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September 9, 1999


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E-Mail this column to a friend Vir Sanghvi

If Vajpayee wins can Hindutva be far behind?

Politics is a funny business. Until Atal Bihari Vajpayee was elected prime minister of India, everybody said he was the only statesman left in the country. He was wise, sagacious, mature, honest and thoughtful. Two months after he took office, all of this was still mentioned -- but in the past tense. Yes, they said, he might have been a wonderful guy but that was a long time ago. Now, he's simply too old and tired. His heart is not in the job. He doesn't have the energy to be prime minister. Look at the way he forgot his shoe in the car before his Independence Day speech! Look how lacklustre his speeches have become! And so on.

This process reached a peak in the aftermath of last year's assembly election when the Bharatiya Janata Party lost Delhi, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan to the Congress. The defeats were laid at Vajpayee's door. His charisma was fading. He had proved to be an amateur when it came to governance. He was unable to control the Sangh Parivar. It was now only a matter of time before Sonia Gandhi ousted him and formed a government within the life of this Lok Sabha.

If nothing that Vajpayee did seemed right for the first few months of his tenure, then the opposite has been true of the second half of his term. Now, Vajpayee can do nothing wrong. He is back to being -- in public perception -- the only statesman left in the country. His maturity contrasts favourably with Sonia Gandhi's inexperience. And as for the Sangh Parivar, well, the general view is that Vajpayee has it firmly under his control.

Obviously, both perceptions were wrong. If Vajpayee was really the half-witted ageing duffer of public perception then he could never have transformed himself into the great statesman that he is now viewed as. Equally, if he was always this great statesman, then people wouldn't have seen him as a duffer to begin with.

But the way in which Vajpayee's image has changed tells us something about politics in India. When things are going well, you can get away with anything. When they are going badly, nothing you do wins public favour: (Ask Sonia Gandhi: she has taken the same road as Vajpayee -- only, she began in the opposite direction.)

Now, the BJP is so enamoured of Vajpayee's popularity that it has happily junked the programme that it had once promised to implement if it ever came to power. Last year the party told us that Ayodhya was on the agenda but had been temporarily placed on hold because of the constraints of coalition politics. Now, even that pretence has been dropped. Ayodhya is categorically not on the agenda. Vajpayee has said a BJP government will never take up the issue. And M Venkaiah Naidu has confirmed that even if the BJP wins an overall majority on its own -- and thus does not have the excuse of coalition constraints -- it will still refrain from raising the Ayodhya issue.

Remarkably, the entire party has fallen in line behind this radically new approach. Even K N Govindacharya, a Vajpayee-baiter of long standing, was rapped on the knuckles when he dared deviate from the new party line. The so-called Advani lobby -- the chaps who promised us a new national reawakening and a revolution in thinking -- has been disbanded and hangs around Race Course Road, noses pressed against the glass. The S Gurumurthy-type ideologue counts for less and less -- swadeshi has been so diluted as to be devoid of all meaning. And, most extraordinary of all, even the lunatic fringe --- the church-burners and bishop-thrammers --- has held its peace.

It would be foolish to pretend that the party has undergone some massive ideological metamorphosis. People who believed in a national reawakening probably still hold those views. Those who believed that it was vital to the pride of the Hindu community to build a mandir at Ayodhya are unlikely to have changed their minds.

L K Advani, for instance, subscribes to a certain vision of India that you and I might find disturbing but few can doubt his sincerity. When he went off on his rath yatra in 1989, Vajpayee warned him that he was riding a tiger. Advani respected Vajpayee's dissent but went ahead anyway because he knew his own mind. Such a man is unlikely to have altered his views only because Vajpayee feels differently -- in 1989, Vajpayee's dissent did not affect his beliefs, why then should things be different 10 years later?

The truth is that the BJP is willing to throw away -- or, at the very least, conceal -- nearly everything it believes in because it has come to the conclusion the total of the BJP's agenda, the Sangh Parivar's support base and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's cadre-based network is still worth less in electoral terms than the charisma and appeal of a single individual.

In its own way, this is an amazing tribute to Vajpayee. For nearly 15 years (after his defeat in Gwalior) he hovered around the fringes of BJP politics, losing the right to be leader of the Opposition (Advani took the job), watching the party follow an agenda that he loathed (Advani's vision of Hindutva) and recognising that his political career was effectively over -- his best bet now was to be regarded as a senior has-been in the BJP pantheon.

And then, just when it seemed to be all over -- and after a disastrous start to his prime ministership -- he has gone from being a burnt-out case to becoming the most popular Indian politician since the young Rajiv Gandhi. Not only does he dominate the country's political scene, but even the party that once elbowed him aside now genuflects at his feet asking him to give it a new character.

Like much of the country, I have no doubt that Vajpayee is the man most qualified to be prime minister of India. If we followed a Presidential system of government, I would rush to the polling booth to vote for him. My guess is that he will lead the BJP to victory -- if not an overall majority -- at the election and will stay put at Race Course Road.

But I have three questions that I think should be raised.

One: Even when Vajpayee's image was sinking, I remained convinced that his critics were being unfair to him so I have no doubt that he will make an excellent prime minister in his second term. But will the public always recognise this?

As we have seen, public perceptions in India are not just fickle, they are also out of all proportion to reality. You can go from hero to zero in three months and from devil to saint in two weeks. I mean no disrespect to Vajpayee when I say this present level of popularity simply cannot be sustained. All prime ministers go through bad patches and while I hope that Vajpayee will never have to go through the hell he faced in his first few months in office, we must accept that there will be periods of public criticism. Rajiv Gandhi was more popular in 1984 than Vajpayee is today. That popularity was gone by 1987. Likewise, Indira Gandhi's 1972 popularity (post-Bangladesh) had disappeared by 1973. Vajpayee cannot be an exception to this trend.

Hence my question: What happens to a party that predicates its appeal only on the popularity of its leader when that popularity diminishes?

That leads to the second question. In the Congress, there is no question of a revolt or a change of programme because the party is, for all practical purposes, a family affair. It doesn't really stand for very much except for secularism (and that too, not when P V Narasimha Rao was leader) and does what its leader tells it to. But the BJP is not like the Congress. As we have seen, it does have a vision of India and an ideological basis to its existence. At present, it has submerged its raison d'etre because of its desire to rush into office on Vajpayee's kurta-tail.

But if Vajpayee's popularity plummets, then will the BJP still keep its true ideology on hold? It is hard to see why it should. The Sangh Parivar is not used to being quiet. Many of its member organisations -- the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, for instance -- differ from other political parties because they have no interest in grabbing political power; love them or hate them, you cannot deny they are in this because of ideological reasons. They have been uncharacteristically quiet over the last few months. But you can't seriously expect them to forever hold their peace even when Vajpayee ceases to be popular.

That's my second question: We are electing Vajpayee but will we end up getting the agenda he so despises himself?

And that, of course, leads to the third question. If the Congress loses this election by a large margin, then it is safe to say that it will suffer revolts and splits. I don't believe that the bulk of the party will turn its back on Sonia Gandhi and the family. But we must accept that the Congress will become a much-diminished force. The BJP will become the pre-eminent party of government. Its opposition will consist of various smaller groupings: regional parties, the Communists, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav, the Kanshi and Mayawati show and the Congress.

Many of us would argue this is how democracy works. If the people of India want the BJP to become the pre-eminent party of government -- as, once upon a time, they wanted the Congress to fill this role -- then it is their wish. I have no problems with this argument. I have just one question.

Do the people of India want the BJP to become the dominant force in Indian politics or do they just want Vajpayee to become prime minister?

I suspect the answer to my third question is that India wants Vajpayee with his version of the BJP. Few people want the rabble that brought down the Babri Masjid. As of now, we are getting what we want: the BJP is Vajpayee.

But will this always be so? My guess is: probably not. Which is why the rest of the Parivar is hiding its true colours and lining up behind Vajpayee. For them, it is not just a question of one election. They realise that if they win convincingly this time, then they become to the next century what the Congress was to India in this century.

As much as I admire Vajpayee, this is a prospect that causes me sleepless nights.

Vir Sanghvi

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