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Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Surprisingly A Moderate?

Atal Bihari Vajpayee: Surprisingly A Moderate?

Despite being a long-serving member of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Atal Bihari Vajpayee shows us how a BJP politician can faithfully serve his country without being a hard-liner.

Julie Christie

Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Image courtesy: Hindi Webdunia.


By Mithu Das   August 26, 2018

Where there is no terrible famine, no cruel pestilence, no foreign enemy to invade and ravage, where peace always reigns, that is the ideal land.Atal Bihari Vajpayee

He usually like to wear Kurta pajama or white dhoti, write poems and read books. Yet, when he smile his face looks like a child. Even when he has been serving as prime minister of India, from 1998 to 2004, barely anything could change his lifestyle. Atal Bihari Vajpayee helped reformed India’s economy by launching the Golden Quadrilateral project, the New Telecom Policy, the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan and the Fiscal Responsibility Act. In fact, he was considered to be one of the charismatic leaders India has ever born. And, probably, one of the few undisputed leaders BJP has ever born? Vajpayee died last Thursday (16th August, 2018), at 93, in New Delhi.

Despite being a long-serving member of RSS, Vajpayee, a moderate, shows us how a BJP politician can faithfully serve his country without being a hard-liner. However, some people want to say Vajpayee was neither a moderate nor a hardliner; he was what in his own words “always a swayamsevak.”

Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Mother Teresa, May 1996
Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Mother Teresa, May 1996. Credit: Photo by TEKEE TANWAR/AFP/Getty Images (downloaded from Ibtimes).

Vajpayee, who was born in a Brahmin family in 1924, in Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, joined the RSS when he was 16-year-old. As a teenager he had attended rallies calling for freedom from British rule. In 1942, he was arrested while joining a crowd gathered at Bateshwar to protest against British Government and had to spend 24 days in prison. In 1947, the year India achieved independence from Britain, a young Vajpayee was thought to be an active member of the RSS. Unfortunately, in 1948, RSS was banned in India after Mohandas K. Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu fanatic.

Vajpayee joined the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS)—'a forerunner of the BJP’—which was found by Syama Prasad Mookerjee in 1951. In 1954, according to Wikipedia, Vajpayee went with Mookerjee to Kashmir where “Mookerjee went on a hunger strike to protest the perceived inferior treatment of non-Kashmiri Indian visitors to the state. Mookerjee died in prison during this strike.” However, according to Indian Historian Ramachandra Guha, the truth was something different: “It was not a fast-unto-death (rather an illness that resulted in death), and in any case Vajpayee was not at Mookerjee’s side, having been left behind in Pathankot when the leader chose to enter the Valley on his own.”

In 1957, Vajpayee was elected to parliament as a BJS member. In 1977, BJS joined the Janata Party, which came into power the same year, and Vajpayee became the foreign minister. As a foreign minister he helped improved relations with China and Pakistan. During this time he was able to address the United Nations General Assembly in Hindi language, which was considered to be a historical event as no one had tried to deliver a speech in Hindi to UN General Assembly before. Unfortunately, in 1979, he gave resignation from his post just before a few weeks Murarji Desai’s government collapsed.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was greeted by Bhupen Hazarika in Assam, 2004
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was greeted by Bhupen Hazarika in Assam, April, 2004. Credit:Tribune India.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee Mamata Banerjee, 2000
Atal Bihari Vajpayee at Mamata Banerjee's home, Kalighat, Kolkata, July 2000. Credit: The Times of India

In 1980, BJS was formed into Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Vajpayee was appointed as president. The turning point in Vajpayee’s political career came after 1986 when L. K. Advani became the President of BJP. “Under Advani,” claims Wikipedia, “the BJP returned to a policy of hardline Hindu nationalism. It became the political voice of the Ram Janmabhoomi Mandir Movement, which sought to build a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Ram in Ayodhya.”

It had been claimed by Hindus for a long time that the Babri Masjid—which was built by Mughal emperor Bābur in the early 16th century—was built on the site which is believed to be the birthplace of Ram, a supreme deity of Hinduism. What Advani-led BJP and their allies, namely RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), wanted was to destroy the mosque and build a Ram temple on the site. In December 1992, a large crowd of Hindu nationalists stormed into the mosque and demolished it in a few hours. Following the destruction of the mosque, however, violent riots broke out through northern India, in which, it was reported, more than 2000 people were killed.

Vajpayee got terribly angry with religious extremists who had destroyed the mosque. He was, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, one of the few Hindu leaders to speak out against the destruction of the historic mosque at Ayodhya by anti-Muslim extremists.

Later, an investigation carried out by the Liberhan Commission, led by Manmohan Singh Liberhan, a retired Chief Justice of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, revealed that people involved in demolition of the mosque were mostly from the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.

Ironically, this unsavoury incident—the demolition of the mosque—helped BJP win the 1996 general election and Vajpayee became the 10th Prime Minister of India. Unfortunately, after 13 days—when BJP failed to win majority in the Lok Sabha—Vajpayee had to resign from his post. However, in 1998, BJP made a successful comeback again and this time—with the help of other political parties—they formed the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), which, under Vajpayee’s dynamic leadership, ruled well for 6 years 2 months and 11 days.

Key Events During Premiership of Vajpayee

Nuclear Weapon Test at Pokhran

Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Time Magazine, 1998
After India tested five nuclear weapons at Pokhran Test Range, Vajpayee was widely criticized by international community. The Time Magazine cover, May 25 1998.

In May 1998, after two months he had taken oath as Prime Minister of India, Vajpayee, without signing the nonproliferation treaty, gave order to Indian Army to test five nuclear weapons at Pokhran Test Range, Rajasthan. Following suit, Pakistan, after 17 days, responded by testing six nuclear weapons at Ras Koh Hills in the Chagai District. Both the countries were widely criticized by international community and economic sanctions were imposed on them. Pakistan was said to be suffered the most by this sanction. However, after six months the sanctions were lifted.

Vajpayee’s visit to Lahore

Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Delhi-Lahore Bus, 1999
Atal Bihari Vajpayee waving from the Delhi-Lahore bus, 20th February, 1999. Credit: Hindustan Times.

After eight months India and Pakistan successfully tested their nuclear-weapons, the two nations were now agreed to make a peace treaty between them. (Actually it was Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister of Pakistan, who invited Vajpayee to Lahore.) Vajpayee—after inaugurating the Delhi-Lahore bus service, on 20th February, 1999—visited Lahore on a bus the same day. He was warmly welcomed by Nawaz Sharif at Wagah border. A bilateral agreement was signed between the two countries, by which it was declared that “both the nations' leadership will avoid nuclear race, as well as both non-conventional and conventional conflicts.”

The Kargil War

The cause of Kargil War, which took place between May and July 1999, was infiltration by Pakistani soldiers on the Indian side of LOC. "Vajpayee's visit to Lahore in February 1999," said Thomas Simons, an American diplomate and academic, "gave the Pakistanis the courage to be stupid, by occupying those heights at Kargil above the Indian supply lines in Kashmir during the winter while the Indians had withdrawn. And the Indians responded by driving uphill in the spring of 1999, and really giving every sign that they were going to go over into Pakistani hill territory and really start a war, to the point where Nawaz Sharif had to flee to Washington on July 4th, 1999, and get a very flimsy assurance of personal interest in Kashmir from President Clinton, as his cover to pull the troops back. So they were very close to war there."

The Attack on Parliament

On 13 December 2001, a gang of five terrorists, lashed with guns and grenades, arrived at Parliament House on a white Ambassador car which was loaded with large bombs. Failing to enter the main hallway, they started firing and killed eight security guards and a gardener before they killed themselves. “Had the attack succeeded,” an Indian trial-court judge concluded, “the entire building with all inside would have perished.” Following this attack, Vajpayee ordered Indian troops to mobilize for war at the border between India and Pakistan. (According to Thomas Simons, Musharraf, by then the military dictator, turned against the Taliban after 9/11, but he also wanted to continue to support the Kashmir freedom fighters and the Islamist organizations that had havens in Pakistan. And they were afraid of losing his support, so they attacked the Indian Parliament in Delhi in December of 2001….)

Gujarat Violence

The Sabarmati Express was on fire, Godhra
The fire on Coach S-6 on the Sabarmati Express claimed 59 lives, Godhra, Gujarat, 27 February 2002. Credit: The New York Times.

On 27 February 2002, the Sabarmati Express, after leaving the Godhra Railway Station, had suddenly stopped somewhere at Godhra, a muslim-dominated area, after the emergency chain was pulled. When the train had stopped, a fire was seen engulfed the Coach S-6, which was carrying Hindu pilgrims from Ayodha. Within a few minutes, the fire had killed 59 people, among which, it was reported, many were pilgrims. (According to Wikipedia, the train was attacked and four coaches were burned by a large mob. "It has been alleged that the attack was the result of a conspiracy hatched by local Muslims.")

Qutubuddin Ansari photographed by Arko Datta
Qutubuddin Ansari, a 29-year-old tailor, begging for life after he had trapped in a building surrounded by angry mob in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, 28 February 2002. Image credit: ARKO DATTA/REUTERS, downloaded from The Wall Street Journal.

After this horrific incident, the New York Times reported (on August 19, 2015, updated), "the charred bodies of the 59 victims are displayed for the public in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. And, Narendra Modi, who has only been in power a few months, endorse a widespread strike." Soon a brutal violence was broke out between Hindus and Muslims in Ahmadabad and its surrounding places. "About 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, are killed. Some 20,000 Muslim homes and businesses and 360 places of worship are destroyed, and roughly 150,000 people are displaced."

Atal Bihari Vajpayee Narendra Modi
After failing to stop the communal riots that had started a month earlier, Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat (on the right) called to Delhi by Atal Bihari Vajpayee (second from the right). On the far left sitting L. K. Advani. March 27, 2002. Image credit: Hindi Webdunia.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was heavily criticized for the communal riots in Gujarat where a BJP government was on power at the time the violence had occurred. Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister then. Vajpayee fiercely condemned the violence, visited Gujarat, met the victims family in rehabilitation camps, and apologised to them. "I am ashamed," he said. During his visit to rehabilitation camps, many people told Vajpayee that if Narendra Modi had wanted, he would have stopped the violence before it had spilled over. Before he left Gujarat, Vajpayee didn't forget to remind Narendra Modi about his Rajdharma (the duty of the rulers). "Rajdharma ka palan karo," he said to Modi. "Raja ke liye praja-praja mein koi bhed bhaw nahin hona chahiye" ("The ruler should not discriminate between his subjects").

According to media reports, Vajpayee wanted to give Modi the sack for his failure to control the riots. But, unfortunately, Vajpayee's deputy L. K. Advani protected Narendra Modi from being sacked. The reason: "Modi helped Advani win elections from Gandhinagar;" wrote Khushwant Singh in one of his articles. "Advani, in turn, exonerated him from the anti-Muslim pogrom charges of 2002."

Sources: Encyclopedia Britannica; Wikipedia; BBC; The Telegraph; The Hindu; The New York Times; The New Yorker; Daily Mail; dailyo dot in; Hindustan Times; Human Rights Watch.

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