Vajpayee and (above) Advani
New Delhi, Aug. 10: Take a straw poll among BJP members and sympathisers on whose legacy would endure — L.K. Advani’s or Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s — and the odds are that eight or nine in ten would vote for the former Prime Minister.
This applies even to the cadres who regarded Vajpayee as “too liberal” by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh yardsticks and were generally sceptical of his Hindutva credentials.
Since he left politics because of poor health, Vajpayee has virtually been inaccessible to anyone except his foster family and loyalists like former minister Vijay Goel and onetime media adviser Ashok Tandon.
Yet his face graces the poster hanging outside the BJP headquarters, with Advani and party president Nitin Gadkari completing an uneven triumvirate. Every now and then, Vajpayee is pulled out of the BJP’s annals and positioned as a “star” in election posters.
“Our drawback is that we don’t have a leader of Atalji’s calibre, mass appeal and cross-spectrum acceptability,” a BJP source said.
He recalled how, when terrorists targeted Parliament in December 2001, Congress politician Renuka Chaudhary had spoken out “eloquently and emotionally” against the attack but said not a word against the government of the day.
“Had the government been led by anyone other than Atalji, the Opposition would have been tempted to grandstand,” the source said.
BJP members recalled that when militants hijacked an Indian passenger aircraft in December 1999, handing Vajpyee his first crisis in office, Sonia Gandhi had been the first to call him and offer support. One enduring image of the Kandahar saga was that of Sonia holding Vajpayee’s hand in solidarity.
Not that they did not have their run-ins. When Vajpayee made an uncharitable remark about Indira Gandhi in Parliament one day, Sonia, then Lok Sabha Opposition leader, retaliated with the fury she displayed while taking on Advani last Wednesday. Yet such encounters were rare.
BJP sources also recall Vajpayee’s skills in managing his coalition, which started off with 24 parties.
When he had trouble with Mamata Banerjee, Vajpayee would send trouble-shooters like Sudheendra Kulkarni to pacify her. Once, when all else failed, he travelled to Calcutta and disarmed Mamata by calling on her mother and counselling her to “reprimand” her daughter now and then.
Vajpayee showed the same acumen in tackling his in-house tormentors, from former BJP ideologue K.N. Govindacharya to the Sangh and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.
Govindacharya, who famously dismissed Vajpayee as a “mask” and projected Advani as the “de jure power centre” before a diplomat, was packed off from his BJP quarters one evening without notice.
The Sangh’s feet of clay were exposed through documents that showed how even its seniors used their clout to extract favours, such as petrol pumps and LPG agencies, for their relatives.
“The point is that he presided over a government for six long years,” a source said, adding that had the 2002 Gujarat pogrom not “sullied” his record, the National Democratic Alliance might have returned to power in 2004.
Little wonder then that Rajya Sabha Opposition leader Arun Jaitley, an Advani protégé about whom Vajpayee had mixed feelings, recently held the former Prime Minister up as a beacon of hope for a beleaguered BJP.
In a magazine article in July, Jaitley singled out Vajpayee’s “management” of the alliance as a “lesson” the BJP had to learn if it was to re-emerge as a player in Delhi.
Sources said Advani’s forays in coalition superintendence have sometimes been counterproductive.
Advani’s subtle efforts to play Nitish Kumar against Narendra Modi — for instance, his decision to kick off his latest rathayatra in Bihar after Modi sounded iffy about Gujarat — have gone down badly within the BJP.
“Modi’s our mascot, a prospective Prime Minster, and no leader should belittle him now,” a source said.
But the main reason the BJP has all but given up on Advani is his failure to deliver a victory in 2009.
“Going against its grain, the Sangh had okayed his projection as candidate for Prime Minister; the party and the NDA had backed him; but he still failed,” a source said.
“Unfortunately, the legacy he built during the Ram temple era is being eroded by his serial political gaffes.”
The moral, according to a party source: “Leave when the going’s fairly good. Vajpayee failed in 2004 and tried to make a comeback; but when he realised the party was not 100 per cent with him, he retreated gracefully.”