Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Dove Among Hawks

India Today 31 May 1996


A FRAMED PHOTOGRAPH OF P.V. Narasimha Rao adorns the spacious dining room of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Raisina Road residence in New Delhi.

If anything, it provides an insight into the mind of the new prime minister of India, a politician whose party does not believe that wisdom exists outside the saffron fold.

Vajpayee, 71, has been a votary of the politics of consensus throughout his five decades in public life.

That he is the lone dove among the Hindutva hawks is evident from Vajpayee’s own admission that his biggest weakness is that he can never hit back.

And that, ironically, is also his biggest asset.

As Supreme Court advocate N.M. Ghatate, who has known Vajpayee for 40 years, says, “He does not mince words where criticism is due, but his criticism does not hurt anyone.”

An RSS whole-timer whose father was a schoolteacher in Gwalior, Vajpayee has come a long way since the 1940s when he used to write fiery proems about his Hindu heritage and worked as a journalist for the organisation’s Hindi mouthpieces like the Panchajanya,  Rashtradharma and Swadesh at Lucknow.

Fond of good things in life

It is not just his moderate views but also his fondness for the good things in life that sets the bachelor Vajpayee apart from other BJP leaders who share his RSS background.

The Kanyakubja Brahmin from Bateshwar, Uttar Pradesh, is not very devout. He does occasionally visit temples, but a morning puja is not part of his daily routine.

His lifestyle is not exactly ascetic; as for his dress, Vajpayee prefers a spotless Khadi dhoti topped by a white kurta and a matching jacket.

What kind of a prime minister would he make at a purely personal level?

Vajpayee’s record perhaps speaks for itself. He was imprisoned in 1942 for participating in the Quite India Movement as a Congress activist; he was detained again during the Emergency by Indira Gandhi’s government.

Once introduced by Jawaharlal Nehru as future prime minister of the country, Vajpayee won high, marks for his stint as minister for external affairs in the 1977-79 Janata government.

Says Shiv Kumar, his personal assistant of three decades: “He is a good administrator.” But a bit laid-back and given to bursts of anger, as those close to him confirm.

BJP’s moderate face

Despite his image as the BJP’s moderate face, not many in the party subscribe to his liberal views.

Vajpayee will always be regarded with suspicion by the RSS, which actually controls the BJP.

In a party identified with religious bigotry-particularly after the Babri Masjid demolition-moderate views can come in for attack.

And they often do. Says Balraj Madhok, former president of the Jan Sangh: “Vajpayee’s prime ministership spells disaster for the country. He is basically a Congressman.”

The RSS rank and file blame Vajpayee for the BJP’s debacle in 1984 when, under him, the party won only two seats in the Lok Sabha. His attempts to construct a model of Gandhian socialism had boomeranged.

But after the RSS installed L.K. Advani in his place the BJP notched up one victory after another, helped no doubt by the Congress(I)’s blunders.

And Vajpayee was upstaged by the hawks in the party.

“My biggest mistake: joining politics”

One of the reasons Vajpayee suffered in the party was that, unlike Advani or Murli Manohar Joshi, he never tried to form a coterie within the BJP.

He once wrote: “My biggest mistake was joining politics. It has brought a strange kind of void to my life.”

Vajpayee expressed similar sentiments in his recently released anthology of poems:

The higher you go

The more lonely you are.

A human being is

The only creature on earth

Who feels lonely in a crowd

And crowded when all alone.

India today, 31 may 1996

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