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The John McCain of India

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s “statesmanlike” far-right leader, died this month. The praise showered on him by Indian liberals shows how far to the right the country has moved.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former prime minister of India, March 25, 2004. Hemant Chawla / The India Today Group / Getty

Atal Bihari Vajpayee, a former activist with the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and prime minister from 1998–2004, passed away on August 16 of this year. But the extraordinary deluge of praise showered by journalists and TV news anchors, by leaders and spokespersons of all the opposition parties including the Congress, by liberal scholars and commentators, is a clear indication of how widely and deeply the ideological-political hegemony of Hindutva has penetrated society and polity.

It is from the ranks of those outside the BJP, RSS, and other affiliates of the wider Sangh “Parivar,” or “family,” that he has been called the “gentle colossus,” “great patriot and statesman,” “liberal pragmatist,” “dove among hawks,” and even “the last of the Nehruvians.” The parties of the parliamentary left, like the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), have thankfully been much less effusive. But unfortunately, they have still felt the need to commend his supposedly democratic temperament and the civility of his interactions with opposition parties despite political differences and conflicts.

How is it that the political personality of one who never wavered in his fealty to Hindutva or to the RSS and its political wings — first the Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) and then the BJP — could be so misconstrued? If this says something about how successful Hindutva — the most aggressive and exclusivist version of Hindu nationalism — has become in shaping the dominant form of today’s political “common sense,” it also says something about how other political forces have themselves contributed to the erosion and degeneration of Indian democracy and to the substantial normalization of a politics of evil, for that is what Hindutva is. Its goal has always been the establishment of a Hindu Rashtra, or nation, for which a Hindu state in all but name is required. This would mean going well beyond the existing deficiencies of the Indian polity, to create a much more limited, controlled, and “authoritarian democracy” in which Muslims in particular (comprising 14 percent of the total population) would be permanently inferiorized as second-class citizens and living in constant fear of severe retribution should they seek to oppose such a state of affairs.

Three Phases

While this goal has always been inflexible in strategic terms, the pursuit of it since independence has always been more flexible, tactically speaking. There is a need to speak differently to different audiences, and this is where the value of those like Vajpayee lies. In the historical rise of Hindutva and the forces behind it, there have been three phases. The first, from roughly 1947 to the mid-sixties; the second, an interregnum from then to the mid-eighties, in which the BJP began to achieve both a public political legitimacy and national profile of sorts; and thereafter the steady rise in power and influence of the Sangh and all its affiliate bodies.

The first phase was marked by the post-independence hegemony of the Congress led by Nehru and his broad vision for the country. Vajpayee, who joined the RSS in his youth and played no role in the struggle for independence, later joined the BJS, which was set up in 1951; he became an MP in 1957, and then party president in 1968.

In this phase, for all his oratorical skills inside and outside parliament, he and the BJS were nationally inconsequential. What really propelled Vajpayee and the BJS to national-level prominence was, first, the anti-corruption movement, which began in Bihar under the leadership of the old socialist Jayaprakash Narayan, but with its strongest cadre base of activists provided by the RSS. The movement then spread to other states. Then came Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s declaration of a State of Emergency, followed by her large-scale imprisonment of Sangh members — a way for Gandhi to give herself a “left face.” The victory of the Janata Party in the 1977 general elections signaled the end of emergency rule and gave another fillip to Vajpayee and the BJS, which had merged itself into the Janata Party, with Vajpayee becoming its foreign minister.

It was from 1977 to the close of his premiership in 2004, after the general election victory of a Congress-led coalition, that Vajpayee can be said to have been on the national political stage. He faded away thereafter.

Emergency rule marked an attempt to reverse by authoritarian means the historical decline of the Congress, which had begun in the late sixties. This process of general decline would play out over the next decades, albeit unevenly, with periods in which the Congress would restore its rule singly or in coalition. With the decline of the Congress as the stabilizing centrist force, it was widely assumed that the vacuum could be filled only by another more or less centrist force — meaning that if the BJS, or its successor the BJP (formed in 1980), wanted to occupy this space it would have to “moderate” its ideology and politics. This was seen by many outside the Sangh as an unavoidable long-term strategic shift, while within the RSS/BJP it was seen only as a tactic to be adopted and used if it could enhance its popularity — a matter of image projection to be carried out selectively, and on occasion.

Vajpayee’s carefully cultivated graces, civility of personal behavior, the exercise of charm, the turn to poetry, were never more than a superficial outer layer masking a ruthless and Machiavellian personality determined to maintain his leadership within the BJS and BJP, which was all the more secure for his relatively greater skill, compared to other Sangh leaders, at defusing hostility from others in the wider political arena. But on each and every occasion when his commitment to the genuine pursuit of moderation — that is, to institutionalizing a Nehruvian-like bourgeois centrism, or to upholding the value of secularism when under grave threat — was tested politically, he failed.

The Historical Record

In 1979 there was a call within the Janata Party, by secularists and others, for Vajpayee, other cabinet ministers, and MPs of the formally dissolved BJS to sever their links with the RSS if they wished to remain in the Party. They all resigned. Vajpayee had no hesitation in putting his political and emotional loyalty to the RSS and what it stood for, well ahead of any effort to build a more stable and moderate centrist-type formation. The Janata Party thereafter collapsed and Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, while the BJP floundered with Vajpayee at the helm, failing miserably in the 1984 elections.

It was from this time on that the BJP and Sangh grew into a force with an increasingly powerful hegemonizing drive. This came from a turn to an explicit, hard-line Hindutva message, embodied above all by the escalating Ram Janmabhoomi campaign aimed at destroying a fifteenth century Babri Mosque in the town of Ayodhya, wrongly and deceitfully alleged to have been built after the destruction of a temple that had marked the birthplace of the mythical Hindu God-figure, Lord Ram.

It was the second most important leader in the BJP, L.K. Advani, who most strongly pushed for this turn, and seeing its success, Vajpayee was happy to go along and justify the necessity of the movement regardless of the mayhem and violence that accompanied its progress. Indeed, even though he was careful to be absent from the site when it was unconstitutionally demolished ( unlike other Sangh and BJP leaders) so as to lend credence to his claim of never having wanted it to happen, unfortunately for him the mask slipped. On December 6, 1992, the mosque was destroyed by kar sevaks, Hindu activists associated with the Sangh who willingly volunteer to serve a supposedly religious cause. The day before, Vajpayee had told a gathering of kar sevaks that there was no question of stopping them in Ayodhya, where the ground had to be leveled.

In the 1996 elections, the BJP under Vajpayee emerged as the single largest party but could not form a governing coalition because no other party would ally with it. In the 1998 elections this “untouchability” came to an end and the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) formed the government. In the encomiums heaped upon Vajpayee after his demise, the coalitions he forged with other parties were hailed as a virtue, whereas the parties joining the NDA should have been condemned for legitimizing the BJP/Sangh. Indeed, Vajpayee’s ability to help normalize Hindutva politics in the eyes of other parties should have been seen as a devious and dangerous skill, not an admirable one.

The “mainstreaming” of the BJP was not only due to its pulling other political actors towards itself. To expand its base, it had to shift its economic thinking from an older economic nationalism to acceptance of neoliberal globalization. This posed no serious problems, given the necessity of assuaging big capital and attracting the aspiring middle classes (not a middling group, but rather the top 25 to 30 percent). It also jettisoned nonalignment — a foreign policy perspective it never really believed in — for a closer relationship with the US and West. In both respects a shift to the right in mainstream discourse and policy had already been carried out by the Congress-led coalition government of 1991–96 headed by Narasimha Rao. The BJP was now seen as being more in the mainstream, and its anti-secular communalism could now be more easily dismissed as a fringe or minority current within it, one that was anyway being internally contested, with Vajpayee at the forefront.

Where Vajpayee did make a landmark policy change was in openly going nuclear, through weapons tests carried out in May 1998. Most other parties, barring the CPI and CPM, not only accepted but soon enough endorsed this. Most of the liberal intelligentsia were quick to pronounce this as both inevitable and admirable given the dangers posed by Pakistan and China — a reflection of how proponents of a more secular vision for the country had aligned themselves with a much more aggressive and belligerent nationalism that was also marked by a sense of self-righteous victimhood. What was conveniently ignored was that the BJS/Sangh had always wanted the bomb, even before the Chinese acquired it in 1964, or Pakistan in the late eighties. Amnesia prevailed on two other counts. There was silence regarding the fact that from the eighties onwards Pakistan had repeatedly and officially proposed regional denuclearization: simultaneous adherence to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, bilateral renunciation of the bomb, and establishing a South Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.

Vajpayee’s admirers also ignored or downplayed the fact that while RSS leaders had been privy to the decision in advance — the RSS has no internal election process, nor is it accountable through elections to the outside public — all other parties in the coalition government and their cabinet appointees were kept completely in the dark about the tests. To add further insult, the first public explanation for why the tests were necessary was given not to the Indian public — Vajpayee provided only the technical details in a radio announcement on May 11 (so many bombs of such and such tonnage, etc.) — but to US president Clinton, in a letter sent on May 11 that explicitly blamed Pakistan and China for provoking the tests. The letter was then released to the New York Times.

The real reason for the tests had everything to do with expressing a Hindutva-inspired machismo; it was a status-driven move. Pakistan had followed India with its own nuclear tests, while blaming China turned out to be a diplomatic faux pas. Within a month, Vajpayee’s government officially declared that the decision to test had not been “country-specific,” and in a year’s time it was declared not even to have been “threat-specific.”

Even more astonishing than the glorification of the bomb by all parties outside the Left was the characterization of Vajpayee as an apostle for peace because of his February 1999 bus journey to Lahore, and the agreement that followed. He has similarly received kudos for the July 2001 Agra Summit between himself and Pakistan’s General Musharraf, where both countries came close to a path-breaking agreement.

In both cases the praise for Vajpayee was unjustified. The US, which initially reacted to the 1998 tests with shock and sanctions, soon came around to accepting the two countries’ de facto nuclear status. Both, after all, can and do serve Washington’s geopolitical interests: Pakistan in Central Asia and the Middle East; India with regard to China and the Indian Ocean perimeter. Washington engaged in several parallel and bilateral rounds of talks with the two governments, pushing them to join non-proliferation measures like the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the Fissile Materials Cut-off Treaty (FMCT) while easing mutual tensions so that Kashmir would not become a nuclear flash point. The Kargil war, initiated by Pakistan later in 1999, would end this temporary rapprochement, but it was a US initiative, not Vajpayee’s, that led to the Lahore meeting: Pakistan extended an invitation to Vajpayee following a round of discussions between the US, Pakistan, and India that took place in January and early February 1999.

Concerning the Agra Summit, the courageous and indefatigable columnist, A.G. Noorani, exposed the Indian government’s deceit when it sought to blame Pakistan for the failure to reach an agreement. It was L.K. Advani, the home minister in Vajpayee’s cabinet and number two in the BJP, who pushed for the summit as a forum for exchanging views, and then sabotaged a possible joint agreement that for the first time would have systematized a procedure for negotiating a mutual resolution of the Kashmir dispute. Vajpayee went along with this. Whether such an agreement would have been acceptable to the people of Kashmir, who were not represented at the talks, is another question.

The Communal Question

Finally, what of Vajpayee’s record when it comes to his stance on anti-Muslim communal riots? When not in power he was despicable in his words; when he was in power, as prime minister, he behaved despicably by failing to do what was necessary.

On May 14, 1970, in his Lok Sabha speech on the communal riots of Ahmedabad and Bhiwandi, he remarked: “Whatever the reason, our Muslim brethren are getting more and more communal and as a reaction Hindus are getting more and more aggressive … Hindus will no more take a beating in this country.” Soon after the 1983 massacre of Muslims in Nelli, Assam, he declared: “Foreigners have come here and the government does nothing. What if they had come into Punjab instead; people would have chopped them into pieces and thrown them away.” Once again Noorani had it right when he noted that “Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s mask of moderation, so far has in fact been an unwavering adherent of the Sangh Parivar’s credo and policy, whether on Hindutva, the Babri Masjid, or the communal riots in India since 1967.”

But Vajpayee reached a new low with the 2002 Gujarat pogrom that took place under Modi’s chief ministership. After the usual crocodile tears, not only did he not remove Modi from his post; he emulated him by presenting the carnage as an understandable reaction by Hindus. In an April 2002 speech at the BJP convention in Goa, he had this to say: “What happened in Gujarat? If a conspiracy had not been hatched to burn alive the innocent passengers of the Sabarmati Express, then the subsequent tragedy in Gujarat could have been averted. But this did not happen. People were torched alive. Who were those culprits? The government is investigating into this. Intelligence agencies are collecting all the information. But we should not forget how the tragedy of Gujarat started. The subsequent developments were no doubt condemnable, but who lit the fire?”

Going further, he said, ‘Wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in co-existence with others, they don’t like to mingle with others; and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats. The world has become alert to this danger.” This was an extraordinary statement. No sitting prime minister of India, not even Modi so far, has so brazenly and publicly attacked a whole section of the population and its faith. So much for his much-proclaimed civility of manners.

Balance Sheet

Political life involves compromises. Whether we situate ourselves on the Left or in the liberal center we know that our heroes in certain circumstances will say things and carry out acts that are unjustifiable, brutal, and morally difficult or impossible to defend, even as they do much good otherwise. So how do we draw the overall balance sheet?

The key guideline, one would argue, lies in an assessment of the morally progressive or regressive character of the goal or end ultimately sought. A praiseworthy final goal is a necessary — but never sufficient — condition for drawing an overall positive or laudatory judgement of the political figure in question. It is not sufficient because the means pursued to achieve that goal must also be judged and can be found morally or otherwise wanting. Thus, balance-sheet judgements in such cases can differ. But if the project or goal to which one makes a lifelong commitment is itself deeply unworthy and politically-morally reactionary, an indisputably negative evaluation cannot be avoided.

Take the comparison that has been made of Vajpayee and Nehru. Nehru entered politics to bring about an end to British colonial rule, not knowing if he would ever see its success, let alone his arriving in power. After independence, he sought to establish a liberal democratic polity, though one resting on an inherently exploitative capitalist order. There is room enough therefore, for much criticism of Nehru and his policies from the Left. But what a contrast with Vajpayee and his abiding commitment to bringing about a Hindu Rashtra.

Why, then, have prominent Indian liberals sought to discern some political resemblance between the two personalities? The reason is not hard to find. Given their support for neoliberalism, albeit with a more human face, and their “realist” endorsement of closer ties between India (never seen as a regional imperialist power) and the US — whose imperialist behavior can only ever be occasionally and selectively condemned — liberals share much political ground with the Vajpayees of this world. The most revealing note is that even in the obituaries written by more critical liberals, Vajpayee was invariably characterized as a figure on the Right or right-of-center. There was a refusal to see him for what he always was — a dedicated and consistent practitioner of the politics of the fascistic far right. But then, haven’t liberals always been more willing to accommodate such forces — even finding virtues that don’t exist — than they would ever be to accommodate the forces of the anti-capitalist far left?

The message from the reception of Vajpayee’s death is clear: to create a more humane and just Indian society we have a very long way to go.