Aditya Prasanna Bhattacharya, Binit Agrawal, Harsh Tiwari
Vajpayee’s talent lay in leading a fragile coalition government to envision and implement stupendous economic success for the country while sidelining his party’s more extreme Hindu agenda, thus enabling today’s BJP to enter the political mainstream
“Parties will be formed and destroyed. Governments will come and go. But the country should stand fast. The country’s democracy should remain immortal.”
~ Atal Bihari Vajpayee (after the successful No-Confidence Motion against him in 1999)
Even though the phrase is ripe with overuse, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s passing on August 16 undeniably marks the end of an era. In addition to being a seasoned Parliamentarian, an accomplished poet, a remarkable orator, and a strong Prime Minister, Vajpayee was evidently a moderate and a pragmatist as far as his political agenda was concerned. This fact about Vajpayee’s inclination is easy to forget in the current political atmosphere, wherein Vajpayee’s party, the BJP, is increasingly associated with a polarised identity.
In this post, we will attempt to revive Vajpayee’s moderate identity by analysing his economic agenda, to reveal how Vajpayee’s brand of Hindutva placed Raj Dharma as its center-piece. We will then explain how Vajpayee’s moderation played out within the ranks of the NDA and the BJP. Ultimately, we will seek to show that Vajpayee’s moderate brand of politics is what made him a brilliant leader whilst propelling his party to its present political importance.
Vajpayee’s Economic Hindutva
RSS’ Hindutva, which is based on a religious and cultural nationalism, found its expression in the 1999 vision document of the BJP. It consisted of three principles: Cultural Nationalism (one nation, one people and one culture), Positive Secularism (appeasement of none) and Swadeshi economics. All the three principles were interlinked and fundamentally entrenched in the rubric of Hindutva ideology and Sangh Parivar thought. Vajpayee’s brand of Hindutva, however, was a different one. It is well-known that Vajpayee reminded Modi of ‘Raj Dharma’ at the time of the Godhra riots, stating that the meaning of the term should be ‘self-evident’. Even if that was an evasive ploy then, it was ‘Raj-dharma’ or ‘kingly duty’ that most significantly informed Vajpayee’s economic thought.
Vajpayee took a series of steps that went against prevailing Sangh Parivar dogma whilst remaining quintessentially Hindu in spirit. As Chanakya states in Book I, Ch. XIX of the Arthashastra, “In the happiness of [the king’s] subjects lies his happiness,…. whatever pleases his subjects he shall consider as good.” Vajpayee’s economic vision undoubtedly echoes this. To quote him from an interview in 1996, “I hope people will say [after I am gone] that I was a good man, who tried to better the lot of my country and the world.” This simple sentiment is manifested in various ways, culminating in an essentially Hindu philosophy of governance.
Much to the chagrin of the Sangh Parivar, Vajpayee surrounded himself with technocrats and bureaucrats in implementing his economic reforms. He made serious efforts to increase the PMO’s control over economic policy-making. When the RSS compelled him to take the finance portfolio away from his close aide Jaswant Singh, he took in Natwar Singh (who was under Jaswant Singh in the Finance Ministry) as his secretary. He also formed the high-powered Economic Advisory Council (consisting of eminent economists) and the Council on Trade and Industry (consisting of industrialists). These moves are clear evidence of him rebuffing the Sangh Parivar and its influence in government.
Further, Vajpayee’s government overhauled the bureaucratic mess that was taxation. Almost poetically (a description Vajpayee would love), his work here echoed Chanakya’s recommendation in Book V, Ch. II of the Arthashastra which required the King to collect taxes like the bee collects nectar without harming the flowers. It was reminiscent of long-held conservative thought proffered by the likes of C. Rajagopalachari’s Swatantrata Party that championed a simpler tax law against Nehruvian wisdom. Vajpayee’s government also adopted the Fiscal Responsibility Act, again echoing Chanakya and the Swatantrata Party’s call for prudence in government finances. But in doing this, the Prime Minister was still concerned about the farmer―who lay at the core of the BJP’s base. His Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojana saw to the farmer’s woes by providing him critical infrastructure. And this combined with his Golden Quadrilateral venture meant government spending went from running companies to providing infrastructure.
Vajpayee’s championing of greater privatisation, liberalisation and globalisation were antithetical to Hindutva at the time. In fact, the BJP in a resolution in 1997 strongly criticised “the false song of globalisation”. From coalition partners like Ram Vilas Paswan to BJP stalwarts like Ram Naik, all tried to stymie or derail the process of privatisation. But Vajpayee weathered all of this. Battling partners and party bigwigs, he oversaw the growth of a roaring economy. In doing all this, he epitomised Chanakya’s four methods for political success: Saam (diplomacy), Daam (Incentives), Dand (Punishment), Bhed (Divide & Rule). Thus fulfilling ‘Raj Dharma’ in the Coalition Age and bringing the BJP to the 21st century. His economic policies represented a movement away from the Swadeshi dogma of a Hindu-militant party and the formation of a pragmatic Hindu party concentrating on development.
‘Right Man in the Wrong Party’
When seen with his economic reform agenda, the visible dismay that Vajpayee expressed at the demolition of the Babri Masjid reveals an inherent moderation in his political character. The question that arises is, what enabled Vajpayee to push his moderate agenda from within the BJP, a party which made itself the dominant force in right-wing politics? To answer this question effectively, we must look back at BJP’s humiliating loss in the 1984 General Elections, where the newly-formed party managed to win only 2 seats in the Parliament.
A perusal of the BJP’s 1984 Election Manifesto offers us a glimpse into Vajpayee’s political objectives. The document, inter alia, focuses on economy, fair elections, justice, human rights, freedom of expression, the North-East, police reforms, health and education. The word ‘Hindu’ is mentioned only once and that too in the context of peace in Punjab. Temple-centric politics and Hindu nationalism are absent in totality.
However, this had changed by 1998. The very first chapter of the 1998 Election Manifesto was a lesson in Hindutva, and pursuance of all ‘consensual, legal, and constitutional means’ to build a ‘magnificent Shri Ram Mandir at Ayodhya’ had also become a poll promise. L.K. Advani’s vitriolic politics had taken a lead, and he rejuvenated the party by joining forces with the Hindu militant movement. While the party reaped immense electoral benefits because of Advani, such tactics were not good enough to help the party form a government, necessitating the return of Vajpayee at the helm. It was Vajpayee’s moderate tone and liberal-conservative demeanor, combined with an affable personality which was acceptable to the coalition partners ranging from the Shiv Sena, the Trinamool Congress to the AIADMK, and later DMK, and the Janata Dal.
From 1998, Vajpayee consolidated his control over the party, moving it away from Hindu extremism to a softer brand of Hindu nationalism. In the 1999 Election Manifesto, the very words ‘Hindutva’ and ‘temple’ went missing again. Advani loyalists were slowly phased out of the party, with Vajpayee snubbing the Advani protege and hardline party president Khusabhau Thakre, and his criticism of economic reforms. By 2000, Thakre was replaced with Bangaru Laxman, who was not only the first Dalit, but also the first South-Indian to take over the reins of the party. Vajpayee also actively supported the ouster of Kalyan Singh, the divisive CM of Uttar Pradesh. Further, Govindacharya (his bete noir) and Uma Bharati (a spectator to the demolition of the Babri Masjid) were effectively sidelined.
Vajpayee’s brand of Hindutva and his moderate ideological positions may have brought him in conflict with the Sangh and his own party. But without his elegant touch, his party and the Sangh would have remained fringe elements in the Indian political landscape. Vajpayee used a fragile coalition government to envision and implement stupendous economic success for the country, thus enabling the BJP to enter the political mainstream.
In an answer to Swaminathan Iyer in a press conference, Vajpayee made it clear that he preferred the path of ‘evolution’ for the BJP, at the cost of possible ‘dilution’ of the party’s core hardline stance. According to him, this was necessary if the party did not want to remain restricted to its narrow North-Indian identity, and instead acquire a pan-Indian one. In fact, it can be reasonably argued that it was Vajpayee’s moderation in the early 2000s which has afforded today’s BJP the luxury of not being moderate.
In any case, the manner in which Vajpayee balanced his political beliefs with the considerations of realpolitik is a true lesson in governance. He represents the real possibility of a right-wing party promoting a completely non-communal and liberal agenda that is based on prosperity and development. In today’s political landscape, this prospect looks increasingly bleak, which gives us all the more reason to look back at Vajpayee, and to pay tribute to him.
Aditya and Binit are the Founding-Editors of Law School Policy Review. Harsh is a third year law student at the University of Bristol, UK, and a Senior Fiscal Policy Editor at the Millennial Review.
Image Source: India Times