Someone once described Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, somewhat impishly, as the right man in the wrong party. This may well turn out to be true. The aptness of the statement does not lie in the fact that Mr Vajpayee considers Jawaharlal Nehru to be his role model. Rather, the contradiction between the individual and the party is located in the internal history of the Bharatiya Janata Party. The party that Mr Vajpayee leads stands now at a crossroads. Its history, since the BJP came to power at the head of the National Democratic Alliance, has been oriented towards projecting itself as the party of governance. Under Mr Vajpayee, the BJP sloughed off its ideological skin and concentrated on running a stable and efficient government. Mr Vajpayee successfully staved off pressure from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and other extreme elements of the sangh parivar to put Hindutva on top of the NDA agenda. Mr Vajpayee may not have been successful in this endeavour all the time, but at least this was the thrust of his policy. Even his critics admit this. Mr Vajpayee, against odds, wanted to be the prime minister of India and not just of the BJP. That he still wants to be so is clear on his insistence that Hindutva can never become an election issue.
Mr Vajpayee’s emphasis on governance over ideology has not always been accepted either by the rank and file of the BJP or by some of his senior colleagues in the party and in the sangh parivar. The reaffirmation of Hindutva has always been a strong tendency contra Mr Vajpayee. This tendency has received a tremendous boost with the victory that the BJP registered in Gujarat. That win was nothing if not a triumph of a well-orchestrated campaign based on Hindutva and anti-Muslim sentiments. Never far from the campaign and the BJP victory was the pogrom the state had experienced early in the year. As a consequence, the advocates of a strong Hindutva line have become vocal and strident within the party. Mr Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, has emerged as a new hero in whose programme is seen the blueprint to turn around the electoral fortunes of the BJP.
The apparent popularity of the pro-Hindutva line may find Mr Vajpayee whistling against a typhoon. His predicament is aggravated by the fact that on governance, the record of the NDA government has not been particularly good in recent months. The government has stalled disinvestment; it has faltered on security issues; and in general, things have acquired a directionless drift. Under the circumstances, the flag of a rejuvenated Hindutva allows the followers of the BJP to have rallying point. What is more important is that it is a rallying point that has the overt approval of powerful sections of the sangh parivar. By hoping that Hindutva cannot be an election issue, Mr Vajpayee may be deluding himself, unless he stirs himself to take the initiative to mould his party to his image.