Atal Bihari Vajpayee as shadow PM


Was going somewhere when I saw a pit.

I asked, ‘Where’s the road?.’

‘In the pit,’ they said.

I asked, ‘Where’s the pit?’.

‘In the road,’ they said.

Then I saw a man riding a scooter in that pit… sorry, the road.

His wife was riding pillion. Every two minutes he would reach behind and touch her.

I asked him why he was doing that.

He replied: ‘I want to make sure she has not fallen off.”

This is Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP’s star campaigner and sheet anchor, on the campaign trail poking fun at the Government’s record on civic amenities.

In Gorakhpur, Bijnore, Moradabad, in rally after rally, he narrates this anecdote and everywhere it hits home.

Buoyed by recent surveys which predict that it will be the biggest gainer in the elections and may even emerge as the single-largest party in the 11th Lok Sabha, the BJP has launched a high-voltage media blitz, the focus of which is the sitting MP from Lucknow and leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha.

In posters, pamphlets, banners, badges, TV clips and press advertisements. Vajpayee’s face keeps cropping up, he is the party’s central theme.

But Vajpayee knows he has to walk a tightrope. On the one hand, he has to assist the party’s effort to replace the Congress(I) Government at the Centre. This would mean participating in a not holds-barred campaign, something that Vajpayee is averse doing.

And on the other, he has to fight an internal battle-against bigots in his own party. For example, the party’s election manifesto, drafted after broad consensus among senior leaders, refers to Hindutva as just one of the poll issues.

But on the day the manifesto was jointly released by him and party president L.K. Advani in New Delhi, a press note issued by party headquarters said Hindutva was the main issue. Vajpayee  had to intervene at the last moment to tone down the focus on Hindutva.

Still, to his critics, and especially to millions of Muslims across the country, he is the leader of a party whose activists tore down the Babri masjid and lit communal fires.

Indeed, for Muslims, Vajpayee as Prime Minister is little consolation with the BJP at the Centre. They see his “liberal” image as little more than a media creation encouraged as much by himself as by the party’s PR managers.

Says All India Muslim Personal Law Board General Secretary Maulana Nizamuddin: “He will be a prisoner in the hands of the RSS. Don’t forget he’s bound by the BJP manifesto and the party has pledged to abrogate Article 30 which gives special status to religious and linguistic minorities.”

Projecting him as a “liberal,” says Nizamuddjin, reflects the BJP’s “hypocrisy and duplicity.”

Vajpayee concedes that this party has not been able to win the faith of the minorities. Asked why few Muslims were seen at Vajpayee’s Moradabad meeting last fortnight, a BJP worker retorted: “Why should they come to a BJP rally?”

The logic was clear: Why Should the party patronise those who don’t trust it? It’s prejudice like this that makes BJP a political pariah and Vajpayee an unknown quantity.

And yet there are differences within the BJP that have come to the fore.  For example, on the issue of swadeshi.

When they addressed a seminar organised by the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) in New Delhi last fortnight, there was a clear distinction in the tone and tenor of the speeches of Vajpayee and senior BJP leader Murli Manohar Joshi.

Swadeshi, said Vajpayee, means that Indian industry should be capable of competing with the rest of the world. Joshi defined swadeshi as “be Indian, buy Indian”.

For the moment, however, minor intra-party irritants have been set aside and Vajpayee’s mind is focused on the elections. For more than three weeks now, he has been flying the length and breadth of the country in the eight seater Beechcraft hired by the party for his exclusive use.

Compared to his colleague Advani, who needs little provocation to set out on another rath yatra, Vajpayee sets himself a schedule that is not too demanding.

He addresses no more than four to five meetings a days, with a typical campaign day beginning at a leisurely 7 a.m. and winding up not long after sundown.

He is always accompanied by a parade of air-conditioned cars, pilot jeeps and National Security Guard commandos.

On the plane, he spends time catching up with the day’s news and poring over documents received from the party headquarters in New Delhi. In between, he takes time out for the journalists on board.

Surprisingly for one pushing 70, Vajpayee is not fastidious about his food, relishing anything that is served on the plane, at roadside dhabas or at a party worker’s home.

The Election Commission’s ban on late-night election meetings has been a blessing for him. Says his personal assistant Shiv Kumar: “He likes it this way. He values his privacy.”

Vajpayee’s campaign style has little in common with that of his colleagues. While Advani and Joshi behave like men driven, Vajpayee is rarely excitable. He faces everything with the sang-froid of a man who has done it all, having contested 12 elections, won some, lost some.

And it’s probably this quantity that has endeared him even to his rivals. Late at night on March 31, when Vajpayee was in Lucknow to file his nomination papers from the constituency from where he is seeking re-election to the Lok Sabha, he received a phone call from Bombay.

The caller was film actor and Rajya Sabha member Raj Babbar, the Samajwadi Party Candidate who is his main opponent in Lucknow. “He said that as an elder brother I should bless him,” said Vajpayee, “and I did.”

It was in Lucknow, about four decades ago, that Vajpayee fought his first election-and lost. He was in the Jan Sangh then, and fought the election just to make his party’s presence felt in the poll arena.

Recalls Vajpayee: “In those days. We did not count the number of parliamentary seats out party would get. We were anxious only about the number of votes we would get.”

Vajpayee’s greatest appeal is his oratorical skills, which he uses to telling effect. His style is that of an accomplished stage actor- his speeches punctuated with pregnant pauses, voice high pitched one moment, and down to a whisper the next, as if he were sharing a secret with the crowd.

He connects instantaneously with his audience. Among the humourless breed of Indian politicians, Vajpayee probably stands alone, making even the commandos standing by his side on the stage burst into laughter.

In the campaign for the last Lok Sabha elections, it was Advani who was projected as the BJP’s candidate for prime ministership. With the party president opting out of the fray following the charge sheeting in the hawala case, Vajpayee has replaced him as the party’s mascot.

But while Advani is known to end every speech with an exhortation to the people to raise the chorus of “Jai Shri Ram”, Vajpayee does not follow his example. The Ayodhya temple is never the only item on his agenda.

He talks about corruption. Criminalisation of politics, inflation, neglect of the poor and other bread-and-butter subjects that strike a chord with the people.

Travelling through the western and northern states last fortnight, he rarely referred to the temple issue, even while he was campaigning in Uttar Pradesh.

His credentials as a moderate in a right-wing party have prompted BJP opponents to refer to him as the “right man in the wrong party”. And though he talks about swadeshi, on a sweltering day he is often seen asking for, yes, a Pepsi.

In a party where most leaders treat you as an enemy if you are not a friend, Vajpayee is different. He is a votary of the politics of consensus.

“It should not be misconstrued as politics of consent,” he clarifies. “What it means is a broad agreement on policies.”

BJP strategists feel Vajpayee could be their best bet in the event of a hung  parliament. And Vajpayee says: “What I had described once as the BJP’s majestic isolation is over.”

Vajpayee’s charm also lies in his shrewd handling of the media. When journalists jostle to reach him for “exclusive” quotes, he makes it a point to oblige them all – individually.

And whenever he is on the road, he takes out some time to chat up local journalists. Quite unlike Advani, whose aversion to the press has only deepened after his charge sheeting in the hawala scandal.

But his strengths have sometimes proved to be handicaps. His liberal face has meant that he is not always in the good books of the RSS, which really controls the BJP.

His tenure as party president wasn’t really memorable and it was only after Advani replaced him as the party chief that there occurred a reversal of BJP’s fortune, thanks in no small measure to a series of missteps by Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress Government, starting with the Shah Bano Judgement.

If the RSS has for once been forced to reckon with Vajpayee, it is largely because of the realisation that the  Hindutva card alone is not enough to catch votes. Besides, Advani’s stock plummeted after the crisis in Gujarat last year, followed by the hawala scandal.

If the elections throw up a hung Parliament, Vajpayee will have a prime position in the BJP’s scheme of things. As the developments in Gujarat demonstrated, he is perhaps the only leader in the party who can keep the wavering flock together.

Vajpayee’s task, though, is far from easy. Even as the party is preoccupied with the polls, the BJP faces serious problems in states like Gujarat,  where the Keshubhai Patel faction is said to be working to ensure the defeat of party candidates in at least five constituencies.

He has wider usefulness for the party too. That he is well-liked and respected by leaders across the political spectrum can be of  immense help if the need arises to cobble together a coalition. He has already declared that in the post-election scenario, the BJP will welcome help from all “except the Congress(I) and the Communists”.

Yet, his critics point out that Vajpayee has never failed the RSS leadership, even if at times it has meant retracting his own statements.

On the Babri demolition, he first termed it an outrage, but when the sangh brotherhood berated him, and the hardliners within his own party called him “half Congressman” and demanded his expulsion from the BJP, Vajpayee did an about-turn.

More recently, he joined liberals who criticised Maharashtra’s Shiv Sena-BJP Government’s decision to wind up the Srikrishna Commission probing the Bombay riots, but later changed his views –according to him, “after talking to people in the Maharashtra Government”.

This suits the party well. Advani keeps the Hindutva crowd happy; the secularists feel comfortable with Vajpayee. Joshi fuels the swadeshi fire, while Pramod Mahajan speaks the language of the business houses.

And while Advani tours the country atop a garishly decorated Surajya rath, Vajpayee projects himself as a leader who is more concerned with down-to earth issues.

Hopping from one meeting to another, surrounded by gun-toting guards and cheered by crowds, there are moments when Vajpayee looks lost.

Is the BJP crowd-puller actually a loner? The answer probably lies in one of his poems: “A human being is the only creature who’s lonely in a crowd and crowded when alone.”

A few months ago, the muse in Vajpayee would have cried out against the role of prime minster-in-waiting. But with his party’s president staying out of the electoral race, Vajpayee has little choice.

In fact, he has even begun to defend the party’s projection of him as the future prime minster. “In the west, they have shadow prime ministers and shadow ministers. So why can’t we?”

Despite criticising Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao for contesting from two seats, the BJP itself has asked Vajpayee to contest from Gandhinagar, in Gujarat, as well.

When a journalist asked him why he had agreed to fight from two constituencies, Vajpayee said his party was merely being doubly careful. “Any small incident these days can lead to the countermanding of an election.”

The BJP’s prime minister-in-waiting,” understandably, wouldn’t want to risk that – or a defeat either.

india today, 15 may 1996
India Today 15 May 1996
India Today 15 May 1996
India Today 15 May 1996
India Today 15 May 1996


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