Vajpayee cultivated liberal ethos, triggered peace with Pakistan, yet failed to step out of hardline Hindutva

IK Gujral with AB Vajpayee
By Adv Masood Peshimam*
It was late Prime Minister IK Gujral who had the charm of Urdu poetry. He had a lot of fondness for couplets of Ghalib, Mir, Iqbal, Majrooh and others poets. He could recite Urdu couplets during his talk with ease. Urdu literature, liberal and cosmopolitan, particularly Urdu poetry, had impacted his personality. Urdu literature, which was promoted by the progressive movement in pre- and post-Independence era, was left leaning.
The progressive movement was rooted in the study of problems of the poor and the downtrodden, and the poor formed the theme of writers like Prem Chand, Ismat Chugtai, Rajendra Singh Bedi and others. Gujral, as a liberal, was quite impressed with Urdu literature. He had very good relations with Sahir Ludhiyanvi. Sahir sought to reflect the anguish and pain of the neglected, which left a deep impression on him.
Despite being secular to the core, deeply liberal and catholic in outlook, Gurjar was not tolerated by the Congress. It was the Congress, which facilitated the collapse of Gujral government.
After Gujral, it was Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s poetic charisma, which was much talked about. Vajpayee’s poetic renderings were projected so much that Gujral’s flow and fluency in quoting Urdu couplets went into the oblivion.
But Gujral was not a poet. Being a poet, Vajpayee’s grew into becoming a gifted orator. His poetic persona had an imprint on his eloquence. His speeches were marked by his own inimitable style. His wit and charm captured the young, inspirational India.
But Vajpayee was also steeped in the RSS ideology. The philosophy of extremism and the spell of poetry cannot go together. Vajpayee was groomed in hard-line Hindutva, and despite his poetic passion, he failed to step out of that fully. He was passionately devoted to RSS, and in US he drew pleasure in declaring that he was from RSS and would continue to be part of it.
Notwithstanding this, Vajpayee many a time avowedly declared his faith in liberalism. There were times when he had to balance the contradiction between poetry and politics. There were times when the niceties of his poetry overwhelmed his politics, and vice versa.
Vajpayee’s meteoric rise through RSS can well be attributed to his dedication to the cause he held dearly. With his oratory, laced with organisational skills, he became the face of the Jan Sangh. He was instrumental in mainstreaming the Jan Sangh on the national stage.
However, it would not be out of place to recall that, more than anything else, it was Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, which provided Jan Sangh the centrestage in national politics. The excesses of Emergency made heterogeneous forces come together. The result was, in 1977, after she lifted the Emergency, she had to suffer electoral loss.
Indira Gandhi bounced back but died at the hands of her Sikh bodyguards. Later, Rajiv Gandhi, riding on the sympathy wave, travelled to the pinnacle of power. Hard-line Hindutva votaries at that point of time had only two seats in the Lok Sabha.
The newly-created BJP, following the collapse of the Janata Party, found flamboyant LK Advani to hold a Rath Yatra, which provoked tense atmosphere, leaving imprints of violence, especially in North India. The Ram Mandir movement provided an opportunity to manoeuvre BJP into the position of spectacular strength. The launching of Ram Yatra by hardliner Advani helped ignite communal political climate.
Advani's Rath Yatra
The Congress failed to take any bold step to restrain the yatra, creating a spell of violence. It was Lalu Prasad Yadav who stopped Advani’s Rath Yatra in Bihar. Lalu, this way, succeeded in lowering the political temperature in the country. Advani, with his hard-line Hindutva, laced with his own shrewd political calculations, mobilised communal forces, which enabled BJP to earn electoral dividends.
However, in the wake of any crisis, Vajpayee helped maintain balance. He appeared to suggest that BJP’s hawkish stance maybe just a strategy to acquire power.
The Rath Yatra culminated into the wanton destruction of Babri Masjid. It was not historic Kar Seva. it was barbaric Kar Seva. Despite all the commitments in the Apex Court, Babri Masjid was pulled down, which sparked worst ever communal violence in the country, particularly in Mumbai. There was scant regard for rule of law or secular ethos.
Preceding the tumultuous and gory event of December 6, 1992, Vajpayee also addressed a meeting in his own characteristic ambiguity. He said that a lot of people had gathered in Ayodhya, that there was a lot of jostling of the crowd with no space to move, causing discomfiture, which forced the land to be flattened.
The extravagant drama culminating into Babri demolition left the world stunned, leading to strident denunciation of the move all over. Late Prime Minister PV Narsimha Rao, who allowed the occurrence of the unfortunate event, condemned the demolition, closely followed by Vajpayee, who, changing his stance, found no rationale in what had happened.
Sharing his relationship with Vajpayee, a senior leader, Prof Vijay Kumar Malhotra, said, he had been told by Jaswant Singh that the veteran saffron leader had described Babri demolition as a “black day” in Indian history. Earlier also Vajpayee, while touching upon the “Ram toofan”, had rued that his colleagues should have been careful, should not have blown things out of proportion.
Vajpayee’s affirmation of the ethos of tolerance and secular values epitomised the paradox of a person who had reconciled with hard-line Hindutva, and at the same time he wore a liberal face.
Vajpayee’s sensitive, liberal and sometimes controversial face can be illustrated by an incident quoted by eminent journalist Iftekhar Jilani. It so happened that in the Basti Nizamuddin in Delhi, there occurred a severe Hindu-Muslim riot. Jilani with a view to cover the communal violence went to the predominantly Hindu area, where he had an interaction with Vajpayee. Jilani smelt Vajpaee’s blinkered vision and partisan approach.
But what Jilani experienced subsequently illustrated Vajpayee’s great human face. Vajpayee sensed that Jilani was a Muslim from the type of questions he was posing. Vajpayee understood: Jilani had the serious risk to his life. Jilani was instantly provided with a guard to ensure his protection.
Another instance worth quoting is of Kalyan. Azhar Kazi said that his late father, ex-municipal councillor Kabiruddin Kazi, was attending a BJP meeting in Kalyan, which was also addressed by Vajpayee. In that meeting, local BJP leaders like late Narayan Marathe and late Bhagwanrao Joshi, were also present. In the course of the meeting, clarion call of azan was heard. Vajpayee asked Kabiruddin Kazi to offer namaz and then come back to the meeting.
It is well known how Vajpayee reacted to the worst-ever communal violence in Gujarat, in which the Modi Government was an alleged participant in the massacre of Muslims. Vajpayee asked Modi to abide by Raj Dharma to protect the minorities. He wondered what would he say to Muslim nations, which he was to visit. It is said that he wanted to remove Modi from the chief ministership, but was prevented by Advani and late Pramod Mahajan.
The question also remains why he succumbed to the pressure of Advani and other hardliners. The absence of action against Modi might be out of political compulsions. In the absence of action against Modi, the question remains whether Vajpayee’s was an empty rhetoric, or some sort of cosmetic exercise.
Yet, the fact is, it was Vajpayee who extended the hand of friendship to the neighbouring Pakistan with his bus yatra to Lahore. At Lahore he mesmerised the audience with his excellent oratory, and his initiative of befriending Pakistan was massively admired by the people of both the countries.
But Pakistani rulers retaliated by incursions into Kargil. The establishment there tried to wash its hands of the Kargil incursion. It said that it wasn’t in the know of the situation. It is learnt that in the teeth of the crisis he sent Dilip Kumar talk to Nawaz Sharif. The veteran film star hit Sharif hard by stating that Pakistani bellicosity is not in the interest of Indian Muslims.
The highlight of Vajpayee’s positivity is equally illustrated by the fact that he invited his counterpart Parvez Musharraf, the architect of the Kargil incursion, to Delhi. He acted with reason, sensitivity and sobriety. He has left the legacy of normalising relations with Pakistan, refusing to encourage the extravagant belligerence and bellicosity on the domestic front.
Saffron forces, instead of raising their pitch for 2019 elections, should instead focus on his legacy of peace and harmony. The poetry of Vajpayee and Gujral should continue to be the guiding spirit. The best tribute to the icon would be by ushering in human values, which he sought to highlight in his poetry.
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*Based in Kalyan, Maharashtra

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