A side view of the political saga in 1996-1999

Given the rich tradition of political leadership at the national and state level, it is ironic that political leadership, as a subject, has remained under-studied in India’s politics and economics, so that the study of parties, the party system and elections receives a lot of attention. Much of this can be attributed to the dearth of source material a researcher faces as leaders in India rarely writing memoirs or giving interviews explaining their decisions and, the few who even write self-interestedly, leaving aside important events and decisions.

Researchers do not have easy access to the private papers of leaders such as their correspondence or their journals. Researchers are therefore forced to rely on secondary literature, including journalistic commentaries and newspaper articles, disinfected interviews or official speeches which are mostly written by ghosts. The problem with most biographies is that they are written by followers or admirers and therefore, unsurprisingly, read like praise. In addition, the focus has mostly been on a few national leaders like Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar, leaving out many other prominent national leaders. Vajpayee is one of those under-researched leaders.

Shakti Sinha Vajpayee: the years that changed India

As mentioned by Shakti Sinha in Vajpayee: the years that changed India, Vajpayee had established himself as a national leader by the time the national elections were held in 1967 – which was unusual for someone who never belonged to the hegemonic Congress. First an RSS student volunteer, then joining the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS, 1951), Vajpayee became the first party leader after the death of Deendayal Upadhyaya (1968) and later the Bharatiya Janata Party (1980).

Beginning his parliamentary career in 1957, he was recognized early on for his powerful oratory and legislative skills as leader of the opposition and was even admired by Nehru. As Foreign Minister under the Janata Party regime (1977-1979), Vajpayee became the first Indian leader in office to visit Pakistan (1978) and China (1979) after the wars of 1965 and 1962. Knowing well of Hindi literature and as a poet, he also had the distinction of becoming the first Indian leader to address the UN in Hindi (1977).

However, Sinha, in his political memoir treatise, refers to all of these details in a fleeting way, as it focuses on presenting a side view of the political saga that has unfolded on the national stage in three turbulent years. (1996-1999) while keeping Vajpayee as one of the keys Sutradhars, first as leader of the opposition, then as prime minister. Sinha recounts how Vajpayee overcame the challenges that emerged from both his own party and that of the opposition, especially when leading a multi-party coalition government, his determination to make difficult long-term political decisions despite the looming political costs, all of which have left its indelible mark. imprint on the political web of India in the years to come.

As the title suggests, the years have witnessed significant developments like nuclear explosions and the Kargil conflict, to name just two. Sinha, then an official serving as Vajpayee’s private secretary with the foster family to whom he was linked, not only meticulously recounts important political events like Sanjaya in the Mahabharata, but always so gently brings his own comments which help readers to understand. a glimpse of the leader’s Unfathomable Personality under focus and understanding of the political constraints in which he worked, probably until 2004.

What adds to the value of this meticulous work is that in the process, you also get a good idea of ​​how federal parliamentary democracy actually worked on the ground during those long uncertain years of minority and coalition governments. And also how the relations of the center-state evolved with the rise in power of the parties at the level of the state and their bosses (1989-2014).

With all of his uncanny ability to connect with the masses and the exuberance and wit marked in public meetings, Vajpayee comes across as an intensely private and reluctant person in his personal life. Sinha also refers to a certain element of conundrum about her political personality when considering her cryptic utterances and pauses, sometimes sending different messages to different people. Given his association with the ideologically-rooted, cadre-based BJS / BJP, not to mention the ubiquitous RSS, Vajpayee’s ideological stance would often confuse not only his own party, but even his political opponents who would call him “ `the right person in the wrong. Party’.

Although critical of Nehru’s politics, Vajpayee “seemed intimidated” by him his entire political life despite Nehru, a secular nationalist, subjected to the strongest possible criticism from the RSS or for that matter the BJS. BJP. Vajpayee also led his government to promote divestment and encourage greater economic reforms such as in the telecommunications and insurance sectors rather than following the swadeshi agenda of the sangh parivar.

Imbued with the idea of ​​”Akhand Bharat”, Vajpayee went the extra mile to establish lasting peace with Pakistan before and after Kargil. He would even commit the cardinal sin of publicly accepting membership during his visit to Lahore. It would be a testament to his political stature that he could get away with unlike Advani or Jaswant Singh. He would yield for once to the pressure of the RSS by not appointing Singh as finance minister, but would induct him very soon, along with many other leaders like Yashwant Sinha, Sushma Swaraj in his government which did not come from the RSS .

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee waves to the press at the presidential palace in New Delhi after submitting his resignation on May 28, 1996. Credit: Reuters

While Vajpayee is said to be a follower of temple building in Ayodhya but publicly disapproves of Advani rath yatra and the demolition of the Babri mosque by karsevaks, he was still signaling the yatra and would make a speech in Lucknow a day before the fateful incident which was considered provocative. Vajpayee – which belonged to a majority Hindu nationalist party denounce the conversion and strongly condemn the violence against religious minorities and regard it as its raj dharma take preventive measures.

Arguably, it was this “ moderate ” popular image of Vajpayee as the party’s premier candidate that allowed the BJP to become acceptable to regional parties who would have struggled to accept the radical Advani who had resuscitated the party from 1984. electoral debacle. Under the leadership of Vajpayee, the party that follows the coalition dharma would readily agree to dilute its fundamental ideological positions on the Temple of Ram, the Uniform Civil Code, the ban on cow slaughter and Article 370.

Reading the political text is instructive because it shows the functioning of constitutional offices at the time of the coalition. As the prime minister’s office was undermined, outgoing presidents would become assertive. President SD Sharma used his discretion to invite Vajpayee, the leader of the larger party, to take the oath of office as prime minister rather quickly without waiting for the coalition of opposition parties to present his request, then insisted on making his request. self-written speech in the inaugural session of parliament contrary to established parliamentary convention.

KR Narayanan, the next president, asked Vajpayee to prove his majority in Lok Sabha shortly after AIADMK withdrew support from the coalition government without waiting for opposition parties to present a motion of no confidence, rushing thus the fall of the government. Narayanan, using his discretion under Article 74, also called on the Vajpayee cabinet to reconsider its advice to impose the president’s power in Bihar.

There are several incidents recounted by Sinha to show how the Constituent State bosses brazenly demanded their pound of flesh in return for supporting the motley coalition that was opportunistic and lacking in ideological compatibility. Chandrababu Naidu, Nitish Kumar or Naveen Patnaik would demand the dismissal of the majority government of the opposition parties in their respective states. Even lucrative wallets such as railroads and commerce would be in demand as pressure tactics would be applied. Worse, as in the case of Jayalalitha, help from the Center would be sought to save them from prosecution. There would be occasions when ministers would criticize their own government decisions.

While Vajpayee’s remarkable ability to welcome allies to a point and at the same time not let governance suffer, it is his ability to make important decisions that emerges very clearly from the text. His determination to make India a nuclear power despite impending international sanctions showed his courage, as did his decision as interim prime minister not to let the Indian armed forces cross the line of real control during the war of Kargil, but at the same time he was firm not to accept the ceasefire before the intruders were expelled from Indian territory.

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That Vajpayee was a man of great ideas is reflected in his ambitious golden quadrilateral plan. His status as a statesman was evident in how, as leader of the opposition, he quickly backed the Rao government’s defense deal with Russia once he was convinced he was in the national interest or in his famous speech invoking ‘Insaniyat, Jamhuriyat, Kashmiriyat’ which is still remembered in the valley.

While Sinha excels at keeping the book tight, not wasting words like a former public servant, he errs in devoting a lot of space to the unfolding political saga, even the most mundane like the overthrow of successive governments led by Deve. Gowda and Gujral by then. President of Congress Kesari or how the latter himself was driven out by the loyalists of Sonia Gandhi.

Otherwise, he should have focused more on Vajpayee’s leadership model, his “political language”. How a man imbued with traditional values ​​and idioms by birth and association was able to develop a great faith in modern democratic traditions and practices. We also missed glimpses of his long jugalbandi with Advani, subject of a recent book by Sitapati (2020).

Ashutosh Kumar is Professor in the Department of Political Science at Panjab University.

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