Turning Vajpayee Into Nehru

Atal ji

The same group which seeks to cast Vajpayee as a “Congressman in BJP” had used the most vicious words for him when he was the Prime Minister

By Praful Shankar

President Pranab Mukherjee proved that he is a class apart from his less-than-illustrious predecessor last week when he drove over to the residence of former PM Atal Behari Vajpayee to award him the Bharat Ratna.

For the long-retired BJP veteran, it was a more than an overdue honour and one that was denied to him for this long only due to the churlishness of the UPA. Prime Minister Vajpayee is one of the few Indian PMs to whom public memory has been kind even after he left office. Whether it be through his political statesmanship or his lucid oratory, Vajpayee won the hearts of crores of Indians across the country.

Even so, tracking the op-eds and discussions that followed the awarding of the Bharat Ratna, one can’t help but wonder if, in the no-holds barred slugfest that defines our polity today, even the legacy of Atal Behari Vajpayee is now fair game.

Vajpayee’s political stature and public popularity made it almost impossible for anyone to question the merits of the award. The New Delhi establishment – forever inimical to the BJP – responded to the predicament by repackaging the benevolent image of Vajpayee as the Nehru of the political Right. This was supposed to be in contrast with the current leader of the BJP, Narendra Modi.

This repositioning of Vajpayee as a “Congressman in the BJP” or a “socialist at heart” is, in actuality, a complete distortion of Atal Behari Vajpayee and all that he stood for.

Let us begin with this myth being propagated that during his ascent to power and his premiership, Vajpayee enjoyed the support and good wishes of his political opponents. Since the day he became a legitimate claimant to the post of the Prime Minister and the BJP began its rise towards becoming a major national party, Vajpayee had been subjected to the same level of abuse, ridicule and name-calling that has now been directed towards Narendra Modi. One only has to search YouTube to find video recordings of Vajpayee delivering a riveting riposte to Sonia Gandhi, after a customary round of shameful name calling from the Congress President.

During his term as PM, the Opposition even went to the extent of questioning his patriotism, spreading rumors about his health and making snide remarks about his personal life. Even as late as 2004, after he demitted office and began to ease into retirement, Laloo Prasad Yadav is on record calling him the ‘last fascist ruler of India’. Seems familiar?

In fact, this turn of heart of India’s ‘secular’ political janta towards Vajpayee began only post his full retirement, when the shadow of Narendra Modi began to loom large over 7 RCR and the BJP’s political rivals realized that there was political capital in delinking the immensely popular Vajpayee from his potential successors in the BJP. It is to Vajpayee’s credit that despite the constant abuse and taunts, he conducted himself with a great deal of restraint and large-heartedness while dealing with his opponents.

Another one of the leftist intelligentsia’s favorite characterization of Vajpayee is of a leftist-liberal at heart who somehow wound up in the BJP and RSS but would have been much more at home on the other side of the political trenches. This again, is far from the truth.

In fact, Vajpayee was very much the quintessential BJP politician.  While he certainly was a man with a liberal heart, it was not of the leftist kind. His liberalism was very different from the kind of rabid, militant atheism preached by majority of India’s media elites. It was also far removed from the Congress party’s so-called secular liberalism (which can only honestly be termed as minority appeasement and fear mongering). Vajpayee was a liberal very much in the vein of the vast majority of Indians – deeply religious and God-fearing yet tolerant in their moral judgement of those who do not hold the same beliefs as their own. In fact, this was one of the main reasons why the Indian public took to him so fondly.

Let us also not forget that Vajpayee spent a vast majority of his life as a loyal member of the RSS. He was schooled in the ideology of the Parivar and stayed true to it even when the Jan Sangh and BJP were far away from even a whiff of power in Delhi. The very genesis of the BJP and its dramatic rise to power through the Ram Janmabhoomi movement were the result of the commitment of Vajpayee and Advani to their ideological family.

Even as PM, Vajpayee deviated greatly from the standard leftist template that he seems to get cast into. In the areas of both, the economy and foreign relations, – the most critical policy areas of any premiership – he was as rightist as any Indian PM could be.

After being sworn in for the second time in 1999, he continued the nuclear policy of the Narasimha Rao government by conducting the Pokhran nuclear tests. His government was the first one to break the shackles of the comical Non-Aligned foreign policy of the previous decades. Ably aided by Brajesh Mishra, he took Indo-US relations to the next level, laying the foundations of what has evolved into a strategic partnership between two of the most powerful democracies in the world.

On the economic front, Vajpayee oversaw one of the most fervent periods of economic liberalization that the country has seen – starkly different from what one would expect from a ‘socialist-at-heart’ PM. Narasimha Rao may have cut the ceremonial ribbon in 1991, but it was Vajpayee’s 6 year rule which did the gruelling groundwork to truly liberalize the economy and lay the foundations for the 8% growth that even the UPA benefitted from. In fact, his record of privatization of PSUs and other government agencies is such that even the Narendra Modi government – termed to be anything but socialist in its leanings – may have a tough time matching it.

It is a great political irony that at a time when the Congress and their friends in the intelligentsia feign great outrage over the co-opting of the legacies of Sardar Patel, Madan Mohan Malaviya and Lal Bahadur Shastri by the BJP, they continue to engage in the sly attempt to detach Vajpayee from his true political leanings.

Perhaps this is a sign of a deeper problem which the Congress and political Left face – an absolute lack of modern political icons. The political Right can lay claim to two of India’s most popular politicians of the last two decades. Their opponent’s iconography, however, seems to have dried up post-Indira Gandhi. Every election result in the past year has shown the waning of the Gandhi charisma. The only Congressman of the last two decades who could lay claim to a lasting legacy, Narasimha Rao, has been blanked out of the Congress lexicon.

This could be the reason for the Lefts’ need to create a mirage of a leftist, socialist Vajpayee. Unfortunately for them, the BJP will not let go of their beloved Atalji as easily as the Congress let go of their Sardar.

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