A deliberate withdrawal from the agenda of Hindutva is the key to Mr Vajpayee’s success at the head of the NDA
The middle of March was very unlucky for Julius Caesar but is distinctly fortunate for Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He became prime minister of India on March 19 five years ago. Half a decade is a long time in Indian politics, especially if one recalls the short tenures of Mr Vajpayee’s two immediate predecessors. Mr Vajpayee’s first innings at the top job was only 13 months long. But after he came back as the head of the National Democratic Alliance, he has never looked back. Except for one major hiccup caused by Ms J. Jayalalithaa, Mr Vajpayee’s second innings has been relatively smooth and without threat. He has had no challengers outside the NDA and the Bharatiya Janata Party. But inside the BJP and the sangh parivar, he has his fair share of critics and rivals. His critics all come from the hardcore Hindutva formations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. Their allegation that Mr Vajpayee does not push the Hindutva agenda within his government is often echoed in the BJP too. For a long time, BJP-watchers had a field day speculating on the nuances of the relationship between Mr Vajpayee and Mr L.K. Advani. The latter’s elevation to the deputy prime ministership has put a stop to such febrile crystal-gazing regarding India after Mr Vajpayee.
Mr Vajpayee has had one answer for those critics who have accused him of not promoting Hindutva through the NDA government. His retort has been that he is the prime minister of India and not of the BJP or the sangh parivar. This answer provides the key to Mr Vajpayee’s survival as prime minister for five years. He is only too aware that, except for the first 13 months of the five years, he has been at the head of a coalition. He has thus put the agenda of the NDA ahead of the priorities of his party and of the wider ideological formation to which he belongs. This has given Mr Vajpayee a certain stature and even brought to him the grudging respect of his critics who accept that no other BJP leader could have quite performed the role that Mr Vajpayee does. This is not to say that Mr Vajpayee has steered clear of ideological equivocation. The number of clarifications his office had to issue is a pointer to Mr Vajpayee’s attempts to keep at bay the hawks within the sangh parivar.
Mr Vajpayee is too canny and wily a politician to always take the bull by the horns. This has allowed him to contain the various pressures that operate within a coalition like the NDA which has no ideological unity. Mr Vajpayee has tried to put issues of governance above those of ideology. This is not an easy thing to do with elections not so far away. Mr Vajpayee has to think of numbers, and unfortunately, the experience of Gujarat has shown that aggressive Hindutva is a vote-catcher. Mr Vajpayee faces the challenge of marrying electoral priorities and good governance. Mr P.V. Narasimha Rao faced the same test in his last elections. In India, where populism is embedded in politics, this is a tall ask. Mr Vajpayee will have to deploy all his acumen and experience. Fortunately for him, the opposition is in complete disarray. Mr Vajpayee became prime minister five years ago because there was no alternative to him within the BJP. He may continue for another five, health permitting, because there is no alternative to him in any political party.