The saffron surf

  • Vajpayee and the BJP

Former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s ashes would be ritualistically immersed in the Mandovi and Zuari rivers of Goa on Thursday, eight days after he passed away on August 16, aged 93.

Tributes, critiques, and often a combination of the two, have been published as obituaries for a man who has been the second most influential leader in post-independence India.

It is Vajpayee’s overtures towards reconciliation with Pakistan, mirroring decades of his domestic politics, that make him a prominent figure in our neck of the woods.

Vajpayee visited Pakistan twice in a span of five years, and was the last Indian premier to enter the Pakistani territory before Narendra Modi’s decision to ‘drop by’ in Lahore on December 25, 2015 to attend the wedding of the then Pakistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter.

A lot, of course, has changed in Pakistan – and between the two countries – in the three years since Modi’s Lahore visit. But Vajpayee’s passing away is a reminder of how Indian politics has transformed over the years, mirroring the evolution of the Bharatya Janta Party (BJP).

It is Vajpayee’s overtures towards reconciliation with Pakistan, mirroring decades of his domestic politics, that make him a prominent figure in our neck of the woods

Shades of Saffron, a recent release of renowned Indian journalist Saba Naqvi, digs into the BJP’s growth over the past two and a half decades. Naqvi, who has been affiliated with publications like India Today and Outlook, has been covering the party for two decades and provides the readers valuable insight into the party through the lens of a reporter, who has been close to the BJP cadre for years.

As the title reflects, the book intends to juxtapose the various colours that the BJP has self-identified with over the years, primarily a comparison between the Vajpayee years and those of Modi in the Indian PM Office. As it turned out, Shades of Saffron was released a couple of months before Vajpayee breathed his last, serving as a timely reminder of what’s happening next door.

Without delving too much on the history of the party, the book starts with Jayalalithaa’s villainous role – as seen by the then BJP leadership – as a flimsy coalition partner whose backing out meant the BJP led National Democratic Alliance came crumbling down again.

More than any analytical work – of which there is much, but not of the same depth – Shades of Saffron focuses on reportage and underscoring developments as they transpired, and letting them shape up the narrative. And in this regard no one relevant to the BJP is spared.

Hence, while there is a multitude of positivity attributed to Vajpayee, his slumps aren’t given a pass either. A notable incident quoted by Naqvi from December 7, 1999 underscored Vajpayee’s ability to strike the populist chord amidst all his touted moderation, often as a bid to outdo his longtime friend and rival in the party L.K Advani.

“At an Iftar dinner hosted by the BJP’s sole Muslim minister, Shahnawaz Hussain, Vajpayee suggested that a ‘Ram temple could be built at the disputed site in Ayodhya, while a masjid could be built at an alternative site.’ This statement was eerily reminiscent of the VHP–BJP’s war cry of ‘Mandir wahin banayenge’ (We shall build the temple only there) during the run up to the Babri masjid demolition in 1992. Sanjay Nirupam, who was then a Shiv Sena MP, and now with the Congress party, had joked, ‘What a great example of Indian secularism, a call for the Ram temple at an Iftar!’”

Since the book’s narrative runs parallel to Naqvi’s own political career it begins with BJP’s efforts to form a stable government and hence doesn’t cover the demolition of the Babri Mosque. Even though the Gujarat riots come at a critical juncture for the BJP rule – and hence an obvious feature of the book – Naqvi sidesteps any dissection of the episode, and focuses only on its significance for the power struggle within the BJP.

But of course the fact that Vajpayee wanted Narendra Modi out following the 2002 riots is a well-established fact, and hence covers the theN premier’s inability to do so as a sign of weakness on his part and a major taint on his legacy.

Vajpayee was a firm believer that he and his party could provide the solution to Kashmir. And Naqvi explains why.

“Atal Bihari Vajpayee genuinely believed that only a Right-wing formation like the BJP could bring enduring peace to India and Pakistan, and also to Kashmir. Therefore, he had made up his mind that India–Pakistan–Kashmir was the primary theatre in which he wished to perform.”

The Lahore yatra, Kargil War, Agra Summit and Vajpayee attending the SAARC conferences are all covered in detail by the book, as the Vajpayee led BJP felt strong enough to take a non-communal ‘India Rising’ narrative into the 2004 elections, which resulted in disaster.

“The defeat was of epic proportions because it had left the BJP confronting a major crisis about its core identity. For not only had the moderate Atal Bihari Vajpayee lost the prime ministerial battle to a mere ‘foreigner’, even the great ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ Narendra Modi felt the ground shifting from under his feet in Gujarat, where the BJP’s performance was below expectations.”

A chapter in the book is dedicated to how Muhammad Ali Jinnah posthumously took down two major BJP names in LK Advani and Jaswant Singh, both of whom varyingly paid the price for sidestepping the RSS narrative on the Partition of India.

Other prominent leaders that feature in the book are Uma Bharati, Arun Jaitley and Pramod Mahajan. Naqvi regularly cites Vinod Mehta, her editor at Outlook, with admiration as she cites incidents of the BJP clamping down on the freedom of press.

But the second half of the book, understandably, is dedicated to decoding the Modi phenomenon. While his brand of Hindutva politics is commonly covered, especially in our side of the LOC, Naqvi provides critical insights into his economic projects and how the Indian premier has successfully wooed big businesses, which has helped the BJP grow bigger as a party.

“The middle classes were also getting in the thrall of the idea of a strong leader in an age of drift; the young saw Modi as dynamic; the women were overtly enamoured of this big, strong man; according to statistics, reeled out by the BJP, even Muslims in Gujarat and elsewhere had come to accept him as the inevitable leader”

But Shades of Saffron, more than about being any individuals, tells the story of the BJP over the past two decades.

“In my view, the BJP is highly adaptable unlike other parties and for several reasons—it calibrates ideology, uses the cadre intelligently, and positions leaders as and when the situation demands. It also seizes every opportunity with both hands; and unlike some other parties, it also has many hands to seize opportunities with, the reference being to the huge force of the RSS that works for the BJP. Their role can never be under-stated.


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