(India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee passed away on 16 August, at the age of 93. This article has been republished from The Quint’s archives.)
Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee feared a coup by a section of his BJP that wanted to have him replaced by his deputy Lal Krishna Advani, a new biography has claimed.
The “coup of sorts” was in the works a few months after Advani took over as the Deputy Prime Minister in June 2002, says the book, The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox by journalist Ullekh NP.
Striking a Deal with Congress During Emergency
Citing an unnamed minister whom Vajpayee summoned to his residence, the author says, “The Union minister asked Vajpayee not to worry too much about it.”
“The PM replied that he was merely stating that he knew of a plan to unseat him and replace him with Advani. He didn’t know who was behind it, but he was convinced of the plan. He had earlier been asked by an RSS honcho to become India’s President, and leave the PM’s role to Advani,” the book contends.
The author also claims that Vajpayee offered a "compromise formula" during the 1975-77 emergency by asking activists of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) – the RSS’ student wing – to own up to the destruction of public property so that the opposition could cut a deal with the government.
Vajpayee spoke about the arson and destruction of public property in many parts of the country by miscreants and told Rai (Ram Bahadur Rai, then ABVP General Secretary) that it was time for the ABVP to own up to its mistakes and tender an apology before the government could start thinking of repealing the Emergency laws.
Liberal, Nehruvian, and Right-Wing Excursions
Dubbed by Penguin as the "the biggest political biography of the year", the book takes a fresh look at the former Prime Minister and shows that he had often taken "brief excursions into the hardline camp".
The book, according to the publisher, is thoroughly researched, supported by hard facts, and accompanied by inside stories and anecdotes, insightful interviews and archival photographs, and opens a window to the life and times of the poet-politician.
“Vajpayee’s early speeches and comments show him to be a dyed-in-the-wool Sanghi, who, over the decades, turned out to be liberal and Nehruvian in his approach and pronouncements,” said Ullekh, whose first book was “War Room: The People, Tactics and Technology behind Narendra Modi’s 2014 Win”.
However, he made frequent excursions into the hardline camp, as evident from his provocative speeches in Assam in 1984 and to karsevaks in Ayodhya in 1992. His public persona of being a moderate was different from his deafening silence over contentious issues within the party. He could afford to do things on his own terms thanks to his unbeatable popularity.Ullekh NP
The book also says that Advani, as Home Minister, tried to "use Shias of Iran to nullify the claims of Sunni Muslims in India on Babri Masjid" in a bid to make way for a Ram Temple in Ayodhya.
But Advani’s plans were foiled by Vajpayee loyalists who feared that the former would take all the credit for resolving the burning issue.
Advani ‘Kept’ Modi in Gujarat
The book also provides some additional details on a significant moment in the party's and the nation's history – the aftermath of the Gujarat riots of 2002.
According to the book, Vajpayee, after the Godhra train burning incident and the riots that followed, was resolute that (then Gujarat CM Narendra) "Modi has to go" but Advani said that Gujarat would descend into chaos if that happened.
Referring to a conversation that took place on-board a flight in which Vajpayee, who was reading a newspaper, and some other leaders were headed to a national executive meet in Goa, Ullekh writes:
“Then (Arun) Shourie surprised himself. He pulled the newspaper out of Vajpayee’s hands and interjected, ‘Vajpayeeji, newspapers can be read later also. Why don’t you tell Advaniji what you wanted to tell him?’”
"Vajpayee kept the newspaper away, and muttered in his usual style about what had to be done. First, Venkaiah Naidu would replace Jana Krishnamurthi as the BJP president. Then he said, 'Modi has to go'. By the time they landed in Goa, the decision was taken: Modi would go," the book claims.
The author mentions that Jaswant Singh shared another version of the episode. “He narrated that though Advani didn’t protest when Vajpayee insisted that Modi had to go, the Home Minister added, ‘There will be chaos in the state’,” says the book.
Eventually, Modi stayed on as the Gujarat Chief Minister.
Vajpayee was India's 10th Prime Minister, first for 13 days in 1996 and then from 1998 to 2004. He is ailing now and resides in a heavily-guarded bungalow in Lutyens Delhi and has not been seen in public for more than a decade.
This article has been published in an arrangement with IANS.