would be difficult for Advani to replace Rao since he was seen as a fundamentalist and was therefore not as acceptable as Vajpayee, who had positioned himself in the Nehruvian mould. Therefore, if the BJP indeed wanted to come to power, it should project Vajpayee and not Advani as their prime ministerial candidate. In my heart of hearts I never wanted the BJP to come to power but I reckoned that Vajpayee would be a lesser problem than Advani. I managed to convince Sharma over a few meetings to persuade Advani to propose Vajpayee’s name”, according to Fotedar.
Vajpayee was declared as the Prime Ministerial nominee of the party at the BJP’s plenary in Bombay in 1995, with Advani proposing his name. “There are moments in history which cannot be explained. This was one of them, as Sharma finally convinced Advani to propose Vajpayee’s name. Filled with hatred for Rao, Advani backed Vajpayee who went on to become the Prime Minister of a 13-day government and was elected again in 1998 and 1999 staying in power for six years.”
In the book, Fotedar has also mentioned how Vajpayee sought his help during Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure for going abroad for treatment. He had come to his house on Kushak Road and requested his assistance in persuading Rajiv Gandhi to send him to the United States for treatment. He informed the Prime Minister about his visit, at which Rajiv wondered why he (Vajpayee) had gone to Fotedar’s house instead of approaching him directly. Fotedar told him that meeting the PM would have brought his request in public domain, thereby infringing confidentiality, so Vajpayee had asked him to convey his plea. Rajiv immediately agreed to help the BJP leader and gave instructions for his name to be included in an official delegation going to New York. After the official visit was over, Vajpayee was hospitalised and the government bore full expenses for his treatment.
Vajpayee acknowledged the help he received from Rajiv Gandhi and at a later date during his own tenure, he returned the favour by extending help to the former Prime Minister’s family at a crucial juncture.