The many obituaries being written about Atal Bihari Vajpayee will reveal aspects of his greatness: his eloquence, his leadership of the country, his geniality.
The many obituaries being written about Atal Bihari Vajpayee will reveal aspects of his greatness: his eloquence, his leadership of the country, his geniality. As we celebrate the man, perhaps some thanks are due to the three influences that shaped him more than any other: LK Advani, Rajkumari Kaul, and the Indian Parliament. Vajpayee and LK Advani got to know each other well in 1957, when Deendayal Upadhyay—the social engineer who swiftly identified Vajpayee as an orator and Advani as an organiser—shifted Advani from grassroots work in Rajasthan to become the new MP Vajpayee’s secretary. It is a measure of Advani’s loyalty that he never forgot this original hierarchy, despite many tensions and differences later on. It was Vajpayee who had initially lifted Advani’s career. In 1973, Vajpayee overlooked senior leaders to ensure that a junior Advani replaced him as Jana Sangh party president. Advani’s career never looked back, and between him and Vajpayee, they kept the presidency of the Jana Sangh, and then the BJP, for virtually the next 25 years.
Advani returned the favour in 1995. By then, Vajpayee had been discarded by his party, given titular respect but no real powers (a situation reminiscent of Advani today). Vajpayee’s sin was that he had crafted the early BJP as a secular, socialist legatee of the Janata party; he had also opposed the Ayodhya movement. With Vajpayee sidelined, it was Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi who were responsible for the rise of the BJP in the late 1980s. And it was Advani who was the RSS’ choice for prime minister for the 1996 elections. But in November 1995, in Bombay, Advani announced Vajpayee as the prime ministerial candidate—to the astonishment of those on stage, and the dismay of the RSS. From then on, Vajpayee could not be toppled—becoming prime minister in 1996, 1998, and again in 1999—while Advani withdrew to number two. If Vajpayee promoted the early Advani, it was Advani who selflessly gave Vajpayee his second wind. The other, intense, influence on Vajpayee was Rajkumari Kaul. They met first in 1941, when both were studying in the same college in Gwalior (along with, but that is another story, Vajpayee’s father).
There might have been love, but it didn’t go anywhere. They met again in 1957, city and circumstances changed. Vajpayee was now an MP with promise. Rajkumari Kaul was now married to a cerebral professor of philosophy and warden of Ramjas college. From then on, Vajpayee, Mr. and Mrs. Kaul (along with their children) would become one family. Before he met the Kauls, Vajpayee was of a type typical to Hindu nationalism: a patriarchal lower middle-class man suspicious of the English and the West. It was Rajkumari who softened Vajpayee. She was a well-read Nehruvian liberal (a Kashmiri Pandit to boot) who lived in an academic milieu. A BJP leader who is also a family friend remembers witnessing long conversations between Rajkumari Kaul and Vajpayee on Babri masjid. The ‘Queen of AIIMS’ was also known to personally oversee medical help for those who asked. Another BJP leader adds, “Her doors were always open. If anyone had a problem with Vajpayee, if he was rude or anything… Mrs. Kaul would calm things…talk sweetly. Without her, he was nothing”. If Vajpayee’s instincts ended up liberal while working within the four corners of Hindu nationalism, it is Rajkumari Kaul that India must thank. If the ‘radical’ Advani and ‘liberal’ Rajkumari were his two pillars, the third was the Parliament. When the 34-year old Vajpayee became a Lok Sabha MP in 1957, he was also made head of his party in Parliament.
He continued in this position (either through the Lok or Rajya Sabha) from 1957 to 2004, practically uninterrupted. When he was briefly denied the post of Lok Sabha leader from 1991 to 1993 by the RSS, he told his aide in Hindi, “It’s like a knife has cut my throat”. More than any other audience, he cared what Parliament thought of him, leading MPs from other parties to describe him as ‘the right man in the wrong party’. Vajpayee’s India was the central hall of Parliament. Vajpayee’s insistence on being his party’s sole spokesman led to insecurity. Articulate colleagues like ML Sondhi, Subramanian Swamy, and Balraj Madhok were soon eased out of the party. As was Nanaji Deshmukh in 1980; his role in the JP movement and the Emergency had placed Nanaji, not Vajpayee, in the limelight. While Vajpayee was able to nimbly balance party and Parliament, on the occasion he felt unsteady, he would resort to the following dynamic: Vajpayee’s first reaction to any provocation would be ‘liberal’. But if he sensed that his party’s radicalism was leaving him behind, he would eventually outflank them on the right.
Vajpayee had opposed the VHP-RSS support to the Ayodhya movement from 1984 itself, telling a friend, “We should never let sadhus into Parliament”. But he came to realise that the movement had transformed the BJP’s electoral fortunes and ensured his irrelevance in Parliament. He converted with a vengeance. On the eve of the Babri demolition, he gave a speech in Ayodhya saying that “the ground has to be levelled” of “sharp stones”. This dynamic also explains why he landed in Goa on April 12, 2002, determined to sack Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi for the riots a month earlier. But when he sensed that the party mood was against this, he not only allowed Modi to continue, he gave an anti-Muslim speech that same evening. These contradictions aside, Vajpayee will be remembered for his tolerance, humour, and large-heartedness when it came to the nation. He will also be evoked for balancing two ideas of India: the Nehruvian liberal and Hindu nationalist. And he was able to do this because—in harmonising the worlds of Advani, Mrs. Kaul, and Parliament—he became a bit of both himself.