Someone very aptly described Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a good man in the wrong party. Mr Vajpayee’s articulation of militant Hindutva has always been kind of sotto voce. This has been particularly noticeable from the time he took on India’s top job. When the sangh parivar has clamoured for a communal agenda, the prime minister has veered, in terms of policy, towards economic reforms and the upholding of India’s secular values. When there has been pressure on him to advocate the interests of the majority community, he has spoken like the prime minister of India. The problem for those who have chosen to support Mr Vajpayee, despite his long career in the Jan Sangh and the Bharatiya Janata Party, has been his long periods of silence. His pauses always sound ominous for the Vajpayee-faithfuls. But spirits rise when he speaks in his own voice, as he, indeed, did on Saturday at the rally to mark the third year of the National Democratic Alliance government that he heads. Mr Vajpayee spoke directly to his critics within his own party rather than to those without. His target audience, the militants within the sangh parivar, could not have taken kindly to Mr Vajpayee’s comments.
Mr Vajpayee’s intense displeasure with the events in Gujarat has been apparent for quite some time, even though he has not been very explicit with his disapproval. His speech in the rally on Saturday was nothing short of a warning to Mr Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and according to many the mastermind of the pogrom there, and to his supporters within the BJP and other outfits of the sangh parivar. As an astute politician and the prime minister of India, Mr Vajpayee knows that it is impossible to govern India on the basis of an intense communal agenda. Mr Vajpayee has sought to put brakes on the campaign to arouse communal passions. His problem is that neither his party nor the wider parivar to which it belongs has any other agenda. Despite his personal predilections, Mr Vajpayee will consistently be under pressure to wave the saffron flag. Apart from kick-starting the process of governance, now in virtual rigor mortis, this pressure may very well be Mr Vajpayee’s biggest challenge in recent months.
There was also the expression in Mr Vajpayee’s speech of the need to return to a modicum of decency in the voicing of criticism and differences. This had a double context. It referred to the uncouth attack launched on Ms Sonia Gandhi by Mr Praveen Togadia of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, as well as to the attack by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on Mr Brajesh Mishra, the principal secretary to the prime minister. Here, what Mr Vajpayee has not reckoned with is that neither the RSS nor the VHP cares a fig for the niceties of democratic politics and the demand for decency embedded in it. Mr Vajpayee’s disapproval may well be irrelevant to the persons concerned. Mr Vajpayee is no position any more to choose his ideological peers. He has to remain with the wrong party.