5 May 1996. A man in his seventies alighted from an Ambassador car, paused to steel himself against a spasm of vertigo, wiped his broad forehead in the sweltering heat of summertime Delhi with a handkerchief, and began walking towards the office of the President of India.
Raisina Hill, which houses the stately, imposing offices of the federal government, simmered in the sun. For want of shade, even the pigeons had receded into roof voids. The old man’s baggy dhoti didn’t conceal his slightly faltering gait, and though he was panting mildly, his face had the relaxed composure of a man just about to break into laughter, his eyes half closed. Affecting restraint, the clean-shaven man with oiled grey hair muttered to his companion in a soft, conspiratorial tone that was quite uncharacteristic of his oratorical self: ‘Bhai, maamla gadbad hai (something is afoot).’
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was fond of such Orwellian doublespeak, which very often left people perplexed and scurrying to decipher the meaning. Since he knew through experience that no such effort made any good sense, his son-in-law, Ranjan Bhattacharya— Vajpayee’s companion on this hot May afternoon—didn’t bother to inquire further. He preferred to wait and see.
Vajpayee and his humble entourage had left his Raisina Road home just after lunch to meet President Shankar Dayal Sharma, who had invited him to discuss the formalities of forming the next government. The just-concluded national elections had thrown up a fractured verdict with no party in a position to create a government on its own or with its prepoll allies. The Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Vajpayee, had emerged as the single biggest constituent in the 543-member Lok Sabha, or Lower House of the Indian Parliament, winning 161 seats. In the run-up to the polls, the BJP had said that it wouldn’t stake any claim to form the government unless it had 220–225 seats in the Lok Sabha. But now, it had a new agenda: to keep the Third Front, a loose term for a grouping of non-BJP, non-Congress parties, out.
The Congress party, the incumbent that had ruled India for several decades, had won only 140 seats and the rest of the seats were divided among a constellation of political outfits, several of which saw the BJP as a pariah. This was why Vajpayee had no inkling of the responsibility that would befall him when he drove to the sprawling Rashtrapati Bhavan, home to the viceroys in the days of the British Raj. The idea was to offer a perfunctory gesture of claiming to form the next government. The BJP was not exactly confident of getting the numbers to ensure a simple majority in the Lok Sabha, 272 seats, with the help of non-Congress, non-Left parties. Still, there was a flicker of hope that in politics, there was always a way to turn adversities into advantages. The BJP, for its part, was ready to re-elect Congressman Shivraj Patil as the Speaker if the Congress agreed to abstain from a trust vote of Vajpayee’s government. It also didn’t expect various allies to come together—as they would soon, to form what later came to be known as the United Front (UF) government.
Vajpayee’s car was driven by Majeed, who has been the BJP heavyweight’s chauffeur for a while. Also in the car was a peon of Vajpayee’s. Ranjan Bhattacharya, still an unfamiliar name in Delhi’s power circles, had begun showing signs that he would be the seventy-two-year-old politician’s eyes and ears in the years to come. Vajpayee trusted him, but still called the thirteen-year-long husband of his adopted daughter, Namita (also known as ‘Gunnu’), ‘Bengali babu’ or ‘Mukherjee bhai’. The BJP veteran was terrible with remembering people’s names, unless they were his buddies from his younger days. He even called his daughter ‘Namrita’ at times and had to be reminded her name was ‘Namita’. But neither Gunnu nor Ranjan minded.
Vajpayee returned less than half an hour later after his meeting with Sharma with a file in his hand. He stayed silent for several minutes. Then he told Bhattacharya that he was carrying a letter from the President requesting him to take oath of office as the next prime minister of India. Sharma, who was fond of Vajpayee, had even specified the time of the swearing-in, after consulting priests for the auspicious moment. Vajpayee had sensed that his visit was more than just a ceremonial one from the reception he got as soon as he arrived at the presidential palace. He guessed that ‘something was afoot’ and the reverence on display at the gates was confirmation that the President was on his side.
From the Rashtrapati Bhavan, Vajpayee drove back to announce the presidential nod to his party and the public. What followed was disbelief among rival politicians who were busy cobbling a post-poll alliance to secure a simple majority in the House. The walls along the corridors of power clamoured with whispers of shock and gossip.
The next day, Vajpayee became the tenth prime minister of India, a watershed moment for his party, which had the ignominy of winning a mere two seats in the Lok Sabha twelve years earlier. Back then, Congress Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi had poked fun at the BJP members in the Lok Sabha using the famous family planning slogan of the time: ‘Hum Do, Humare Do (We Two, Our Two).’ Pundits would later attribute the BJP’s 1996 victory partly to the soaring popularity of its prime ministerial candidate, Vajpayee.
Hoping to attract support from other parties, Vajpayee made a speech to the nation, outlining the BJP’s priorities. He argued that inviting the party that had the maximum number of seats to create the next government was the most constitutionally correct decision. He also stressed that the post-election camaraderie between several parties in the Opposition had a single-point agenda: to stop the BJP at any cost.
His speech was powerfully evocative and was meant to establish his credentials as a level-headed leader of the country, someone who was a breakaway from the usual mould of Hindu nationalist BJP leaders, someone who was more secular in his thinking:
India is an ancient civilisation. It has always had different sects and religious practices. We do not limit ourselves to one God or one Prophet or a single book. We are a multi-religious country, and we believe in the equality of all religious faiths. It is because of this that we have never had any tension, leave alone a violent struggle, on the correct path to achieve a realisation of God. ‘Sarva panth samabhav’, or equal respect to all faiths, is part of our lives. India never was, and never will be, a theocratic state . . . what happened in Ayodhya on 6th December 1992 was not the result of any pre-planned conspiracy. If problems related with religion are not resolved for long periods of time, then the result is what happened at Ayodhya . . . It is hardly necessary to recall that immediately after the advent of Islam in West Asia, the first mosque was built in Kerala, then ruled by a Hindu Raja. In like manner, soon after the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the first Church was established in India. These manifestations of different faiths are living symbols of our secular traditions. We will maintain these traditions.
The reactions to his speech in the media were largely sympathetic. An editorial in the Indian Express soon after suggested that ‘Vajpayee appears to have successfully diluted BJP’s untouchability among the people, even if he has not been able to translate that mood for the political classes’. It also added, ‘Even if he loses the battle, he may end up winning the war.’
Vajpayee’s speeches in the last week of May, delivered on the floor of the Lok Sabha during the trust vote on his government, were even more riveting. In his opening note, he recalled how he used to sit in the opposition benches when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister (he entered Parliament for the first time in the second Lok Sabha in 1957) and how his party (earlier called the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, or BJS) had grown in strength and popularity to become the biggest constituent in the House while the Congress had diminished in electoral prowess over the years. Extolling the transformation underway in the political dynamics of the country, he said he was glad that winds of change were sweeping across the country.
A few days later, after it was clear that the BJP stood isolated in Parliament, he made a speech reiterating why he shouldn’t have shied away from the battlefield. He thanked the handful of parties, including regional parties such as the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal, which had stood by him, and countered accusations raised during the debate that he was power-hungry—the contention of several speakers was that he jumped at the opportunity when the President invited him to form the government though it was clear that his alliance would not be able to garner the numbers required to form one. ‘If the people of this country have given my party the highest number of seats, should I shy away from staking a claim for the government?’ he asked. The speech, telecast live on Doordarshan, India’s national broadcaster, left an impact, enhancing his popularity ratings which continued to remain higher than his party’s for a long time to come.
The newly sworn-in prime minister resigned within thirteen days of assuming power, with eighty seats short of a majority, but it looked as though he had turned failure on its head. He was destined to lead his party in the next two national elections held over the next three years, in 1998 and 1999, each time helping it improve its tally.
In the process, Vajpayee would also create history by becoming the first non-Congress prime minister to complete a full term in office. It was no mean task for the son of a primary school teacher from Gwalior, an attribute the leader, and a veteran one at that, never thought it wise to play up.
Excerpted from the book, The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox (Penguin), by Ullekh NP.