Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The Last of the Moderates


Atal Bihari Vajpayee: The Last of the Moderates

Illustration: Akshita Monga

On December 5, 1992 in Aminabad, Lucknow an agitated Atal Bihari Vajpayee took to the dais to give a speech that was equal parts rousing and hateful. “There were sharp stones that came out, no one can sit there (Ayodhya), the ground has to be levelled, it has to be made fit for sitting,” he said. This was before the time when leaders speaking in dogwhistles was routine. The next day the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground by vandals who called themselves kar sevaks.

December 6, 1992 turned out to be a seismic event in Indian socio-political-cultural life, perhaps even its greatest tipping point since the Partition. For Vajpayee, though, the combative speech would become one of the lowest points of his career, something he would openly apologise for days later, confirming that at least in retrospect he was one of India’s last moderate men of politics.

Vajpayee always seemed miscast, a man in his element when it came to oration – but outside it in reaping the consequences of his words. His journey began under the aegis of the RSS. As a sangh pracharak, and a fiery young writer, Vajpayee embodied the blatant Hindu chauvinist, a foot soldier in the Sangh’s communal paradigm for an independent India. In more ways than one, he was also the perfect candidate, an intoxicating mix of the soft chorus of poetry, intellectualism, and diplomacy, even though the latter was his weakest – the ideal messenger. Though he was given to bursts of well-articulated anger and headstrong monologues, his conservativeness persevered. As the first president of the newly formed Bharatiya Janta Party in 1980, Vajpayee emerged as a staunch critic of the Gandhis but – unlike the leaders of today – never spewed poison on the legacy of Nehru.

A decade later, the Sangh’s politics dropped to a cacophonous nadir, and with it Vajpayee’s profile as its smoothest articulator, its apologist, on our television screens. The country’s newfound penchant for oration was clear as Vajpayee’s popularity soared, compared to his hardened compatriot, Lal Krishna Advani, who no one would describe as a man of letters. The two were separated by their relative capacities to adapt, but also by the fact that in the aftermath of the Babri Masjid only a man of Vajpayee’s absorptive, scholarly demeanour would have survived the fallout of the Sangh-orchestrated communal catastrophes. Apart from admitting guilt for his hateful speech a day before the demolition, Vajpayee said of Advani’s Rath Yatra, “I had my reservations… I had earlier said that it would not serve any purpose.”

Even before the Rath Yatra, Vajpayee’s prescience in drawing a distinction between hardline and soft Hindutva was evident in 1966. As this Ramachandra Guha obituary points out, “In November 1966, a band of sadhus chose to storm Parliament to forcibly bring about a ban on cow-slaughter. Where other RSS and Jana Sangh leaders egged them on, Vajpayee issued a public statement criticising the ‘undesirable elements, who resorted to violent activities in the demonstration against cow-slaughter [and] had done a great harm to a pious cause’. This incident is a mostly forgotten prelude to two better-known attempts by Vajpayee to distance himself from the hardliners in his party, namely, his admitting to a sense of shame when the Babri Masjid was demolished in December 1992, and his chastising the Gujarat chief minister for encouraging the pogrom against Muslims in that state a decade later.”

It’s curtains on the last of the moderates – and with it, the humility and steadiness that once defined Indian political life.

Clearly, he was a man designated and ordained to balm cracks and fissures while the grand plan of needling the fabric of the country awaited its second coming, which is why Vajpayee’s political career experienced more lows than highs. From his tragicomic 13-day reign as the 12th Prime Minister, to the lowest ebb of his five-year term with the Tehelka scam, he endured more than he could cure.

As a man of poetry and verse, there was more smoke to his days in power than clear-cut progress. As a man of intellect, Vajpayee seemed hamstrung by the very platform that had elevated him. The Pokhran tests and the Kargil war emboldened his position as a moderator of high-wire acts of patriotism, the kind that took the then 77-year-old to the cold borders of Siachen.  

The sharpness of his words never eroded, but Vajpayee softened with the years – possibly with the gradual paring of his own powers within the party he’d helped build. His disillusionment grew in the aftermath of the Babri demolition where he once criticised the ambit of his own social circle, “I usually come across people who are of the opinion that it was a blot for 400 years and there was no alternative but to remove this blot. I am afraid of such sentiments…” One could say that he became the ideal fall guy for a surging RSS, a man hard to hate, and harder to accuse. But also a man cast in loneliness, and conformity. Rather than break the order, Vajpayee largely followed it.

That said, a great amount of admiration must be laid at his door, simply for his capacity for reflection. Unlike so many men in so many positions of power today, Vajpayee admitted to mistakes, fallibility, and even the odd misplaced idea at times. In fact, compared to the current leadership he now feels like a pacifist, not even a moderate.

Vajpayee eventually landed in a prison of his own making, the pain from which he carried through life as a cadaver of nobility that was as much a lesson for him, as it was a sign of things to come.

The high place accorded to oration in our politics is evidenced by the manner in which popularity today, trumps performance. The way grand dreams have come to compensate for the possibility of a modest reality. The way our leaders, the louder, the more cocky they get, the stronger they become. To his credit, Vajpayee at least seemed reconcilable, a man who could be spoken to, and most crucially heard. Not because he wanted to walk down the one-way road the politics of his godfathers had suggested, but because he perhaps wanted to carve another, a middle path that most consider a sign of weakness today.

It’s curtains on the last of the moderates – and with it, the humility and steadiness that once defined Indian political life.