Fifty months into office, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was as popular then as Narendra Modi is today.
India is as bewitched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi today as it was with Atal Bihari Vajpayee nearly two decades ago. But the funeral cortege of Vajpayee brought home the reality that India has indeed moved on from the poet-statesman.
The turnout for the six-km-long procession from the BJP headquarters to the Smriti Sthal was much less than expected. Why did the Delhi BJP unit, UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath and Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar not help legions of Vajpayee’s admirers travel to the national capital?
Perhaps, the state of autonomy in the BJP today is such that even a Meenakshi Lekhi (New Delhi MP) or a Harsh Vardhan (Chandni Chowk MP) wouldn’t take an initiative unless instructed by the top brass. Or, may be, the BJP leadership expected a spontaneous gathering as witnessed at M. Karunanidhi’s funeral recently or Rajiv Gandhi’s and Indira Gandhi’s in the distant past.
When Vajpayee was 50 months into office, he was as popular as Modi, if not more. As strong and decisive leaders, one had ordered Pokhran nuclear tests and Operation Parakram and led the country to the much-celebrated victory in Kargil, while the other launched surgical strikes on terror camps across the border. Vajpayee’s speeches used to captivate the audience just as Modi’s do today. India was as “shining” then as official advertisements and BJP leaders claim now.
Just like today, the biggest question in political discourse at that time was “Vajpayee versus who?” But there ends the similarity between Vajpayee and Modi. Both were groomed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) but both dealt with it differently. The RSS was Vajpayee’s ‘soul’ but his government never looked like the executive arm of the Sangh. The two differed on disinvestment policy and overtures to Pakistan, among other issues. Today, there are well-structured discussions between RSS leaders and top representatives of the government. The RSS didn’t like the most powerful man in Vajpayee’s PMO – his principal secretary and national security adviser (NSA) Brajesh Mishra – but could do nothing about it.
The BJP presidents during the Vajpayee regime couldn’t even think of giving marching orders to ministers before cabinet reshuffles, nor did they have regular briefings from the NSA or the PMO staff. In Vajpayee’s government, there were some powerful bureaucrats but the ministers ran the ministries; the guiding principle was delegation of powers and not their concentration.
Vajpayee was also a Hindu Hriday Samrat and drew inspiration from Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Deendayal Upadhyaya, but hardcore Hindutva activists didn’t deify him the way they do Modi today. Vajpayee kept liberal India engaged, publicly disapproving the Babri demolition in 1992 and chastising Modi, then-Gujarat chief minister, for not following ‘raj dharma’ during the post Godhra-riots in 2002.
It’s another matter that L.K. Advani, alleged to be a key political player in the demolition, went on to become Vajpayee’s deputy in the government. As for the perception about Vajpayee wanting Modi’s resignation in the wake of the post-Godhra riots, Advani clarified later that the Prime Minister was under pressure from an ally and therefore wanted the Gujarat CM to at least “offer” his resignation, which the latter did.
Vajpayee had seen many electoral defeats in his long political career. For Modi, election victories have been a norm and failures an aberration. This explains the great understanding and trust between the Prime Minister and the ruling party president, an equation rarely seen in the past.
Lessons from Vajpayee’s mistakes
The single biggest factor that led to the downfall of the Vajpayee government was the loss of old allies and the failure of new ones. The ‘India Shining’ campaign was largely blamed for the voters’ ire, but there was just a marginal difference in the BJP’s vote share between 1999 and 2004 general elections. It secured 23.75 per cent votes with 182 seats in 1999 and 22.16 per cent votes with 138 seats in 2004.
Alliances played a decisive role in the slide in the BJP’s fortune: for instance, the AIADMK-BJP alliance in Tamil Nadu drew a cipher in 2004 as against 26 seats for the DMK-BJP-PMK-MDMK alliance in 1999.
Similarly, the TDP-BJP tally came down from 36 in 1999 to five in 2004. The BJP-TMC combine won a single seat in West Bengal in 2004 as against 10 in 1999. The BJP in alliance with the INLD in Haryana won 10 seats in 1999 but managed just a single seat when it went solo in 2004. In Bihar, the BJP-JD(U) tally came down from 41 to 12 after Ram Vilas Paswan shifted to the Congress-RJD camp (this includes one seat for the BJP in Jharkhand that was carved out of Bihar in 2000).
Modi and Amit Shah are obviously determined to not let history repeat itself. So, after the TDP quit the NDA, the BJP is bending over backwards to keep the flock together and engage potential post-poll partners. That explains the offer of the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman’s post to the BJD, the TRS, and the JD(U). Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, sore over the JD(U)’s exclusion from the NDA government and the BJP’s reluctance to part with more seats in the next Lok Sabha elections, was quick to accept the offer, while the first two declined politely.
The Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) may be sulking for being ignored but it’s not in a position to drive a hard bargain with the saffron party. In June, Amit Shah was in Mumbai to mollify another disgruntled ally, Uddhav Thackeray of the Shiv Sena, and his success was evident from the Sena’s support to the NDA candidate in the RS deputy chairman’s election.
As the Congress seeks to build state-specific alliances, the BJP has gone slow with its ambitious forays into states that are out of its grip. Modi’s recent overture to Naveen Patnaik is testimony to the saffron party’s willingness to wait longer for its time in some new states so that prospective allies can be engaged.
Veteran BJP leader L.K. Advani attributed the party’s loss in 2004 to overconfidence. Modi and Shah appear confident today, but that is because they are acutely aware of the challenges and know how to overcome them. The Congress, on the other hand, is overconfident today – not because it has smart electoral strategies up its sleeve, but because it believes in the cliché that history repeats itself.