Vajpayee had nothing in common with Nehru beyond parliamentary etiquette.


Amongst the deluge of eulogies and hosannas on the passing of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee last week, few rose above the sentimentality that is something of a national hallmark. It was, besides, a veritable week of high profile deaths—of stalwarts, icons, colossuses and titans.

But why, if Vajpayee was thought to be quite so universally wonderful, was he virtually forgotten for over a decade by all except his fellow travellers in the BJP-RSS? And why this latter day attempt to co-opt him into the left-liberal lexicon? Is it as innocent as a spontaneous national outpouring of grief and affection? There he was, an invalid, at his bungalow on the Krishna Menon Marg, almost invisible if not disappeared. Until then President Pranab Mukherjee was persuaded to break precedent and trundle off to bestow a Bharat Ratna on him in 2015. Strike one certainly, but only at the behest of a stern Narendra Modi government aware of its debt of gratitude.

Vajpayee has been fortunate in his death as in life. He has been honoured fulsomely by an incumbent BJP/NDA government. One that is carrying his staff and rod forward again after a decade in the wilderness. That this is so, has been glossed over by many in a frenzy of bizarre Nehruvian comparison. They would have it that Vajpayee was the Hindi-speaking Nehru minus the rose in his lapel and a dhoti in place of a sherwani, but nothing like that “provincial upstart” Modi. The world of left-liberal commentators, languishing mostly on the shelf these days, gnashing their teeth to a stub, seized upon Vajpayee’s suddenly politicised legacy with extraordinary ambulance chasing vigour. Never mind the contra-indications, the passage of circumstance and time that has changed everything. It became a nostalgia-soaked farewell, as if Vajpayee was the Nehru that BJP manifested in one shining moment that was its Camelot.

Indians do this kind of thing. It was similar for M. Karunanidhi, with his heirs lamenting his passing alongside the rank and file of the DMK, accompanied by full blast praise in the media for the departed leader. And there was the drama over his burial at the Marina Beach, over the objections of the AIADMK.

And again, though already receding into the mists of time, the eruption of emotion for India’s first cine superstar Rajesh Khanna, when he checked out of Aashirwad for the last time.

Fact is, Vajpayee followed on, as politicians must, not so much from Jawaharlal Nehru as someone else in the Congress. He actually had nothing in common with Nehru beyond parliamentary etiquette, albeit gone AWOL these days.

Nehru himself was no inclusivist when it came to his political opponents, as the record well shows—though he pretended, British-fashion, to collaborate on the surface. He quite specialised instead in sending them on to oblivion even as he set his own dynastic stage.

And Vajpayee, being in the Opposition for most of his political life, had no choice but to make himself endearing, at least in Parliament, if he was going to be heard at all.

No, it was the Congress’ own but mostly disowned Prime Minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, the first radical moderniser of India along with his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh to faithfully carry out orders, that Vajpayee had more in common with. Some commentary did touch on this, but mostly to contrast the way they were each treated in death by their respective political parties. Together though, the Telugu Bidda and his successor, the Gwalior school master’s son, put the first nine-inch nails into the coffin of Nehru-Gandhi hegemony. One was awarded a Bharat Ratna and accorded a full-dress national farewell. The other was sent back to his family at Hyderabad, despite over 25 years in high office at New Delhi, to do with what they would.

The price of ignoring the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty if you are a Congressman is indeed steep, despite the fraudulent inclusivist propaganda. This has stretched now to saccharine and proxy pieces on Vajpayee the family man, the humanist, the poet, ad nauseam, to imply how he was almost a Nehruvian Congressman.

The short-lived Janata government ostensibly tried to put the hegemonists into the political dustbin. This was post the J.P. Narayan movement, post the Emergency, in the late 1970s. But its internal jealousies—echoed in the would-be Mahagathbandhan of today, even if the shoe is on the other foot—ruined the day. The ire was pointed at the 93-seat winning Jan Sangh, out of 298 for the Janata, painted then as “communal untouchables”. And this by others in the Janata Party too. That is how the baton got handed back.

Vajpayee, one of just three Jan Sangh origin ministers, faced internal pressure from the prudish Prime Minister Morarji Desai, erstwhile of Congress himself. As for external pressure, there was the extensive Nehruvian narrative to contend with in a largely left-liberal world. The silver-tongued poet cum Hindu/Hindutva hard-liner, who was India’s Foreign Minister, had quite a tightrope to walk.

Still, the collapse of the Janata Party coalition also birthed the Bharatiya Janata Party, with Vajpayee, if not at the helm, certainly on the dais.

Later, after L.K. Advani’s Rath Yatra, and the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, this erstwhile set of “untouchables” emerged as the unapologetic Hindu nationalist alternative. Vajpayee’s carefully nurtured if unwieldy coalition, held together over six years and three oath takings, not only ended the curse of unstable, short-lived non-Congress governments, but laid the very foundations of the BJP/NDA majority government to come.

No attempt to drive a wedge between an imaginary “soft BJP” from the Vajpayee era, and the artificial construct of a so-called “hard BJP” under the Modi-Shah dispensation, will amount to anything. There is, in fact, no contradiction, no appreciable shift in ideology or vision, since the Vajpayee years.

But Vajpayee’s stability in government was not so much because he was following a path of Nehruvian inclusiveness, myth though it was, but the “compulsions”, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh used to cry, of coalition politics. Still, Vajpayee built the Golden Quadrilateral and took India nuclear weaponised through it all. Evidently, he wasn’t carrying people along to no purpose!

The next ten years went to a spectacularly corrupt UPA. And then we have had the first majority NDA government, after Rajiv Gandhi’s exactly 30 years before. Conversely, Congress saw itself reduced to just 44 seats in Parliament.

Is Bharatmala a progression of the Golden Quadrilateral? Are Railway freight corridors, bullet trains, metro mass transportation systems in every large city, the linking of rivers, all extensions of Vajpayee’s vision? Wasn’t it Vajpayee who first tilted India’s foreign policy towards the United States? Didn’t Manmohan Singh and now Modi, consolidate that relationship since? But naturally, Modi, with a similar RSS pracharak background to Vajpayee’s, has a few reformist ideas of his own. And so we have Swachh Bharat, Make in India, manned flight into space, GST, demonetization, Aadhaar, health insurance, Mudra, the fugitive offenders bill, OROP, digital India, universal housing and electricity, bringing the Northeast into the mainstream, the bankruptcy and insolvency codes, doubling of MSP to farmers, boring tunnels into Ladakh, and so on.

There is, it is seen, via Narendra Modi’s excellent relationship with Mohan Bhagwat of the RSS, no contradiction between “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikaas” and promotion of an ethos that is more even-handed towards the Hindu majority.

Perhaps Vajpayee did not quite enjoy the same level of concordat with K.S. Sudarshan of the RSS in his time. But did it cost him the 2004 election? Or did the electorate simply revert to what Rahul Gandhi calls the “default” position?

Both Vajpayee with his coalition, and Modi, lacking a majority in the Rajya Sabha have not had it easy. But both moved forward despite this, to make far reaching policy changes.

Has the Nehruvian “Idea of India”, which supported the promotion of the minorities as its badge of secularism, already changed into Modi’s “New India”?

Is the bid for “cultural dominance” since 2014, protested bitterly by the Congress, nevertheless well on its way?

It seems very likely. And no attempt to drive a wedge between an imaginary “soft BJP” from the Vajpayee era, and the artificial construct of a so-called “hard BJP” under the Modi-Shah dispensation, will amount to anything.

There is, in fact, no contradiction, no appreciable shift in ideology or vision, since the Vajpayee years.

What has changed substantially is the attitude of a large part of the voting public, fed up with “pseudo-secularism”. It is these people who will see Modi through to victory in 2019.