For a man whose illustrious innings in public life lasted more than 70 years, Atal Bihari Vajpayee must have written and erased words worth several volumes of books on the skull of kaal, and marched ahead singing more new geets than even the most prolific film singer. But it is perhaps the melancholy song of the 2004 election defeat that is the most haunting or, at any rate, continues to haunt the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters. So much so that the present day BJP under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah seems like a loud counterpoint to drown the song of 2004 and Vajpayee’s legacy.
For a vast section of the BJP faithful, the 2004 loss against the form book remains a Bermuda Triangle when it comes to political analysis. Once into the exercise, it’s hard to emerge unscathed. Even if they did, the result was often utterly confused conclusions. The harder the ocean of 2004 is churned, more elusive the nectar of wisdom remains. The violent convulsions of the 2004 analysis within the BJP have given birth to mythologies—some comic, others downright dangerous—that have shaped the party, and seem set to dog India for the foreseeable future because the BJP is likely to remain the primary pole of Indian politics.
Describing the England left-arm spinner Monty Panesar’s stagnating career, which began with great promise, Shane Warne once remarked that Monty hadn’t played 33 Tests, but had played his debut Test 33 times. Similarly, up until 2013 when Modi forced his way into prime ministerial candidature, his party had fought the 2004 Vajpayee election, subsequent election after election.
The simplistic analysis in the immediate aftermath of 2004 was that an ungrateful nation had dumped a good man. Other more complex theories rest on this very basic bedrock that “nice guys” somehow finish last.
The hard edge to the BJP of today and its take-no-prisoners brand of politics—often charitably described as ruthless, single-minded focus, and an election machine geared to win—is the fear of niceness of the Vajpayee variety. Geniality unaccompanied by killer instinct may win you friends, but not elections. Awe is now the currency with a higher exchange rate at hustings, rather than affection. If only a generous Vajpayee as PM hadn’t bailed out the dodgy Dynasty—and indeed its scion detained at the Boston airport by FBI in 2001—a Congress-mukt Bharat would have been Prime-delivered more than a decade ago.
This perceived gentility, and Vajpayee’s gracious conduct towards several editors (apparently, never reciprocated), became a metaphor for the collusion that occurred in the bungle-ohs of Lutyens Delhi. All that Vajpayee, the consensus-builder, got in return was praise for his poetry, the left-handed compliment of being the right-man-in-the-wrong-party, and treachery in the name of sickularism. Civility in public discourse (PM Modi’s churlish farewell speech for the former Vice President Hamid Ansari that was cheered by the core as much needed plainspeak), moderation of ideological dogmas (the bigoted statements of ministers that are blithely ignored by the BJP leadership), and the idea of ceding even an inch, when in a position of strength, to your political opponents—all these are now deemed loser traits.
Vajpayee’s 2004 loss also solidified the belief that good economics and electoral success were a twain that shall never meet. The success of the Congress party’s reactionary campaign (“Congress ka haath aam aadmi ke saath”) in upstaging the BJP’s sunny “India Shining”—ironically, created by an ad agency named Grey—offered QED. What, after all, could any PM do better than a man who made India an overt nuclear power, built thousands of miles of highways, won a war, and delivered eight per cent growth? That the Congress successfully managed to turn “growth” when not prefixed with “inclusive” into a four-letter word, and yet continued to push a BJP that had actually contributed to the country’s prosperity, into longer electoral exile, provided a more convincing stone-cold reality check.
That experience continues to inform the economic thinking of a BJP government that was voted in with an absolute majority. Not only is the BJP fearful of the conventionally reformist path Vajpayee took, but is in many ways as steeped in socialism as the parties it opposes. Unable to muster the courage or find ways to sell progressive economic policy-making, this government expended its political capital on quackery such as demonetisation. While the Congress-led UPA wanted to redistribute wealth with schemes such as farm loan waivers and rural employment guarantees, Modi’s BJP seemed to revel in the fact that it had redistributed misery (even the rich had to stand in serpentine queues, as the PM reminded us).
Perhaps the dangerous consequence of the “good and gentle” Vajpayee’s failure to sell sensible economics is the blind faith his political heirs have placed on majoritarian bigotry. Basking in the glory of BJP’s 72-seat haul in UP in 2014, Amit Shah declared that it was proof that there were more votes outside the vote banks than those created in the name of secularism. While a Modi wave may have made that possible in part, creating weather similar patterns will involve ever more cynicism.
Vajpayee’s failure to win an election that was his to lose, and its mistaken lessons will likely remain his enduring legacy. Despite his many faults, Vajpayee deserves better. Can there be poetic justice?