Debating India

The man behind the image

A.G. Noorani

Friday 16 July 2004, by NOORANI*A.G.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s mask of moderation so far, has in fact been an unwavering adherent of the Sangh Parivar’s credo and policy, whether on Hindutva, the Babri Masjid, or the communal riots in India since 1967.

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Atal Bihari Vajpayee addresses party workers at a meeting held as part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s National Executive session in Mumbai on June 23.

"EVEN a despot exercises his powers in accordance with his character, which is itself moulded by the circumstances under which he lives, including under that head the moral feelings of the time and the society to which he belongs. The Sultan could not, if he would, change the religion of the Mohammedan world... . People sometimes ask the idle question why the Pope does not introduce this or that reform? The true answer is that a revolutionist is not the kind of man who becomes a Pope, and that the man who becomes a Pope has no wish to be a revolutionist."

These scintillating words of the great constitutional lawyer, A.V. Dicey, provide a clue to a correct assessment of the outlook and character of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. His remarks on the Gujarat pogrom, on June 12 and 13, followed by the usual "clarification" on June 14, must be read with his entire record during the gory episode, since February 27, 2002, and its aftermath to this day. They reveal the man behind the image.

A product of the Sangh Parivar, Vajpayee had not acquired power on its behalf, as Prime Minister, in order to dilute its ideology or foil its programme. He himself held out no such promise. He said in 1996: "Let me make it clear that all this is part of the Left’s Goebbelsian propaganda - I am a moderate, the party is not; I am secular, the party is not" (Frontline, November 15, 1996).

In truth, the Left had no such illusions. They were nursed by some in the media and outside who, appalled at the grossness of the Parivar’s words and deeds, sought comfort in Vajpayee’s occasional and calculated expressions that distinguished him from the rest. But, not once did he depart from the Sangh’s credo or its policy; whether on the Babri Masjid, Hindutva or on the "communal riots" from 1967 to this day. Not once did he express any sympathy for the Muslims; not once.

Reports of the Commissions of Inquiry on the Ahmedabad (1969) and Bhiwandi (1970) riots belied the charges he freely made against Muslims. In the debate in the Lok Sabha, on May 14, 1970, he was intemperate to a degree and invited a tongue-lashing from Indira Gandhi (Rajdeep Sardesai published excerpts from his speech in Indian Express on April 23, 2002).

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Siddarth Darshan Kumar / AP
With Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, at the Shah Alam relief camp for Muslims driven out of their homes during the post-Godhra violence in Ahmedabad, on April 4, 2002.

During the recent election campaign, Vajpayee and his deputy and Home Minister L.K. Advani made a bid for Muslim votes; but, without offering any concessions whether on the Babri Masjid or any other issue. They stooped so low as to give a communal colour to the peace process with Pakistan when addressing Muslim audiences. Vajpayee’s set refrain was: "Gujarat should never have happened and we should all resolve that in future Gujarat will never happen again" (emphasis added, throughout). The "we" was typical. Narendra Modi and the BJP-VHP-Bajrang Dal goons were not exclusively responsible for the pogrom. Rather inconsistently, in Ahmedabad on January 13, 2004, Vajpayee pleaded for forgiveness from their Muslim victims - who have yet to be rehabilitated. "One who forgives is a greater person that one who seeks forgiveness."

Equally belated was his promise: "Those guilty will be punished." He knew only too well then that the Gujarat government headed by Narendra Modi, which was responsible for launching prosecutions, had absolutely no intention of punishing the guilty. Some of its Ministers were among them. Why make false promises and play with people’s emotions? A plea for "forgiveness" is an admission of "wrongdoing" and guilt. Vajpayee has consistently defended Modi and consistently cited the Godhra carnage in mitigation, if not justification. Incidentally, he did not plead for forgiveness for the Godhra criminals. Rightly so. Gujarat is equally unforgivable.

Vajpayee’s post-poll cries, on June 12 and 13, were provoked by the shock of unexpected electoral defeat and loss of power; which is why they are incoherent and inconsistent. On June 12 Vajpayee told the press: "One impact of the violence was that we lost the elections." He said emphatically: "The BJP’s handling of Gujarat was not wrong," adding, "They (the Opposition) tried to reap political benefits out of it." Then why did he speak of Modi’s dismissal the very next day? Vajpayee revealed that when, in April 2002, "the entire responsibility on this issue was put on me... I felt that holding elections [to the State Assembly] would be more beneficial."

He knew that those elections would be held in a charged atmosphere and communal polarisation - to the BJP’s gain. Modi had no qualms about arousing communal emotions during the election campaign. He hurled threats at "Mian Musharraf". Speaking at Bhuj on November 30, Advani said, "Let there be a fourth war with Pakistan." The pogrom and its aftermath - together with the State and the Central governments’ policies - yielded the desired result in the polls held on December 12, 2002. The BJP bagged 127 of the 182 seats. The Assembly had been dissolved on July 19 to reap immediate rewards. They were delayed thanks only to the Election Commission.

But this strategy failed dismally in the Lok Sabha elections in Hindutva’s laboratory, Gujarat. The BJP won only 14 of the 26 seats. The Congress bagged 12. It is the shock of this result and the spectre of defeat in the next Assembly polls - the political cost and not the mayhem and the loss in human lives - that induced retrospect in Vajpayee: "We did not realise that this strategy would be exploited so much outside Gujarat... . The kind of films that were distributed... . The whole thing was run like a campaign." This has been a recurring theme in his utterances and those of Advani - the pogrom, its perpetrators and abetters, directly or by deliberate inaction, should not be exposed to the public. "Sometimes speaking the truth may not be an act of responsibility," Advani admonished journalists on April 6, 2002 - at Tirupati, of all places (The Telegraph, April 7, 2002). That is his raj dharma (the ethics of governance).

Since the thought of Modi’s sacking was inspired by politics, not ethics, its recantation was easy once other political considerations were brought to his notice on June 14 by BJP president M. Venkaiah Naidu, who also said: "The propaganda on the Gujarat riots by the Opposition did hurt us." On this, both are agreed. But Venkaiah Naidu and the rest feel that dropping Modi now would hurt the BJP’s interests. Since Vajpayee had gone public, a public snub was required with Advani’s backing - Modi’s ouster would not even be discussed. That done, the usual mollification of Vajpayee followed. If Narendra Modi is ever sacked, it will not be because he performed as a Nero in 2002 but because he failed to perform as a hero in 2004. However, on June 22, in Mumbai in his presidential address to the National Executive, Venkaiah Naidu did more than reaffirm the Hindutva commitment. He suggested thrice that "the BJP is not a personality-based party". An ungrateful remark considering how Vajpayee’s photograph had been printed on almost every page of the BJP’s manifesto. Venkaiah Naidu could not have spoken thus without Advani’s backing. Time will reveal the effects of this snub.

Not for the first time the Parivar cut Vajpayee down to size; not for the first time either did he buy peace with it on its terms. It was in Mumbai in 1995 that Advani had anointed Vajpayee as leader on the eve of the 1996 general elections. It was in Mumbai again that he showed Vajpayee his proper place now that the polls are over. What began with a bang at Manali on June 13 ended in Mumbai as a poor joke on June 24. No words were left unsaid to mollify Vajpayee, of course. But he would do well to remember a Gujarati saying gala kati ne pagdi pinao (Narendra Modi will translate it for him - "slit the man’s throat and crown his head with a turban of honour"). It was a vastly diminished Vajpayee who emerged from the Mumbai session of the BJP executive. He will campaign vigorously to retain his position. The Opposition will teach him to ridicule. The people of Maharashtra will not forget the ridiculous condition to which he reduced himself in the State’s capital.

Gujarat could not have happened if the BJP regime had not signalled to its men that they would not be called to account if they persecuted members of any minority community. It began with attacks on Christians in the Dangs district in Gujarat in 1998, no sooner the BJP-led NDA government came to power at the Centre. Vajpayee simply called for a debate on conversions. Before long, Gujarat was in the throes of attacks on Christians. The Archbishop of Delhi, Alan de Lastic, noted later on November 22 that they had increased "ever since the government came to power at the Centre". On December 4, around 23 million Christians, across the country observed a protest. On October 8, Gujarat’s Director-General of Police C.P. Singh said authoritatively: "One thing was clear in the pattern of incidents. It was the activities of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal who were taking the law into their own hands, which posed a serious danger to peace in Gujarat." Yet, Advani said in Baroda on August 2: "There is no law and order problem in Gujarat." Neither the Prime Minister nor the Home Minister would condemn the outrages or their identified perpetrators.

Advani asked the Lok Sabha on December 16 not to give a communal colour to the attacks. Ergo, a rape should not be invested with "gender bias", nor a pogrom with group hate. He said: "Apprehensions were expressed in many quarters that there would be a lot of bloodshed if the Vajpayee government came to power but the facts tell an entirely different story."

At the Inter-State Council meeting on January 22, 1999, Advani expressed a "firm view" that the Centre had a constitutional duty "to keep constant vigil monitoring ground realities in the entire country very closely". It was a regime of double standards. Soon after becoming Union Home Minister in March 1998, Advani sent a team of officials to Chennai to prepare a case for dismissal of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) Ministry headed by M. Karunanidhi, in order to fulfil his election promise to ally Jayalalithaa, the AIADMK supremo. The officials could find not a tittle of evidence of breakdown of law and order. Later in the same year, an attempt was made to sack the Bihar government despite President K.R. Narayanan’s minutes recording his objections on September 25, 1998. If ever there was a case for imposition of President’s Rule on grounds of collapse of law and order in the State, it was in Gujarat in March 2002. But Narendra Modi was spared despite clear proof of his personal encouragement and the active complicity of some of his Ministers, MLAs and police officials in the killings. A government at the Centre that connives at this is equally culpable. It also deserves the censure the Supreme Court administered to Narendra Modi in the Best Bakery case in words that will never be forgotten. "Those who are responsible for protecting life and properties and ensuring that investigation is fair and proper seem to have shown no real anxiety. Large number of people lost their lives... . The modern day `Neros’ were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected" (Zahira Habibullah H. Sheikh vs. State of Gujarat (2004) 4 Supreme Court Cases 158, pages 197-198). Fifty-eight persons were burnt to death in coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express around 7-48 a.m. on February 27, 2002, near the Godhra railway station. There is a good survey of the mayhem that followed in Gujarat in the Report of the Concerned Citizens Tribunal: Crime Against Humanity, Vols. 1 and 2.

A record of Vajpayee’s comments from March 1, 2002, to this day does more than put his recent remarks in perspective. It is of decisive importance in any appraisal of his personality as a politician and worth as India’s Prime Minister. It was a moment of trial that tested him. But neither humanity nor morality governed his or Advani’s responses. They were shaped by politics throughout from the very beginning to this day.

On February 27, Janyala Sreenivas and Darshan Desai reported from Ahmedabad: "Both Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Home Minister L.K. Advani strongly urged the VHP to exercise restraint in the wake of the Godhra killings today. May be their message would have been more effective had they slipped in a couple of words for their own party and government in Gujarat. For, there is evidence to show that both the State and the party are actively pitching in for the VHP’s current Ayodhya campaign and no one is shy of admitting it" (emphasis added, Indian Express, February 28, 2002). All distinctions were gone. The State government, the BJP and the VHP were one. If the correspondents knew it, so did the Prime Minister and Home Minister, surely. That unity came into full play during the pogrom.

On March 1, Vajpayee and leaders of all major political parties issued an appeal for peace. Speaking to the press, Advani "appeared confident that... the administration would be able to bring back normality" (The Hindu, March 2). In fact, Vajpayee and Advani were more concerned with the VHP’s March 15 deadline for shifting the carved stones to Ayodhya to build a temple there than its crimes in Gujarat. They "met RSS leaders to discuss not what the RSS activists were doing in Gujarat, but the Ayodhya issue" (Manoj Joshi and Siddharth Varadarajan, The Times of India, March 2). The RSS played a clever game. It acted as a mediator between both its creatures, the BJP and VHP. The BJP sought its help to rein in the VHP; the RSS obliged on its own terms, extracting more concessions. On March 2, the Prime Minister spoke on television of this "black mark on the nation’s forehead" which had "lowered India’s prestige in the world". He was busy simultaneously seeking the RSS’ help to restrain the VHP on Ayodhya (The Hindu, March 31).

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With Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh chief K.S. Sudarshan.

In Ahmedabad, on March 3, Advani spoke of "a black spot that undid all the good work done by us in the past four years". While he dubbed Godhra as a "premeditated act of terrorism", he characterised the pogrom as a "communal, flare-up" fuelled by the heightened passions; a variant of Modi’s thesis: "reactions by the masses" to the Godhra carnage. "The visit, all of six days after the Sabarmati Express killings, was a let-down. Advani skirted most sensitive areas including Naroda, Chamanpura and Bapunagar, and at the press meeting he looked like he had yet to come to grips with the situation" (Vinod Sharma and Chandan Nandy; The Hindustan Times, March 4). He was clearly disinterested. So was Vajpayee. He regretted the "disgraceful" violence but blamed the media for its "exaggerated" reports when he met activists on March 3. The media should play a "constructive" role. He rejected their plea to ban the VHP and the Bajrang Dal.

On March 6, an all-party meeting was convened in Delhi. On March 11, Advani gave himself away in the Rajya Sabha. He defended Modi, said that the reaction to Godhra was "selective", claimed that never before in Gujarat had such "communal violence" been controlled within 72 hours, and claimed that a large number of those killed were Hindus. Vajpayee gave no indication that his feelings were different.

A correspondent in Ahmedabad reported on March 24 that Gujarat "continues to burn" - long after Advani’s 72 hours. The burning would end, Modi said on March 24, only when the Lok Sabha session concluded. "There is a systematic attempt made by hypocrites sitting in Delhi to exaggerate the Gujarat situation and they are using Parliament." Vajpayee summoned Modi for a briefing on March 27, when Advani was also present.

It was only on April 4 that Vajpayee went to Ahmedabad, seven weeks after the killings broke out. Rhetoric never fails him. Rajdharm ka palan kare ("uphold the ethics of governance"), he famously said, having failed to follow the maxim himself as Prime Minister. There were the predictable expressions of sorrow, "heart-rending" and personal concern: "With what face, I do not know, will I go abroad after all has happened here." Already by then Modi had flouted the Prime Minister’s directive on March 27 on rehabilitation measures. People noted that he first visited the burnt carriage at Godhra as if it was a place of pilgrimage. It was to highlight the thesis of cause and effect, which he advocated - along with Modi.

Only a week later, at the BJP’s National Executive meeting in Goa on April 12, Vajpayee revealed himself in his true colours, for all time. No Prime Minister has ever spoken publicly in disparagement of a section of his own people and of the faith to which they subscribe as Vajpayee did on April 12. That he did so while defending Narendra Modi, the man responsible for the carnage that had engulfed Gujarat since February 28 and while a lakh of Muslims lay forlorn in relief camps, only aggravates an offence that is grave enough even on a textual reading of his remarks.

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In 1962, as a Jan Sangh leader.

Vajpayee said, first, "what happened after the Godhra incident is reprehensible, but the issue is, who started it?" This was communal linkage in its grossest form. Not the identified individual criminals of Godhra, but the Muslim community "started it" and bore responsibility for what it had suffered. Victims of a carnage are taunted, not consoled; still less succoured.

Secondly, the Muslim community was condemned en bloc globally. "Wherever there are Muslims, they do not want to live with others. Instead of living peacefully, they want to preach and propagate their religion by creating fear and terror in the minds of others." There were problems even in Indonesia and Malaysia, which have large Muslim populations. "Islamic fundamentalists are spreading terror and intimidation. This is [the] opposite [of] the culture of Hinduism."

The arrest of Al Qaeda activists in Singapore inspired this remark from Vajpayee. "Wherever Muslims live in large numbers, the rulers apprehend that Islam could take an aggressive turn."

Thirdly, "we" are different from and superior to the "later arrivals"; "we were secular even in the early days when Muslims and Christians were not here. We have allowed them to do their prayers and follow their religion."

It is necessary to set out these propositions for two reasons. An attempt was made through a sanitisied text to refute reports in reputed dailies and even in television coverage by citing his later corrections. "I had said Islam [sic] has two forms. One is that which tolerates others... . But these days militancy in the name [sic] of Islam leaves no room for tolerance." But what he had actually said was: "Once Islam meant toleration, truth and compassion. From what I see now, it has come to mean forcing their opinion through terror and fear. Islam [sic] is run on jehad."

Vajpayee knows that every faith preaches compassion but has followers who practise terror in its name. That he overlooked the VHP and the Bajrang Dal’s doings and contrasted Islam with Hinduism was significant. He was Prime Minister and his remarks had grave constitutional implications for our secular polity.

Vajpayee’s comments in Goa about Islam and Christianity as later arrivals - whose followers are "allowed" to practise their religion - were inconsistent with his address to the Iranian Majlis on April 11, 2001. He had stated in Teheran: "We do not consider any religion foreign to us. For nearly a thousand years, Islam has been part and parcel of our national life."

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Devotees at the tomb ow Wali Gujarati in Ahmedabad during the "sanal" ceremony, one of the only two photographs of the shrine that remain with the munjawar (caretaker) of the shrine.

Two days later came the usual Vajpayee "clarification". He had referred to "some people", a claim belied by Neena Vyas’ report in The Hindu and Smriti Koppikar’s quote from the original in Hindi in Indian Express (Harjagah jahan Muslims bahut sankhya mein rahte hain: Wherever Muslims live in large numbers). Even the Lok Sabha’s record was doctored. On May 16, Vajpayee admitted in the House that he had interpolated the word "such" before "Muslims". Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi pointed out that in the video recording of the Goa speech, the word "such" did not find place. Vajpayee admitted it was a "corrected version". Passions spin the plot: /We are betrayed by what is false within - Meredith.

In the Lok Sabha on May 1, Vajpayee launched a frantic damage control exercise: "It seems I have lost all I have earned in my life. I have never discriminated against anybody in my life on the basis of caste or religion", not even in his speeches on communal riots presumably or on the Jan Sangh’s "Indianisation" programme. On the Babri Masjid he himself said that he spoke as a Swayamsewak of the RSS and as a Hindu (Indian Express, April 7, 1989). He announced a Rs.1,500-crore rehabilitation project. But the old Adam surfaced irrepressibly. "Had the Sabarmati Express train incident been condemned, the subsequent violence could have been avoided."

The Rajya Sabha unanimously adopted a motion moved by Arjun Singh on May 6: "This House expresses a deep sense of anguish at the persistence of violence in Gujarat for over six weeks leading to the loss of lives of a large number of persons, destruction of property worth crores of rupees and urges the Central government to intervene effectively under Article 355 of the Constitution to protect the lives and properties of citizens and to provide effective relief and rehabilitation to the victims of violence."

By then Vajpayee’s authority had reached a nadir. In July 2001, Advani overruled him and wrecked the Agra Sumit. In April 2002 he overruled Vajpayee on his choice of the presidential candidate, Vice-President Krishna Kant. On June 29 Vajpayee submitted. He made Advani Deputy Prime Minister.

Advani rejected (July 23) demands for relief and rehabilitation before the Assembly polls, accused (July 7) "vested interests" of prolonging the violence, and said (July 24) that Narendra Modi’s handling of riots was the best job by any Chief Minister in the past 50 years (Asian Age, July 25).

Father Cedric Prakash found the situation as bad as before. He has been harassed, as were Medha Patkar and Mallika Sarabhai.

As the election campaign began in Gujarat, Modi poured venom in speech after speech. He told Muslims: "You have missed the bus again and again to improve relations with Hindus and establish your secular credentials... you cannot expect one side to always condone your crimes and still maintain good relations between the two communities. One community alone cannot ensure peace and communal harmony" (Manas Dasgupta, The Hindu, November 12). This, after a pogrom over which this Nero had presided.

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Sam Nariman Panthaky
The tomb was razed by a mob in the post-Godhra riots and the site where it stood soon became part of the road.

Neither Vajpayee nor Advani pulled him up. In the Lok Sabha on November 18, Advani said: "An impression was being created the world over that Muslims were not safe as long as there were Hindus in Gujarat." This palpable and mischievous falsehood drew a protest from Priya Ranjan Dasmunshi. But Advani was unrepentant. Indeed, on November 27, he threatened to highlight Godhra during the election campaign if the Opposition accused the BJP and Modi of encouraging communalism. Debates in Parliament "only give strength to me and my party’s leader in Gujarat".

Modi’s electoral triumph confirmed Vajpayee in his belief that he was right, after all. His speech at the BJP’s Parliamentary Party meeting on December 17, 2002 was in the same vein as the Goa speech before the National Executive on April 12. He sang a different tune only after the electoral debacle in May 2004. This is what he said on December 17: "Why didn’t many people of the Muslim community condemn the Godhra incident? Even today there is no repentance." He remarked: "There had not been much opposition from the minority community after the Godhra carnage" (The Telegraph; December 18). The implications are best left unspelt. Vajpayee was all praise for Narendra Modi for the "good work" he had done. That was not all. He asked: "Will Godhra be repeated elsewhere? That is what I will say to those who ask the question on the Gujarat formula," adding "there should have been stronger criticism of Godhra from Muslims" (Neena Vyas, The Hindu, December 18). The Goa speech was no aberration or solitary lapse. It expressed Vajpayee’s deep emotions.

While Venkaiah Naidu threatened (December 23), "We shall replicate the Gujarat experience everywhere... . It was a mandate for the (Hindutva) ideology," Vajpayee extolled the "Gujarat energy" in a press interview (The Statesman; December 26, 2002).

There was no reference to Gujarat in Vajpayee’s Goa Musings on New Year’s Day 2003. All through 2002 Vajpayee spoke on Gujarat as a Hindutva ideologue, bar the occasional expression of sorrow. There is continuity of theme in all his pronouncements, which is ignored by those who cite one statement here or another there. To repeat, Goa was no aberration. Nor was the somersault during the 2004 election campaign when he sought forgiveness from Muslims, nor for that matter the somersault in June 2004 when he called for Modi’s ouster. In every single case, political considerations moved Vajpayee leaving his ideological commitments unaffected.

What distinguishes Vajpayee from Advani is that, for all this, he would like to build up a wider coalition albeit with the BJP as the core; to scan a wider horizon, but without losing sight of the BJP’s goals. He would do good if convenient; he would not refrain from doing wrong, if necessary. On May 28, 1996, he pledged he would not "touch... power" if it entailed "breaking parties". He meant it, then. But he was present at the swearing in of the BSP defectors to Kalyan Singh’s Uttar Pradesh Ministry in Lucknow on October 27, 1997. He truly desired an accord in Agra. But when attacked for it at the BJP executive on July 28, 2001, he launched a personal attack on President Pervez Musharraf - 12 days after the collapse of the summit - in language that was as unseemly as it was unprecedented in the annals of summitry. Had he put his foot down and made it an issue of prestige, he would have acquired ascendancy in the Cabinet - which Advani denied him - and also raised the country’s prestige. But Vajpayee could not do that and remain Vajpayee.

One is at a loss to understand the studied indifference of this poet to the reconstruction of the tomb of the great Urdu poet Wali Mohammed Wali - who was born in Aurangabad in 1667 and died in Ahmedabad in 1707. He was Wali Gujarati to some and Wali Dakhani to others. His tomb was deliberately demolished and a tar road built over it, right opposite the Police Commissioner’s office. One of the pioneers of Urdu poetry, he linked the South to the North by introducing his divan (collection) to Delhi. But then Gujarat itself has been in a sense, "a continuing pogrom" (Dionne Bunsha, Frontline, March 12, 2004 and Biraj Swain and Somnath Vatsa, Himal (Kathmandu) March-April 2004).

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Sam Nariman Panthaky
All this happened right in front of the Police Commissioner’s office.

Vajpayee never showed serious concern in rehabilitating the victims of the pogrom, his fellow citizens and fellow mortals whose lives his own party men had blighted. Nor did he show any real sympathy for them except for the record.

On every single divisive issue the Parivar raised since the Jan Sangh was set up in 1951, Vajpayee enthusiastically followed its line - communal acts, Indianisation and Babri Masjid, you name it. He has also been its most successful vote-getter.

To the Parivar, he says, "Get me a majority in our own right and I’ll carry out your programme fully." Others are told in strict confidence that but "for me these hotheads would get out of control". The compromises he has made to form a government were the ones the Parivar understood if power was to be won at the Centre. He soon reneged on the promise to freeze the three issues: Article 370 cannot be abrogated constitutionally; a uniform civil code is a political impossibility; Vajpayee revived the Ayodhya issue in 2002.

Yet none can deny that Vajpayee is a man who feels; an endearing trait which no objective assessment should ignore any more than one can ignore his desire to reach out to those who differ. But no one should ignore the constancy of his commitments and his Hindutva roots. It is a quaint blend. He is stung to the quick by criticism. "Don’t put me in the dock of the accused," he once said in the Lok Sabha as if Prime Ministers should not be accountable. If Hindutva alone had consumed him, he would have been another colourless Advani. If he had discarded it, he would have attained greatness. But Indian politics would then have lost a complex and colourful figure. He remains Atal Bihari Vajpayee - ideologue and conciliator, a crafty politician who uses rhetoric to enable and mislead, one who constantly invites criticism but is hypersensitive and finds criticism very painful. He is not lofty; but is not common either.

He is in a class by himself. The best appraisal of Vajpayee’s personality lies in the words the celebrated Junius addressed to Sir William Draper in his letter of March 3, 1769: "Do you really think that if I were to ask a most virtuous man whether he ever committed theft or murder, it would disturb his peace of mind? Such a question might, perhaps, discompose the gravity of his muscles, but I believe it would little affect the tranquillity of his conscience. Examine your own breast, Sir William, and you will discover that reproaches and inquiries have no power to affect either the man of unblemished integrity, or the abandoned profligate. It is the middle compound character, which alone is vulnerable, the man who, without firmness enough to avoid a dishonourable action, has feeling enough to be ashamed of it."

See online : Frontline


in Frontline, volume 21, Issue 14, Jul. 03 - 16, 2004.

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