Saba Naqvi: Unlike Modi, PMO Under Vajpayee Was An Open House

The current regime that allows select interaction was not prevalent under Vajpayee said Saba Naqvi to The Quint.

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(India’s former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee passed away on 16 August. This article has been republished from the archives.)

While addressing the Parliament on Confidence Motion in 1996, former Prime Minister and BJP stalwart Atal Bihari Vajpayee had taken offence at BJP being referred to as a party ‘that enjoys support from the cow belt’.

They (Opposition) say that we have the support from the cow belt. Which regions are you referring to? We won in Haryana and have considerable support in Karnataka. We may not be as powerful in Kerala and Tamil Nadu but we are active in these states. We got a little less than ten percent vote in West Bengal. In this Parliament, there are parties with just one member.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Confidence Motion, 27 May 1996

True to a statesman’s style, Vajpayee offered resignation after finishing the speech as BJP found it tough to prove majority. With that, the government led by BJP called it quits within a span of just thirteen days. Two years later, BJP did bounce back in 1998, and as they say, there was no looking back.

PMO Under Vajpayee: An Open House

It’s this eventful journey of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that is the focus of author and journalist Saba Naqvi’s latest book ‘Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi’. Saba Naqvi has been covering the BJP since 1997. After keeping a tab on the party for the last twenty years, Naqvi says that the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) under Vajpayee was more accessible than the current regime.

The Vajpayee PMO was highly accessible. For the generation of journalists who have covered politics for the last twenty years, I don’t think there will be any disagreement that it was the most open prime minister’s office.
Saba Naqvi, Author & Journalist
Saba Naqvi: Unlike Modi, PMO Under Vajpayee Was An Open House
(Photo: The Quint)

According to Naqvi, the decision to shut out reporters from the PMO is a ‘deliberate’ one. What seems strange is that the under the current government, journalists are not allowed to be a part of the prime minister’s entourage during foreign visits.

In the matter of journalists accompanying PMs on foreign visits in the same aircraft, even that has been curtailed.
Saba Naqvi, Author & Journalist

Seizing the ‘Nationalism’ Card after Pokhran

Following the surgical strikes in 2016, BJP has been playing up the ‘nationalism’ card to appeal to voters. There has been a schematic way in which the BJP stole the Congress’ thunder – the ‘original’ nationalists owing to the latter’s contribution to India’s freedom struggle.

After the success of nuclear tests in Pokhran (Rajasthan) in 1998, BJP claimed to be a rightful contender for the ‘nationalism’ card. The sudden move left the Congress in a quandary as the party huddled under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi.

Congress had done Pokhran I, but Sonia Gandhi was relatively a novice in politics. The ‘foreigner’ card was being played against her, so they took their time in responding to Pokhran-2, they agonised over it for some days. So, in a sense, Congress didn’t know how to deal with this ‘new’ claim of the nationalism space by the BJP.
Saba Naqvi, Author & Journalist

Modi Has a ‘Smoother’ Relationship with RSS

BJP owes credit to the cadres of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) for its rise as a national party, including its historical success in 2014. Senior leaders of the BJP, including the prime minister cannot ignore diktats from the parent body. Absolute majority in the Lok Sabha has ensured that PM Narendra Modi has a ‘smoother’ relationship with the RSS.

Saba Naqvi: Unlike Modi, PMO Under Vajpayee Was An Open House
(Photo: The Quint)

Vajpayee, however, had a complex equation with the RSS, particularly on the front of economic policies. In her book, Naqvi mentions how Vajpayee had locked horns with the RSS on the issue of the finance minister. While the Sangh wanted someone, who could help in pushing the Swadeshi agenda, Vajpayee made his opinion clear that he ‘would not agree to the RSS running the Finance ministry through their nominee.’

I believe that the RSS was genuinely hostile to Vajpayee and some of his ministers during the NDA’s reign. In the case of Prime Minister Modi, it is not that kind of hostility because the balance of power is very much in the prime minister’s hands.
Saba Naqvi, Author & Journalist

Vajpayee-Advani Duo: Was there a Tussle for Power?

Not just the RSS, Vajpayee’s relationship with long-time comrade and the then Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani was under media scrutiny as well. Despite catapulting BJP to prominence with his famous Rath Yatra in 1990, Advani had chosen to step aside, thus, making way for Vajpayee, the moderate who was a favourite among the allies.

Advani himself felt that at that point in India’s history, stridency alone will not help you win friends, so he withdrew from the leadership stakes and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was put forward, and it was an experiment that succeeded.
Saba Naqvi, Author & Journalist

Strain in the relationship between the two came to the fore when Vajpayee refused to depute anyone to chair the cabinet meetings in his absence in 2001 while he was away for knee-replacement surgery.

Saba Naqvi: Unlike Modi, PMO Under Vajpayee Was An Open House
(Photo: The Quint)
Often Vajpayee reacted by behaving very firm and insecure, by putting Advani down in certain situations. Especially when his health started to fail, and he had a knee replacement surgery, he did not want anyone to chair cabinet meetings, or to be deputed in that position.
Saba Naqvi, Author & Journalist

Will BJP Realise its Dream of ‘Congress-Mukt Bharat’?

Unlike the Vajpayee-Advani duo, the Modi-Shah combine seem to be in perfect symphony. With BJP President Amit Shah hoping for a Congress-mukt Bharat, all eyes are set on the 2019 elections when Modi juggernaut will be up against a united Opposition. Will the Opposition’s unity be able to shatter Shah’s dream?

In Uttar Pradesh, perhaps the SP and BSP show every sign of going together, so you’ll have state-wise contests. But the BJP is challenged if the Opposition gets its arithmetic right because in the first-past-the-post system that we have, the BJP has always benefitted from the Opposition being divided.
Saba Naqvi, Author & Journalist

In 2014, BJP had made a record of sorts by winning 282 seats with just 31 percent vote share. Fractured mandate backfired for the Opposition parties that lost badly to BJP candidates across states. The question that BJP will confront in 2019 is whether the party can form a stable alliance.

If the Opposition gets it right, the BJP is looking at a scenario of substantial loss of seats, when we get back to the question of, ‘can BJP form an alliance’?
Saba Naqvi, Author & Journalist

While Vajpayee cultivated the art of running a coalition government, according to journalist Saba Naqvi, single-party rule, epitomised by Modi doesn’t inspire confidence among smaller parties that are already feeling alienated.

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