Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
This is his finest hour.
A late rainy monsoon evening, 1991. The familiar venue of the National College grounds in Bangalore was overflowing, throbbing with energetic anticipation awaiting the climactic speech of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Murli Manohar Joshi and L K Advani had finished thundering to endless applause by a drenched crowd, the lucky ones holding chairs above their head trying to shield themselves from unstopping rain.
For the next hour, Atal Bihari Vajpayee opened the cork on his now-familiar, mesmerising oratory, playing the audience like a finely-tuned violin. His command over a vast swathe of literature and ability to draw from them at will to match the occasion was the feat few virtuosos aspire to attain. One phrase has stuck indelibly in mind: Vajpayee’s comparison of the Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress Party to Shakuni, the arch-villain of the Mahabharata. It was a layered analogy. But for Shakuni, Draupadi wouldn’t be disrobed publicly. I leave it to the reader’s sensibilities to deduce the rest.
Vajpayee’s speech was delivered in the aftermath of the Congress party’s finely-honed skulduggery of backstabbing. The mother had done it to Charan Singh. The son, to a Chandrashekhar Government, a perfect case of naked evil entering into a pact with disproportionate ambition. Guess who wins always?
That speech like countless others before and after it was one of the organs of a constant, pulsating catalyst that awakened and reawakened at least three generations of Indians to a new and superior possibility towards building a truly independent India that lay in wait.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was in many ways, the Herald of this India.
Unfazed by two failures — the loss of his Government by just one vote — Vajpayee’s dogged determination finally prevailed in 1999: of showing exactly what spectacular results could be achieved, of how India could be fundamentally better transformed by steely political will. And more importantly, how exactly the four-decade Congress rule had comprehensively wrecked India. Think about it: what precisely was the Congress doing for fifty-two years instead of building something as basic as world-class road connectivity across the Indian geography?
And so, the Golden Quadrilateral, Vajpayee’s transformational dream project, was among numerous such initiatives that suddenly slapped the world awake into recognising an India whose global image till then was that of a poor, filthy Third World Country tolerated only for its nuisance value and for the sinister benefits that accrued to wealthier nations thanks to the abject, begging bowl-like behaviour on the part of its successive Prime Ministers.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was truly the foundational Prime Minister of Independent India.
Freedom from Dynasty
Flashback to the period when India’s first Prime Minister, the arch-dynast, Jawaharlal Nehru established his unchallenged and defiant sway over both the Congress Party and Government.
But despite having no real Opposition, Jawaharlal Nehru, the ever-insecure human and political consequence of adolescent colonial trauma originating in Harrow, set out to ruthlessly crush any dissenting or even alternate voice. The Hindu Mahasabha which had blazed such an extraordinary path during the Freedom Struggle was in terminal decline. The Rashtriya Swayamevak Sangh found itself in a tight corner, a victim of tumultuous circumstances unleashed by Partition which in turn was the direct consequence of the misguided Mahatma’s fatal surgeries upon Bharata’s soul as well as the selfsame Nehru’s overweening ambition.
The story is well-known. This insecurity was at the root of Nehru pulverising genuine patriots and truly learned scholars like Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, hounding out Rajaji and stifling fine minds like John Mathai. The same impulse also worked behind the patronage that he doled out to the drunken disgrace, Maulana Azad, who was made the Education Minister. This was apart from his addiction to Communism and the Indian Communists with whom he had a backdoor arrangement (For a near-complete picture, the reader is referred to Sitaram Goel’s classic work, Genesis and Growth of Nehruism). The following snippet should provide an idea as to the sort of courtiers Nehru deliberately surrounded himself with:
On Gandhiji’s usual silence day on a Monday he wrote a personal letter to Nehru on the inside of a used envelope advising him not to make Maulana Azad the Education Minister as he was convinced that the Maulana would ruin education […] In Delhi, the Maulana never attended a dinner party. He came to the PM’s house only for lunches in honour of important foreign dignitaries. At Cabinet meetings, which were normally fixed for 5 p.m. or soon after, the Maulana would get up at the stroke of six, regardless of the importance of the subject under discussion, and leave. Soon he would be before his whisky, soda and ice and a plate of samosas…Nehru avoided seeing him in the evenings…
One day the Maulana’s favourite Private Secretary came to see
me privately. He told me that he was worried about the Maulana
because he was imbibing half a bottle of whisky every evening.
Falls were not infrequent. In fact he had broken his back in a
fall and had to wear a metal plate to support his back. Since
then an able-bodied man was always available to support the
Maulana whenever he got up during and after his drinks.
As a departmental minister, the Maulana was a disaster, as
Gandhiji had feared. He made no contribution to education. He
left everything to the trio — Humayun Kabir, K.G. Saidayin and
Ashfaque Hussain. [M.O. Mathai’s Reminiscences]
Needless, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi continued the same, ignoble legacy of concentrating power and gave India its first taste of tyranny. The dark story of how she systematically vilified and throttled the Bharatiya Jana Sangh including its founding leader, Pandit Deendayal Upadhyaya needs a more detailed retelling.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was both her prized victim and challenger, a fear that made her throw him in prison during her notorious Emergency.
A Perspective to Understand Vajpayee’s Legacy
The true legacy and contribution of Atal Bihari Vajpayee will become clearer and closer to the truth when we examine history from a critical perspective.
When he was spuriously made the Prime Minister by a tantrum-throwing, dictatorial Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru at once inherited the wholesome fruit comprised by the blood, sweat, tears, loneliness, torture, and sacrifice of nearly a hundred years of freedom struggle. And typical of an ungrateful leader who finally finds himself on the throne, Nehru systematically erased all mention of the real heroes of our freedom struggle. Almost in a stroke, Nehru wholly swallowed the Congress organisation appropriating to himself all these sacrifices. The interested reader is referred to R.C. Majumdar’s masterly volumes of the History of the Freedom Struggle for the full, true story. In fact, the very story of how Nehru humiliated and banished the same R.C. Majumdar is another proof of this ingratitude.
In retrospect, Jawaharlal Nehru’s role in our freedom struggle also included being “imprisoned” in luxurious jails where he could leisurely brood over and pen profound nonsense, and when the freedom struggle became too taxing for this delicately puffed-up aristocrat to handle, he would escape to expensive Xanadus in Europe or shoot himself up in the USSR with syringes filled with Communist toxicology.
In Jawaharlal Nehru, the British had indeed left behind a real worthy successor.
The stage was thus set for a Second Freedom Movement.
It is only when we examine history in this light that the invaluable contribution of Atal Bihari Vajpayee becomes apparent. Of the four-decade-long struggle against a noble legacy slyly appropriated by one man and his dynasty. Against this vile continuation of an alien colonialism by the same dynasty. Against the horrors of the Emergency. Of restarting the same struggle after the Jana Sangh was dissolved. Of the birth of the Bharatiya Janata Party that had just two Lok Sabha seats in 1984. Of the principled resignation in 1996.
It isn’t my contention that only Vajpayee built up the BJP to what it eventually became in 1999 but the fact remains that he’s certainly the first among equals.
Now to give the devil its due, a familiar criticism hurled at Atal Bihari Vajpayee is that he was a dyed-in-the-wool Nehruvian and that he was enamoured by Nehru. There might well be some substance in that charge but the fact equally is also that all of us are products of our own time. From a different perspective, Vajpayee himself has obliquely rebutted the charge in the aforementioned 1996 Parliament speech in which he launched a stinging attack against the Congress’ notion of secularism and its long record of repeatedly putting India’s future and security in jeopardy. As also in staying true to Bharata’s Sanatana roots.
Several theories abound about the BJP’s shock defeat in 2004 under Vajpayee’s watch. And they’re just that. Theories. Rather, one theory: the “India Shining” slogan. That’s a topic for another day. However, this much can be said: Atal Bihari Vajpayee took over the treacherous Congress palace in 1999 but realised too late that he had only managed to change its paint instead of ramming a wrecking ball right through it. Equally, there’s a crucial and dangerous difference between “Congress palace” and “Congress-infested palace.” The latter is much harder to get rid of if the experience of the last four years is anything to go by.
Although he never recovered from the 2004 defeat, Atal Bihari Vajpayee accepted it with grace and equanimity while a triumphant Congress party exhibited its true colours in a so-called victory (its seat tally was just nine more than that of the BJP): cruelty. Almost immediately, the pictures of Vajpayee that dotted the length and breadth of his dream Golden Quadrilateral were yanked down and replaced with the newly-installed puppet of a foreign-born Super Prime Minister: the 21st Century edition of the same Nehruvian vulgar appropriation of a glorious legacy.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s age and failing health were additional contributors to what followed: the BJP’s decade-long descent into political wilderness. He faded away with quiet dignity, disturbing none but inspiring millions just by being.
But the soil which he had begun to de-weed (in my state, Parthenium is referred to as the “Congress plant”) proved incredibly fertile and the foundation that he laid was tough, enduring. The best answer on the other camp is something called a Rahul Gandhi.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s pen no longer moves but its ink will never dry, its imprint embedded in the collective consciousness of an entire people. The mesmerising oration now merged into the serenity of eternal silence. An exeunt. Not death.
||Om Shanti Shanti Shantih ||