Vajpayee, The years that changed India by Shakti Sinha

As a scholar bureaucrat, Shakti Sinha Sir remains an inspiration for bureaucrats like me. Here, he writes an interesting book on Atal Ji, an insiders account.

My main takeaways from the book;

  1. The book is a political journey of Atal Ji beginning with his electoral victory in 1957 from Balrampur to the year 1999, when his government fell by one vote in the Lok Sabha. The focus of the book however is on the period March 1998 to May 1999, when Vajpayee was sworn in as the PM for the second time, and provides an insider account of the government and the happenings during the period.
  2. India exercised its nuclear option in May 2018 becoming an overt nuclear weapon state. The book highlights the international and the domestic reaction to these tests. Americans were livid at the test as were the Canadians, Japanese and the Scandinavians. France, UK and Russians on the other hand were more understanding. The Americans completely overlooked India’s rationale for the test, disregarded China’s proliferation record in the subcontinent and the consequent threat that it posed it India’s security. Instead, President Clinton and his administration imposed sanctions on India, also seeking to create a G2 with China to manage South Asia. Domestically too the government was criticized by its political opponents with the Congress party under Mrs. Sonia Gandhi, arguing that there was no credible reason for India to have tested. She questioned the secrecy with which the tests were undertaken, which for her symbolized the lack of transparency. Ironically, the Congress manifesto of 1991, prepared under Shri Rajiv Gandhi’s leadership, had mentioned the need for India to exercise its nuclear option.
  3. Vajpayee’s opening to Pakistan, his Lahore Bus yatra and the events during the trip make for an interesting read. Reading those pages, the image of Vajpayee as a statesman repeatedly gets reinforced. The Lahore visit created conditions for communication lines to remain open between both the Prime Ministers even during the Kargil conflict, PM Vajpayee and PM Sharif having repeated telephonic conversations during the period. The back channel between RK Mishra and Niaz Naik also continued to remain active.
  4. The book should be a compulsory read for all those who keep extolling the virtue of coalition governments of myriad parties over a one party stable government. It clearly brings out the compromises that such a government is forced to make, the endless energy that the leadership has to spend not on meeting the actual challenges of governance but instead on managing the demands (more often than not for personal benefit of leaders), pulls, pressures and the blackmail of the coalition partners.
  5. What I found very interesting in the book is the role President Narayanan played first by creating difficulties in the way of Vajpayee in forming the government, and later when the government fell by one vote, trying to engineer an alternative government. The author quotes Natwar Singh who in his book had argued that President Narayanan, sent his Principal Secretary, Shri Gopal Krishna Gandhi to the Congress leaders, with a view to convince them to support Jyoti Basu as PM. The effort failed necessitating a midterm election. Reading it made me chuckle thinking of all those who shout from rooftops, as to how institutions have got all politicized today and are no longer nonpartisan.
  6. Personally, Atal ji was a person seeped in the Indian cultural and civilizational ethos, who was deeply influenced not only by classical Indian literature but also Ramcharit Manas. For him the word Hindu did not denote a religion or a particular mode of worship but an eclectic way of life. During the confidence vote of May 1996, he stated that India was inherently secular for it did not believe that any faith or system of worship had a monopoly over truth. Interestingly, he got a letter from Syed Sahabuddin who argued that he disagreed with his Vajpayee’s description of Indian philosophy and that he as a Muslim believed that his path was the only true path. Vajpayee ji let the issue pass and did not respond to him.
  7. On the issue of governance and politics, it was his firm belief that some issues like national security and national sovereignty were beyond/above petty politicking. So, when then Minister of Defense, Mulayam Singh Yadav announced that the Sukhoi deal had been concluded, Vajpayee to the shock of many congratulated him in Parliament. Explaining the role of government and opposition in India to a visiting Nigerian delegation, he stated, ‘the opposition should have its say, but the government must have its way’. On economic issues, he believed that the government should play the role of a regulator, the culture of ‘free’ should not be encouraged, instead user charges for services provided should be paid, more so by those who could afford it. He also called for the rationalization of subsidies.  

Sadly, considering the stature of Vajpayee, much has not been written about him, compared to other leaders of India’s cultural right. This book fills an important gap more so for people like me, who seek to understand and research on the cultural nationalists/right in India. A very interesting read.

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Book Review: Jugalbandi, The BJP before Modi by Vinay Sitapati.

Though I had finished reading this book sometime ago, writing the book review had slipped out of my mind as I got busy with other reads. Vinay Sitapati writes a brilliant book providing a glimpse into the journey of Hindu nationalism in India – its ideological underpinnings, role of personalities and the context which facilitated/impeded its rise. It also answers academic questions about Hindu nationalism.

Despite all the misinformation that its opponents continuously proffer, Hindu nationalism is not anti-democratic or fascist. Fascists abhor democracy and elections, whereas Hindu nationalism is a product of democracy and elections. Hinduism as a religion, unlike say Islam (which has a conception of Khilafat) does not have a religious/historical conception of how polity should be organized. Concepts like ‘Ram Rajya’ do not provide a framework for organizing polity, but deal with ideals/code of conduct for rulers. Hindu nationalists like Savarkar/Lala Lajpat Rai were delighted when democratic institutions were introduced by the British – this provided Hindu nationalism the opportunity to acquire power through the twin factors of Hindu numerical majority and elections. Frankly apart from winning in elections, Hindu nationalists know of no other way to acquire political power. For them India was/is already a Hindu Rashtra for in this sacred geography Hindus constitute a majority, the issue is only of mobilizing them. It is this belief in democracy that makes the Hindu nationalists contest elections with gusto, and also accept defeat in an election and surrender power without much ado (coming back to fight another day).

Not only is Hindu nationalism a product of democracy and elections but it is a modern concept, much different from traditional Hinduism. For Savarkar (who is credited to have provided the intellectual foundations of Hindu nationalism through his theory of Hindutva), traditional Hinduism was a source of weakness rather than strength. Deeply influenced by western utilitarianism and rationalism, revolutionary nationalism of Mazzini, atheism and the rising Muslim separatism and violence against Hindus (Moplah riots after the Khilafat movement), his own experiences during his incarceration in Andamans, he became obsessed with the idea of challenging Muslim seperatism and making it as powerful as the west. He derided traditional Hinduism which he found seeped in ritualism, superstitions and caste divisions. Unlike the traditional Hindu scholars like Vivekanand who concerned themselves with the question ‘What is Hinduism?’, Savarkar sought answer to the question, ‘Who is a Hindu?’ – an answer he defined in racial terms and in terms of blood ties (slightly modified by Sangh, who define Hindus as ones who share common cultural ties). It was these ‘Hindus’ who needed to be organized so that Muslim separatism could be challenged, country kept united and India made a great power. It is hilarious when critics accuse Hindu nationalism of being Brahminical as caste divisions are a complete anathema for Hindu nationalists. In their worldview it is these divisions which sap Hindu society of its virility and resulted in India losing its sovereignty to foreigners. There is a reason why despite all disinformation campaigns launched against it by vested interests, today it is the BJP which is the most preferred party for the Dalits and the OBCs; the country has an OBC as PM and a Dalit as President. This tradition of empowering the weaker sections goes back a long time. During the Janata government of 1977, the PM choice of the Jan Sangh faction of the Janata party was Babu Jagjivan Ram, a Dalit.

Now to the question as to ‘Why does the BJP win’? The answer to this question lies in what is called the ‘Hindu Fevicol’ by the author, an adhesive that binds the party and stops it from splitting. This ‘Hindu Fevicol’ is rooted not only in ideology (there are many ideological parties like the Communists, BSP etc. but they have split regularly) but in the particular understanding of history that the Hindu nationalists imbibe and which shapes their ideological worldview.  They believe that it was the division amongst Hindus that resulted in the loss of India’s sovereignty (to foreigners), and was also responsible for the division of the country. Those who visit the Shakhas would understand the constant emphasis that is placed on battles like the third battle of Panipat where Ahmad Shah Durrani despite being an outsider, gained the support of Muslims in India (Rohillas, Afghans and Shiraj-ud-Daula) while the Hindu Rajputs and the Jats did not support the Marathas, (who themselves could not put up a united front, their army having too many Generals and lacking a cohesive war strategy).  It is this understanding of history grilled into the mental makeup of the Hindu nationalists, which places a premium on keeping the outward trappings of unity intact, even though the leaders may have deep differences amongst themselves. It was a well-known fact that Vajpayee wanted Narendra Modi out after the Gujarat riots (which could have effectively ended his political career), but on his death Mr. Modi as PM walked 6 kms with his hearse during his funeral. Contrast that with how the Congress party treated Narshimha Rao after his death. The dissidents might sulk, some might quit politics (Nanaji Deshmukh) but they never divide the party (exceptions like Shankar Singh Vaghela are few and far between). When Vajpayee was sidelined by the party in the 1980s, Rajiv Gandhi was quite interested in having him cross over to the Congress. When he sent his emissaries, Vajpayee is said to have just laughed it off. When asked as to why despite being sidelined he sticks to the party, he is reported to have said, ‘Jayen toh jayen kahan?’. Now wasn’t that a silly answer, for which political party would not have welcomed him?  

The book provides a historical account of the formation of the right-wing Hindu party – first the Jan Sangh and then the BJP. Savarkar and the Hindu Mahasabha were the first expression of Hindu nationalism as an organized political party. When Dr. Hegdewar formed the RSS in 1925, though he agreed with most of the postulates of Hindutva as enunciated by Savarkar – he differed with Savarkar on politics, which he considered to be a corrupting influence. While he wanted to organize Hindus socially, he wanted them remain apolitical. The intellectual genius that Savarkar was, he understood that politics cannot be ignored if socio-political changes have to be brought about. While he constantly pleaded for RSS to become politically active, this was declined by Dr. Hegdewar and his successor Guru Golwalkar. In frustration Savarkar said, ‘What will you do with these people who keep marching?’, ‘Make achar with them?’. That Savarkar was right about not ignoring politics, was understood by RSS only after the assassination Mahatma Gandhi when RSS was banned but not the Mahasabha, even though Godse was a member of the Mahasabha, and the latter’s role in the murder of Mahatma was more direct/pronounced. RSS realized that unlike the Mahasabha, not having a political voice to support it put it at a disadvantage. The Mahasabha had a political footprint, was represented in Parliament and also in the Union Cabinet (not so long ago when SP Mukherji resigned), making banning the outfit much more difficult. This bitter experience made Guruji and the RSS reassess their stance about remaining apolitical. So, when Shyama Prasad Mukherji approached Guruji for help to launch a political party, he agreed to support him. The Bharatiya Jan Sangh was formed on 21 October 1951, with five members of the RSS seconded to it. Thus started the political Jugalbandi of the first duo in the Hindu nationalist classical concert, i.e. Shyama Prasad Mukherji and Deen Dayal Upadhyaya. This was followed by the second players of this Jugalbandi, Atal ji and Advani Ji, PM Modi and Amit Shah ji being the third pair of this political Jugalbandi. The common thread that runs through all these Jugalbandis’ is the division of labour amongst the players; one responsible for managing the parliamentary arm of the party and the other managing the party organization. The first role demanded a flair for oratory while the latter the patience of management and eye for detail.

The Hindu nationalist project whose flowering we witness today is nearly a 100-year-old project, and has seen several trials, tribulations and ideological compromises. The ideological hegemony that Nehruvian consensus had over Indian society and polity for several decades, post-independence constrained the space for Hindu nationalism. Ideologues like Vajpayee, whose politics revolved more around parliamentary consensus than mass politics, accepted the fundamental underpinnings of this consensus and reworked Hindu nationalism around it. The problem was compounded by Godse’s assassination of Gandhi deeply harming the Hindu nationalistic project, setting it back by decades. They were reviled and declared political pariah. All focus of the Jana Sangh and the BJP in their initial decades were driven by attempts to mainstream them and acquire political acceptance in the polity. Their big breakthrough came with the proclamation of Emergency in 1975, when they became a part of the opposition front challenging the emergency, and becoming part of the Janata party. In the 1977 elections not only did the Jan Sangh (block) win the largest number of seats amongst all the constituents of the Janata Party, but in their quest for mainstreaming themselves not only did they discard their core ideology (unacceptable to others) but also accepted the least number of ministerial positions, vis a vis number of seats won. This trend of ideological dilution in the quest for political mainstreaming continued with the formation of BJP in April 1980, when Vajpayee defined ‘Gandhian Socialism’ as the core ideology of the party, much to the chagrin of many ideological purists. This dilution in ideology however did not yield the desired electoral success because majority politics in the 1980s had taken a distinctly rightward turn. The threat to national unity posed by the Khalistani separatist movement in Punjab, Bhindranwale’s call of killing Hindus, the fear of losing their demographic edge (always a super sensitive topic with Hindus with the scar of Partition) with rising infiltration (of Muslims) from Bangladesh in Assam, and the conversion of Dalits to Islam in Meenakshipuram, all made the Hindus deeply anxious. Ironically, it was the ‘secular’ Congress which understood this change in the political climate in the country and adjusted its politics accordingly – articulating right wing Hindu policies. It was the Congress leaders instead of the BJP, who were most vociferous in their condemnation of the Meenakshipuram conversions, they undertook a pogrom against the Sikhs (after the death of Mrs Gandhi) and played upon the Hindu anxieties during the 1984 general elections by running a rabidly communal campaign demonizing the Sikhs. Former Congress ministers Dau Dayal Khanna and Gulzari Lal Nanda sharing stage with the VHP were the first to demand that a Ram Mandir be built at Ayodhya as early as 1983. It took the BJP six more years (1989) before it endorsed the construction of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. (Palampur resolution).

The Congress right-wing turn was such that even the RSS members had started collaborating with the Congress and voting for it. Denuded of RSS support, the BJP lost elections in Delhi and Jammu and was reduced to 2 seats in the Lok Sabha. Arguing that enough was enough, the RSS now openly called for a change in the leadership of the BJP, asking Rajmata Scindia to take over, and when she declined, Advani became the President of the party in place of Mr. Vajpayee. Seeped in organizational and grassroot politics, Advani was aware of the changing political atmosphere in the country, but he had refrained from seeking any course correction to Vajpayee as he was too much in awe and thrall of him. After becoming President, he gradually started asserting himself, bringing the party back to its ideological moorings. While the skeptical Vajpayee sulked, Advani led the rightwing turn in the party – Rath Yatra, alliance with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra – all of which helped in augmenting public support, and paid rich electoral dividends. By 1995 however, the party’s electoral successes had plateaued, and Advani realized that BJP could come to power only by entering into alliance with other political parties. His image as a mascot of hardline Hindutva inhibited other political parties entering into an alliance with the party, and there was no chance of BJP coming to power under his leadership. This understanding made him make that famous and unexpected announcement in the Mumbai plenary of the party (November 1995), where he announced Vajpayee as the Prime Ministerial face of the BJP, surprising many. The rest as they say is history. BJP with its 24 alliance partners finally formed the government and ruled for 6 years before losing power in 2004. The highlight of this 6-year rule was the steps that this govt would take to to improve relations with Pakistan as well as reaching out to the Kashmiris. In this both Vajpayee and Advani were on the same page.

Now for some personalities and their stories that the book deals with. I found the stories of Advani, Rajkumari Kaul and Nusli Wadia most interesting (and poignant). Much is known about Vajpayee and his charisma; he was a leader we produce once in a century. This book needs to be read if you want to understand Advani Ji – the tragic figure that he is, whose contribution are somehow understated. Born in a rich family in Karachi, seeped in the syncretic traditions of Sindh, his mother visited Sikh shrines and Sufi Dargahs, he studied in a Christian Missionary school, (Mr. Sitapati calls him the classical Macaulayputra). His story is the story of the tragedy that partition was – an affluent family reduced to penury and forced to flee India as a result of partition. He was a man completely in awe and thrall of Vajpayee, also deeply loyal to him at a personal level. Vajpayee and Advani shared a fabulous chemistry, had immense liking for each other despite being totally different personalities – Advani was dour, afraid of public speaking, disciplined and loved to spend time with cadres, Vajpayee loved the good things of life, was probably the best orator produced in Indian politics and loved ‘high’ politics of parliament, rather than of the organization. They collaborated and helped each other to undermine their detractors, Advani helped Vajpayee to remove challengers like Balraj Madhok, ML Sondhi and Nanaji Deshmukh while Vajpayee helped Advani to cut MM Joshi to size when he was emerging as a challenger to Advani. They also had their differences, more so during the period BJP was in power, when Vajpayee sidetracked Mr. Advani in matters of governance with his PMO under Brajesh Mishra and his family calling the shots. On organizational matters however, he continued to defer to Advani, he retracted from his insistence that Narendra Modi resign after the Gujarat riots, a view Advani and the party did not endorse.

Rajkumari Kaul, (who was in a relationship with Vajpayee), had first met each other in college, developed an attraction for each other but before their affection to concretize into something more serious, had moved on in life, she marrying the philosophy professor Mr. Kaul and he becoming one of the young star politicians of India. Destiny made them meet again in Delhi, and the relationship was rekindled, Mr. Kaul not objecting to this relationship. She was as much of an intellectual as Mr. Vajpayee and her discussions sharpened/deepened his liberal tendencies. Their relationship as well as their commitment to each other was unique. RSS did not take the relationship kindly and when Guruji asked Vajpayee to break the relationship, much to his credit he refused. The RSS learnt to live with their relationship.

Interestingly, during the earlier days of the Hindu right party, when no other industrial house would look at the party, it was Jinnah’s grandson Nusli Wadia who emerged as their main financier. Nanaji Deshmukh, who was the main fund collector of the party, was a father figure to him. When BJP came to power, many resented his direct access to the PM.

Deeply researched the book is a must read for anyone who is interested in the history of the BJP. It is surely one of the best books to come out this year.    

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