India’s former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee passed away on 16 August after a prolonged illness.
Narendra Modi visited the ailing Vajpayee more than a couple of times in the two months that he was admitted at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi. It sent out a signal that the Prime Minister is the inheritor of the public image of moderation espoused by Vajpayee, who despite his career in the RSS, adored Jawaharlal Nehru.
Let us, however, recall one of the most talked about encounters between Vajpayee and Modi. In his book The Untold Vajpayee, Ullekh NP narrates a story of how the then Gujarat chief minister Modi snubbed Vajpayee publicly.
The ‘Rajdharma’ Snub
After the Gujarat riots of 2002, Vajpayee came under criticism for neither replacing Modi nor controlling the riots. At a press conference attended by Modi and Vajpayee, Ullekh notes, “[A] reporter wanted to know Vajpayee's message for the chief minister in the wake of the riots. In controlled displeasure, Vajpayee stated that Modi should 'follow his Rajdharma.' He explained that Rajdharma was a meaningful term, and for somebody in a position of power, it meant not discriminating among the higher and lower classes of society or people of any religion."
“In a bid to stop Vajpayee from saying something scathing about him,” writes Ullekh NP, “Modi turned towards Vajpayee, tried to catch his eye and said with a strong note of threatening defiance, ‘Hum bhi wahi kar rahe hain, sahib (That is what we are also doing, sir).’”
Vajpayee would go on to lose power for his failure to observe his Rajdharma at the time of Gujarat riots, while Modi would go on to rule Gujarat by nurturing the post-riots Hindu-Muslim divide.
Modi, the Anti-Vajpayee
One of the reasons why Vajpayee became the prime minister and LK Advani did not, is this: the former understood what the latter did not. That moderation is the axis of the Indian way of life. This public understanding of India was revealed in how Vajpayee and Advani responded to the demolition of the Babri mosque by militant Hindus on 6 December, 1992.
Vajpayee called it the "worst miscalculation" by Hindu organisations. And on reconsideration Advani, too, came to a view that any leader who tries to resize India in their ideological mould will ultimately be downsized by it. This public understanding of India is also the reason why Vajpayee lost the 2004 elections, paving the way for the Congress's return to power that year.
The BJP was in power at the Centre and in Gujarat at the time of 2002 anti-Muslim riots. The riots were perceived as assault on the public wisdom and the BJP was seen dithering in controlling them. The said public wisdom, passed from one generation to another, resides in people’s consciousness and recurs in phrases like maryada (moral code), Laxman rekha (ethical fold), and Rajdharma (the king’s duty).
Although politicians change stances and engage in doublespeak frequently, these three expressions can be used to describe Vajpayee's public life. And on all the three counts, Modi is effectively the quintessential anti-Vajpayee.
Vajpayee’s False Successor
Currently, Indian politics has entered a phase where Modi the anti-Vajpayee is seeking to succeed the real Vajpayee by paying political visits to him at the hospital, which is not to say that he shouldn't. He also visits temples for election purposes. There is a video shared on Twitter in which PM Modi arrives at an event. Advani, too, is in queue and raises folded hands to say namaste to him.
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Modi acknowledges everyone, doesn’t acknowledge Advani, moves past him, and, with an intent to insult, stops to talk to other leaders standing past Advani.
Neither Nehru nor Vajpayee would do anything like this even to their worst critics. Only an anti-Vajpayee can.
Politicians who can read into a nation's political vacuum win. Sometime around 2010, Modi sensed that he could be the prime minister. He also understood that a new generation of voters is ready who have Facebook and Twitter power but their knowledge of India's civilization and public wisdom is nil due to their short age. Helped by this young generation of young voters, Modi started nurturing a Vajpayee-like moderate image.
Development- A Convenient Tool
Vajpayee, or Chandrababu Naidu before him, can be credited for ushering in "development" into Indian consciousness. Modi's Vajpayee-like pro-development image was bolstered by electoral antibiotics of Achhe Din (good days) and Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas (Together with all, development for all). Modi's divisive politics was not that well-known outside Gujarat. He won the 2014 elections, voted by people who wanted to rid the country of governmental corruption.
Great men sometimes leave behind wives and children – whether Lord Buddha, Lord Rama or Lord Modi. Achhe Din, Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas and New India are now the orphaned daughters of the anti-Vajpayee, left and abandoned in the ruins of political purpose. But the public wisdom, inherent to the Indian way of life, is also catching up in the run-up to the 2019 elections.
(This article has been updated.)
(Tufail Ahmad, a former BBC journalist, is a senior fellow at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. He tweets @tufailelif. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)