Debating India


The Forehead Of Time

Saba Naqvi BHAUMIK

Monday 12 April 2004, by BHAUMIK*Saba Naqvi

Vajpayee is no longer a moderate face of the BJP, he has cast it in his own image

When the BJP was formed in Bombay in 1980 in the wake of the "dual membership" controversy that brought down the Morarji Desai government, Atal Behari Vajpayee’s presidential address played down the RSS and Jana Sangh connection and focused on Jayaprakash Narayan’s legacy instead. There has never been any doubt that Vajpayee symbolises the moderate end of the ideological pole the BJP represents. But it’s in 2004, 24 years after the BJP’s birth, that Vajpayee is master of his party and better placed to cast it in his own image.

As election 2004 becomes more of a presidential contest and Vajpayee’s popularity keeps soaring, the prime minister appears determined to leave his imprint on the nation and his party. The Vajpayee hand can be seen behind many of the events that have transformed the atmospherics of this election-the Indo-Pak cricket series and the peace talks; the BJP’s attempt to soften its image among minorities; and now the dropping of Article 370 and toning down of its stand on other contentious issues in the party’s ’vision document’ released last week.

Vajpayee’s behind-the-scene moves are even more significant. He’s being quietly assertive and is pulling his weight where it really counts, say insiders. He is taking far more interest in organisational matters than he ever did in the past. In the last general election, for instance, Vajpayee would be handed a tour programme and he would faithfully campaign for the party. No questions asked. But in 2004, Vajpayee is far more active and interested in party affairs. Some examples: Vajpayee has granted time to many sitting MPs and ensured that most are not denied a party ticket. The PM has also personally met and mollified the few who failed to get renominated. Moreover, as a highly placed government source points out, "This is the first time the PM has met so many state unit chiefs of the BJP to get their views on candidate selection. Earlier, he showed no inclination to be involved in these matters."

In the process, Vajpayee has not merely become more hands-on in party matters, he has also made his own assessment about the BJP’s and the NDA’s prospects in each state after getting feedback from many grassroots partymen. He has, in particular, been focusing on UP, a make-or-break state both for the BJP and Vajpayee who will again be contesting from its capital, Lucknow. In recent weeks, there have been about 12 sessions with top leaders from UP, besides interactions with several state MPs. Besides, Vajpayee recently held three public meetings as well-in Maharajganj, Amroha and Bahraich.

There is a subtle but significant difference in nuance between the BJP’s rhetoric and the speeches made by Vajpayee. The PM makes no reference to Bharat Uday or India Shining. He merely talks about the country moving ahead. A top BJP strategist reveals that right at the onset of the India Shining campaign, the PM had said it only appealed to urban India and didn’t really address the concerns of the rural poor. Vajpayee has been devoting considerable time talking about the Pakistan initiative and in recounting the Congress sabotage of coalition governments in the past.

The so-called "coalition dharma" has become an article of faith with Vajpayee. Sources reveal the prime minister is also playing a direct role in alliance formation. For instance, he deputed George Fernandes and Sharad Yadav to ensure the BJP succeeded in forging a tie-up with a faction of the JD(U) in Karnataka. Sources also reveal he wasn’t happy with BJP dumping its two alliance partners-the inld in Haryana and the AGP in Assam-at the behest of the respective state units. The PM still believes that even though these parties are diminishing political forces, some sort of an "arrangement" with them can only help the BJP in these states.

Besides his increasing clout within the BJP, Vajpayee has also been consulted by many MPs belonging to the smaller NDA constituents. He’s been telling some of the regional parties and leaders from the NDA to get their houses in order. Since many of them intend to cash in on the Vajpayee image, it’s hardly surprising that they are discussing their internal party problems with the PM.

But it is on the BJP that Vajpayee is really leaving his imprint. The clever draftsmanship of the ’vision document’ was a clear attempt by the BJP to repackage itself as a centrist party that is ready to put contentious issues on the backburner. On the one hand the party did not break with its ideological roots-it pledged commitment to a Ram temple at Ayodhya (through consensus). Yet, there was a departure from the past. For the first time the party did not outright demand the imposition of a uniform civil code. Instead, it pledged support to it "primarily as an instrument to bring about gender justice". The fact that the BJP did not demand the scrapping of Article 370 (granting special status to J&K) is even more significant. Article 370 was not even mentioned in the document though there is a reference to "certain transient and temporary provisions for J&K". This fundamental change can’t be delinked from the prime minister’s pet project-the peace initiative with Pakistan and the ongoing Centre-Hurriyat talks.

With the cricket series in Pakistan going so well for India, Vajpayee is in a position to impose his line on the BJP. And just in case there were any doubts about whose "vision" was on display, one can’t ignore the fact that there are 54 photographs of Vajpayee in the glossy print reproduction of the ’vision document’. There are just two photographs of deputy prime minister L.K. Advani and in both he’s standing behind a seated Vajpayee.

In a sense, this poll marks the coming of age of the Vajpayee leadership. "After six years in office he no longer has to be a mere respectable face for the BJP. He’s in a position to call the shots," says a source. And ever since the lohpurush-vikaspurush spat in June last year, the BJP quietly dropped the plan of projecting a dual leadership in Vajpayee-Advani. Since then, Vajpayee’s position within the party and parivar has gone from strength to strength even as Advani’s shadow on the prime ministership has shortened.

In spite of a life-long association with the RSS, Vajpayee has pulled off the remarkable feat of being considered a moderate. Results 2004 will show whether he has managed to pull off the miracle of transforming the public perception of his party.


Vajpayee In Control

Taking greater interest in organisational matters

Meeting BJP state unit chiefs

More assertive about ticket distribution

Sending emissaries to various regional parties for alliance formation

Pushing the BJP towards a markedly centrist agenda

Promoting peace with Pakistan

in Outlook India, Monday, april 12, 2004.

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