A flame lives only as long as it burns. Atal Bihari Vajpayee lived the life of a flame. He burned through his poetry. He burned through his politics. He burned in success and in failure. He burned in helplessness and in dilemma. And he glowed as he burned. If shadows depend on the flame to find their identity, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) lost that flame on 16 August 2018.
The politician in Atal Bihari Vajpayee did everything to translate a divisive ideology into electoral victories. The poet, however, found himself placed as a moderate face of an otherwise hardline ideology.
Neither the politician hardened the poet, nor did his poetry succeed in softening his politics. The politician and the poet sometimes appeared to be in conflict though. It is that conflict which makes Atal Bihari Vajpayee look different from others in his party.
The Mask and the Face
He may have failed to make Narendra Modi follow the Raj Dharma in 2002, but the fact that he publicly reminded a chief minister from his own party of his Raj Dharma made him stand out as the acceptable Mukhauta of a party whose real known face was the strident Lal Krishna Advani and then little-known Narendra Modi.
If LK Advani made Vajpayee look moderate, Narendra Modi makes LK Advani look moderate. From killings at the hands of vigilantes to BJP leaders defending rapists of Kathua and Unnao, we have not seen today’s prime minister reminding any of his chief ministers or leaders of their Raj Dharma. For today’s young India, the BJP no longer has a moderate reference point. Nobody can now point out and say “but then there are also leaders like Atalji in this party”.
Whether or not Vajpayee deserved this distinction is a matter of discussion but through his conciliatory politics, he did evoke a distinction between the mask and the face.
On Economic Reforms
Growing up in the eighties in a small town, Doordarshan offered limited attraction to me. I made it a point to attend every single political rally in my city. Rajiv Gandhi had already started impacting the lexicon of Indian politics. The sleeping giant was opening its eyes to a new era. India was ready to take a major leap.
Vajpayee campaigned against the opening up of the Indian economy. However, he himself did not sound convinced enough of his position on Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s economic reforms.
He struggled to oppose something he did not really wish to oppose. But being a passionate speaker, he opposed the talk of Super Computers passionately. He knew he sounded on the losing side of the 20th century when India under Rajiv ji was preparing to welcome the 21st century and effectively articulating a youthful nation’s aspirations.
The crowds that normally cheered even his silence were cold to Vajpayee’s diatribe against Uncle Chips. He could see the onset of a drastic change in the way he had known India. A restless Advani decided to take charge of the narrative and resorted to the time-tested politics of polarisation, albeit in a more organised and better publicised manner.
The Legacy He Left, Or Would’ve Wanted to Leave
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was seen caught between the urge to appear progressive and the instincts of majoritarian assertion that his politics was rooted in.
He may have tried to distance himself from the demolition of Babri Masjid and the subsequent riots across the country, the episode will forever be counted as a major failure of both, the poet and the politician.
As prime minister, he was constantly struggling to leave a legacy for which he will be remembered. His efforts at extending a hand of friendship to Pakistan boomeranged and boomeranged badly. The framework of ‘Jamhooriyat, Insaaniyat and Kashmiriyat’ bore results in restoring confidence in the democratic process – something which got further strengthened under UPA 1 and 2 and has been completely destroyed under NDA 2.
Vajpayee was minimised by his party in his life time. Today was just the mortal endorsement of his end.
If his party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) had allowed him to follow his own Raj Dharma in 2002 with regard to Gujarat, India’s history would have gratefully acknowledged his contribution.
Leaders have a mixed legacy. Atal Bihari Vajpayee will be remembered for his remarkable oratory, his passionate poetry and the constant struggle between masks and faces.
(This article was first published on 17 August 2018. It has been republished from The Quint's archives to mark the death anniversary of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.)
(The writer is former political secretary to Sheila Dikshit, and is with the Congress party. He tweets @Pawankhera .This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)