Co-Founder Vajpayee Insisted on a Secular Constitution
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam and Mohd Irshad Alam
Cameraperson: Shiv Kumar Maurya
A special report from India Today magazine’s archives, described, rather provocatively, how “the RSS is to the Janata Party what the G-string was to Marilyn Monroe. Friends, admirers and foes have just one demand: Take it off.”
It was one way to describe the crusade by socialist leaders to make Jan Sangh leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani give up their membership to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).
This campaign was led by socialist leader Madhu Limaye, who was also the general secretary of the Janata party. A coalition of various political parties, it formed the first non-Congress government in the aftermath of the 1975 Emergency that had been imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who was ousted.
The Janata Party was essentially an amalgamation of socialist, hindutva and communist schools of thought. It made for a shaky alliance, resulting in an unstable government. In the aftermath of its foremost leader, Jayaprakash Narain’s death in 1979, the cracks within the different factions of the Janata Party became even more apparent. And the dispute over dual membership, however, was the last straw.
Ostensibly, the campaign to make Jan Sangh leaders like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi give up their membership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was to make the Janata Party a cohesive unit. But the political discourse of the time made it clear that questions about the very nature of the volunteer organisation made non-Jan Sangh leaders jittery.
“The whole controversy on the RSS has cropped up because of the different opinions about the nature of the RSS”, Janata Party leader Piloo Mody had said in an interview, explaining why the RSS was being picked on.
“Some call it a politico-social organisation, others, a cultural body, while few call it a clandestine organisation. Nobody is clear as to what the RSS is. The reason why the RSS is always picked upon is because it is a well-organised body and people are always afraid of organised efforts because they are themselves weak at it. As long as the RSS keeps to itself and stays a cultural body, there is no harm. It is only when an organisation starts branching out in different directions that it creates a problem”, Mody was quoted as saying.
A Political Ressurection
The ‘dual membership’ controversy came to a head in April 1980. On 4 April , the Janata Party leadership convened a meeting of the party’s national executive to pass a final order on the issue of dual membership. On 5 April, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and another senior leader Nanaji Deshmukh decided to convene a conference of former Jan Sangh members the next day.
“As expected” Advani wrote, “on 4 April, the Janata Party executive decided to expel all former Jan Sangh members from the party.” But it came as a big relief, according to him. “The two-day national convention on 5-6 April added another invigorating emotion, that of determination”, he said.
On 6 April 1980, over 3,500 delegates assembled at Delhi’s Ferozshah Kotla Ground and resolved to form a new political party called the Bharatiya Janata Party. Vajpayee was elected its first President and Sikander Bakht, Suraj Bhan and Advani were appointed general secretaries.
From Gandhian Socialism to Hindutva
On 23 December 1980, the newly formed political party held its first session in Bandra, Mumbai. The event was inaugurated by Vajpayee who garlanded social reformer and caste abolitionist Jyotiba Phule’s statue and prominent Dalit leader Dattatreya Rao Shinde performed the bhoomi pujan. Vajpayee even insisted on including the term ‘secular’ in the BJP’s constitution.
Despite having the experience of being in the government, the support of prominent Jan Sangh leaders and the complete backing of the RSS, the BJP chose to adopt a Gandhian Socialist ideology. Self-rule, decentralisation of power, Lokniti (politics of the people) not Rajniti (politics of party and power) were to be the guiding forces of the party.
Establishing a ‘Hindu rashtra’ was nowhere on the agenda.
It was believed that Vajpayee was concerned about alienating non-upper caste voters and did not embrace RSS’ Hindutva ideology outright.
But Vajpayee’s calculations did not add up. In the 1984 election, the BJP could win only 2 of the 224 Lok Sabha seats it contested and garnered 7.74% of the total votes polled. AK Patel won the Mehsana Lok Sabha seat from Gujarat by a margin of nearly 44,000 votes and Chandupatla Janga Reddy won the Hanamkonda Lok Sabha seat in Andhra Pradesh. Interestingly, Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the Gwalior seat in Madhya Pradesh to Madhavrao Scindia, by a huge margin of more than 2 lakh votes.
Incidentally, the elections held in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi’s assassination saw a huge sympathy wave sweep in favour of the Congress. The party rose to power in 404 of the 533-seat strong Lok Sabha. Polling 49.10% of the total votes, this was not just the Congress’, but the biggest victory for any political party in Indian electoral history. In comparison, the BJP cornered only 31% of the total vote share courtesy the Modi wave in the 2014 general election.
While this may not have been a total loss for a new political party, the BJP was teeming with senior political leaders of the erstwhile Jan Sangh. The 1984 general election result was seen as a humiliating defeat and it changed everything.
While a seemingly moderate Vajpayee remained the face of the party, in 1986, Lal Krishna Advani suceeded him as party president and with time became the poster-boy of BJP and RSS’ Hindutva agenda.
It is under Advani’s guidance that the BJP cannily navigated the Mandal fiasco and launched the Rath Yatra that would ultimately set the Ram Mandir agenda which continues to remain a goal for the party even today. It is after 1986, that ‘Hindutva’ was sealed as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s primary identity.
(This article has been republished from The Quint’s archives to mark Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 95th birth anniversary. It was originally published in August 2018.)