His government fell by one vote but he refused to bargain with Jaya or buy MPs.
The last journey of Atal Bihari Vajpayee in a city which had first given his party a taste of power was rather underwhelming. You expected Delhiites to come out in the tens of thousands to bid farewell to a man who for decades was their darling. No other city in India embraced Vajpayee and his party, the Jana Sangh, from which emerged the present-day BJP, the way the national capital did. In 1967, when the Jana Sangh won control of the Delhi Metropolitan Council, the city celebrated Diwali months before the actual festival, lighting diyas and candles to mark the epochal event.
On Friday, when the cortege of Vajpayee wound its way from the BJP office to the Rashtriya Smriti Sthal, barely a distance of four kilometres, despite the presence of the Prime Minister and all the other big-wigs from the BJP, including several Chief Ministers, the crowds were rather thin. This did not reflect a wee-bit on the multi-faceted contribution of the departed leader. No, it was a comment on the growing cynicism that had taken hold of the people. They just don’t seem to care anymore, self-absorbed as they are in their existentialist struggles.
Attachment to a totemic political figure or the ideology he represented now takes a back seat even as the people engage in their normal, daily chores. A holiday for mourning the death of an extraordinary leader becomes an excuse to take it easy, to watch the funeral on television, or to visit family and friends. People have become blasé. Only the sociologists will be able to explain the great public fervour of mourning witnessed in Tamil Nadu following the death of politicians.
Vajpayee was the tallest leader of free India. There had been several others, some able parliamentarians as well, couple of them even popular, but none had the longevity and, above all, the ability to translate that popularity into an electoral win for government-formation. No other leader in free India had led his party to power outside of the Congress stable single-handedly as Vajpayee did. To him the present-day BJP owes a lot for laying its foundational structures so deep and sturdy that the current crop of leaders has an easy task building on it, especially given the disarray and disruption in the opposition ranks.
Therefore, it was disheartening to notice the thin crowds at his funeral. It could be because he was virtually out of the public sight for over a decade—out of sight, out of mind. People do seem to salute a rising sun, don’t they? Also, he was old. The end was natural, which came after a prolonged illness. No violent event had attended upon his death to spur an outpouring of emotional anger. Whatever the reason, Vajpayee deserved a better public send-off, though there was nothing left to chance in the sarkari funeral with all its attendant rituals and ceremonies. Prime Minister Narendra Modi performed his dharma towards his guru exceedingly well. People should be grateful.
Looking back, it is not always that Vajpayee was a liberal or a moderate. No. Those spewing these terms mechanically should go back and read his speeches in the parliamentary library in the 1950s and 1960s to know the school of thought he represented. In his mid-thirties, he was imbued with the RSS-Jana Sangh fervour, a fervour which resonated well with a generation of Indians in the bloody aftermath of the Partition. The Jana Sangh’s rise might have been unsteady and rather slow following the Gandhi assassination and due to the lingering afterglow of the freedom struggle on the Congress leaders, but thanks to the able stewardship of Vajpayee and the organisational heft of men like Nanaji Deshmukh and L.K. Advani, the party was able to push the Congress to the margins.
Because Vajpayee’s world-view evolved over the years due to his exposure to life as an active parliamentarian, his mental and intellectual development having been spurred further by the early acceptance received from his peers, it was natural for him to seek the middle ground. As a result, he came to be known as the liberal face of the Jana Sangh-BJP. And as he evolved in his thinking, he seemed to veer away from the RSS, the tether he was tied to when he first began life as a political activist. Also, since he was the unquestioned face of the Jana Sangh-BJP virtually from its inception since the untimely death of the founder Shayma Prasad Mukherjee, he felt no need to put his shoulder to the organisational wheel. The organisational men had to necessarily stay close to the RSS since they relied on the latter for the party cadres.
In other words, the dichotomous relationship between Vajpayee and Advani was a byproduct of the special organisational needs of the party the RSS had floated to defend its cause following its wrongful implication in the Gandhi assassination. Nanaji Deshmukh and Advani, both organisational stalwarts, remained close to the RSS so long as they were active in the Jana Sangh-BJP, while Vajpayee charted his own course, though always careful not to veer too far off from the core of the founding theology.
Repeated attempts to relegate Vajpayee behind another Jana Sangh-BJP figure came to nought because the people owned up Vajpayee as their own unlike any other leader from the party’s stable. In private, the organisational men lamented why Vajpayee walked away with the laurels while they did the slog work, arranging venues, laying durries and chairs, mustering crowds, only to be ignored by the people who had affection for Vajpayee only. Even though the Jana Sangh-BJP had a number of very fine public speakers, no one could match Vajpayee’s silver-tongued oratory, his wit, his easy repartee, his connect with the audiences across the length and breadth of the country. Over the years, Advani had emerged as a very competent parliamentarian, but as a public speaker he was no patch on his senior who enthralled generations of Indians with his spell-binding oratory.
However, the ultimate tribute Vajpayee can be given is that he was a gentleman above all else. Remember his government fell for want of a single vote. Now, the likes of Pramod Mahajan, if given half a chance could have easily procured, a la Narasimha Rao, who bought the entire JMM lot with bundles of currency notes, a couple of MPs. Or the Speaker could well have questioned Girdhar Gomango, a sitting Congress Chief Minister, voting. Come to think of it, Vajpayee could have guaranteed a longer life for his government by agreeing to soft-pedal the income tax cases against Jayalalithaa.
That he did nothing of the sort and, instead, chose to lose his government defines the man—and his old-fashioned faith in political and constitutional values, something which has vanished in the post-Vajpayee age. Now they are all Machiavellians, pursuing power by every possible mean, fair or foul.