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February 5, 1998


Janardhan Thakur

The BJP's awesome twosome

L K Advani and Vajpayee Ever since his brief but euphoric 13-day stint as the country's prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has undergone a new avatar. His persona has changed, not just for himself and the party but also for the people of India who felt that here was a man who had it in him to make a good prime minister. It changed things for himself, in terms of greater confidence, an air of optimism instead of his characteristic pessimism, and the new conviction that he and his party could do it. He became more pragmatic, more positive, and more inclined to politics as a 'game of power'.

Time and again during the two years when the United Front looked in a precarious position and about to tumble, Vajpayee made hectic efforts to gather support in the badly fragmented Lok Sabha in order to stake his claim once again. He did not succeed, but he was now positive that he could be the prime minister, if only after a fresh election.

There are still a lot many people in the Sangh Parivar who insist that the Bharatiya Janata Party is projecting Atal Bihari Vajpayee only because he is its most charming, most attractive face, but that L K Advani is the more suitable man. Indeed, there has been a lot of noise about the differences between the two top leaders of the party, which is hard to understand without going into the psyche and persona of the two.

'We don't believe in the personality cult' -- this had been the constant refrain of the Jan Sangh which later metamorphosed into the BJP. One suspects it stemmed from a deep resentment against the Nehru cult which was very strong at that time. The right-wing Jan Sangh's dislike for Jawaharlal Nehru's political philosophy and worldview was one thing, its dislike for his personality quite another. They perceived him as an Anglophile who had hijacked the freedom movement from truly Indian patriots.

Nehru's aura, or call it charisma, was difficult to fight. Nebulous and airy, charisma does not lend itself to a definition. One either has it or one doesn't, and Nehru seemed to have it in such great measure that some of the freedom movement's titans fell under his spell or gave into him out of sheer affection and awe.

One of the Jan Sangh's main objectives was to oppose the Nehru line, for without undermining it nothing new could take root. Not surprisingly, they went all out to debunk the personality cult that had grown around Nehru and was sought to be created around Indira Gandhi. But they always gave it an ideological cover. It was against the tenets of the Jan Sangh, they said, to give undue importance to an individual -- it was the work that mattered, not the man who did it. That was supposed to be the mindset of RSS pracharaks who worked almost anonymously, and often did great work, without ever coming into the limelight.

That was the tradition to which Lal Kishinchand Advani belonged. A quiet solid pracharak working beaver-like without ever projecting himself. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, on the other hand, was seen as a fish from quite a different pond, so Nehruvian in his mould that many of the puritanical Sangh-ites just could not accept him as one of them.

But much as they abhorred the liberal colourful Vajpayee whom Nehru had patted and praised for his eloquence, and who could go euphoric over Indira Gandhi's brave deeds in the 1971 war and call her 'Durga', they just couldn't do without him. He was their vote-catcher, the man who brought them recognition and applause from far and near.

The two leaders, Vajpayee and Advani, are quite unlike each other. While one can soar to poetic heights and win praise from all sides, the other is cool and calm and earthy. For a long time the two leaders complemented each other. Each had immense mutual respect, even at times when they were not quite on the same political wavelength.

There was hardly any question about which of the two was the party's public face. At the BJP's first big session in Bombay in December 1980, the most strident new slogan was: 'Desh ka neta kaisa ho, Atal Bihari jaisa ho!' Many hardliners had scoffed at it even at that time. But those were not the thoughts of L K Advani, who had become a pragmatic political leader. It was only much later, after the Rath Yatra, that Advani came to the forefront. For a time Vajpayee virtually withdrew into his own little cell, writing poetry, parliamentary memoirs, walking his Lhasa Apso, watching movies on the video. Advani was then the 'Man India Awaits'.

Be it by compulsion or by conviction, the Sangh Parivar, which is itching for power, if only covertly, has little choice but to back Vajpayee. The stunning eight-page supplement that was splashed across the country on Vajpayee -- 'The Man India Awaits' -- was fully endorsed by the bigwigs of the Parivar before it went into print.

And as most of the public opinion polls so far have established, Vajpayee leaves all his rivals in the race far behind. What really sets this man apart from the general run of politicians is his charm, which has become such a rare commodity in politics today. When he wants to, Vajpayee can charm even the birds off trees, simply by being what he is: an immensely attractive human being. Even the Communists who detest the BJP, and more so the RSS, change their tone when they speak of him. 'But oh, Vajpayee is different. He is a liberal, nothing of the Hindu fanaticism about him. He is not trusted by the RSS.'

Whatever Vajpayee's personal beliefs, he is always cautious on this score. Whenever attempts are made to highlight his 'separateness' from the RSS, he has been quick to correct the impression and assert that he is part and parcel of the Sangh Parivar. True enough, he has been an 'old soldier' of the RSS, turning up for ceremonial rallies of the Sangh in the obligatory khakhi shorts. What was perhaps difficult for the RSS was to contain Vajpayee's wider view of life and polity into its straitjacket, which of course has now loosened up to quite an extent with the coming of Professor Rajendra Singh as its chief.

One knows for sure that it broke many hearts in the Sangh Parivar when L K Advani himself declared the other day that Vajpayee was the party's man for the prime minister's post. But one has no doubt that Advani meant it seriously. The two leaders still complement each other as no two leaders in any other party.


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