From an ideology with no space in the political arena, the BJP is now the dominant pole in India’s largely bipolar polity. The journey of that party can be told through the journey of Atal Bihari Vajpayee. RAVISH TIWARI & LIZ MATHEW trace both
Before the first Lok Sabha elections in which the Congress did not have a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm, the BJP, spotting its best shot at power, seemed to recognise this need for Vajpayee. A few months before the Lok Sabha polls, in November 1995, Advani declared Vajpayee as PM candidate.
In the 1996 polls, the BJP plus allies — Shiv Sena, Samata Party and Haryana Vikas Party — won 187 seats. While 85 seats short of a majority, the BJP was called to form the government for being the single-largest block, and Vajpayee as PM made a passionate speech criticising the “unprincipled ganging up” of other parties against him. The speech was telecast live, and while he didn’t get the numbers and had to resign within 13 days, Vajpayee had won new admirers with his oratory.
The United Front government that followed didn’t last, bringing mid-term elections in 1998. Vajpayee again was the BJP’s PM face, with the slogan of “Abki Baari, Atal Bihari”, The party saw an almost 40 per cent jump in its support base this time, to reach its highest ever tally of 9.43 crore votes and 182 Lok Sabha seats. Courtesy Vajpayee, the BJP had the support of 72 more MPs belonging to allies which, post-polls, included the TDP.
The Vajpayee-led 13-member NDA came to power in 1998, and within days, carried out the nuclear tests at Pokharan. While the government proved short-lived after the AIADMK pulled out, what helped the BJP going into the next elections was the Kargil War win, secured by Vajpayee as caretaker PM.
The NDA coalition returned to power in 1999 with, this time, the DMK as partner. Apart from being the first non-Congress government to complete its term, this Vajpayee regime also busted the myth that coalition governments in India were bound to fail. That devoid the Congress of its claim of being the only natural claimant to power.
It also marked the end of unipolar politics in the country.
The “isolated” BJP has now become the centerstage of Indian politics, Jaitley noted after Vajpayee’s death. “In an era dominated by the Nehruvian Congress, he (Vajpayee) created a political party which was an ideological alternative to the Congress… But for him, Advaniji and their other colleagues, Indian democracy would have looked different —dominated by one party, one family with a lot of scattered smaller parties.”
Ironically, what we may have today is just the reverse — with BJP opponents accusing the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah-led party of seeking to become the behemoth the Congress was by subsuming all opponents. However, for the BJP to be for 21st Century India what the Congress was in the 20th Century, for the party to spread its appeal across the Vindhyas, across communities and castes, there is still some distance to go.
And here again, it could need some of that Vajpayee touch. While his inaction during the 2002 Gujarat riots, that stretched to no more than a rap in the knuckles for CM Modi, would always be held against Vajpayee, he is also hailed for seeking peace with those considered the BJP’s traditional adversaries, from Pakistan to Kashmiri separatists.
While the current BJP government too cites its agenda as vikas, it was the Vajpayee government that showed a BJP administration could put this ahead of its core issues. With the Modi government beset with a series of contentious issues, the new BJP is seen as unable of that humility and give-and-take. However, party leaders say this is not the case. “Different times call for different strategies,” says a party MP. While the task before Upadhyaya and Mookerjee was to create the party from scratch, Vajpayee and Advani nourished it while Modi-Shah have to expand it now, he says, adding, “In Hinduism, we have different gods for different roles, for creation and perserverance. Why can we not accept the same of our leaders?”
Another party leader dismisses the charge that the BJP leadership itself is shrinking to the duo of Modi and Shah. He says, “The party’s current stalwarts were all beginners under Vajpayee and Advani. They developed a second- and third-rung leadership. Now leaders are created with power. Look at (Maharashtra Chief Minister) Devendra Fadnavis or (Tripura’s) Biplab Kumar Deb.”
Others point out that the BJP under Modi, despite its brute strength in the Lok Sabha and presence across the country, has 46 allies, wooing them particularly in areas considered beyond its reach. However, Naresh Gujral, a senior leader of the Akali Dal, one of the oldest partners of the BJP, says that going forward, the party will need to do more, especially in the south and especially to shed its anti-minority image. “To remain a national party, you can ignore minorities only at your peril,” Gujral says.
BJD leader Tathagata Satpathy, who has fond memories of Vajpayee from the time the two parties were in alliance, says the late PM “not only sought political cooperation but also dealt with every single NDA MP as an individual human being”. He also gives the examples of the BJP’s estranged ally Shiv Sena and the TDP, which has broken away from the NDA, to say “things are not the same” in the BJP when it comes to partners.
Asked what he would miss the most about Vajpayee, Union minister Prakash Javadekar remarks, “A person with a magnanimous heart is going to be missed.” Did Vajpayee understand all this better? Says Gujral, “He truly understood the essence of Indian scriptures, which is tolerance, compassion and secular values. He understood the basic syche of Indians — we tolerate everything but arrogance.”