I spent Republic Day engrossed in a new biography of the man who extolled the virtues of the Constitution of our republic while also, as prime minister, submitting that “even in the mightiest fort one has to repair the parapet from time to time". One cannot have an argument against reviewing constitutional provisions, if not its fundamental freedoms, periodically in a democratic system of our scale, size and diversity. But concerns that this proposal emerged from a protégé of M.S. Golwalkar’s (who famously lamented that our “cumbersome" Constitution was poorer for absorbing “absolutely nothing" from the Manusmriti) caused one former occupant of 7, Race Course Road (now Lok Kalyan Marg), to warn that this shouldn’t become a case of “tenants (going) for rebuilding in the name of repairs".
Till the tenants lasted a full lease, there were few fears of this happening. I was six years old when Atal Bihari Vajpayee ruled India for 13 days, 8 when he returned for 13 months, and then from 1999 he remained Prime Minister till 2004. Among schoolboys of my time he inspired little heroic appeal, what with his vast person, capacious dhotis, artificial knees, and tendency to break into Hindi poetry about birds and peace. But our assorted fathers were quite charged by Vajpayee, who displayed might in nuclear avatar and prevailed over our ancestral enemy in Kargil. His everyday sobriety seemed to them an asset—and a relief—and there was genuine conviction that he would change India for the better. In many ways, he did. And thankfully this didn’t involve touching too many “parapets" of our constitutional fort.
Vajpayee, now laid up for years with age and illness, is a more interesting figure than he has been given credit for, and reading Ullekh N.P.’s The Untold Vajpayee, I was struck by how easy it was, in my youthful mind, to write off his grandfatherly style as uninspiring. This was a man who, in a party dedicated to the idea of the gau mata, had no qualms digesting a near cousin in the equation—Vajpayee loved buffalo meat. Bhang and alcohol were not taboo, but he was not a rebel-child, merely, instead, leading a life that embraced experience in all its variety. Endearingly, he welcomed his father’s desire to attend law school with him, the two Vajpayees sharing a hostel room, the son cooking his father’s vegetarian food. He never married, but for 50 years Mrs Kaul lived with him with her husband and children, and ran his household. When she died, Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi paid Vajpayee a condolence call.
In the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), this made Vajpayee an unusual figure, and more orthodox members lost no opportunity in maligning him for a lifestyle that was miles away from the pious guidelines the rest of them toed. As Ullekh writes, “Vajpayee alone could defy the RSS and get away with it." One leading rival, Balraj Madhok (who charitably announced that “if Congress is malaria, Communists are the plague"), resented Vajpayee for a lifetime for his breezy successes in flouting dozens of rules while retaining full commitment from the RSS. Vajpayee’s ability to best better or at least more correct men with his charm, oratory, quiet shrewdness, and, most importantly his reputation for moderation, was hated by many but also became indispensable to the growth of the Bharatiya Jan Sangh and subsequently, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Vajpayee was certainly diplomatic but he could also pose as a liberal when it was opportune to seem one, and act as quite something else when it wasn’t. Whether one defines this as political pragmatism or insincerity depends on one’s own principles, but since politics is an exacting beast, we can only pass judgement in a certain context. Certainly, the BJP wouldn’t have risen in quite the way it did without Vajpayee—if a hard-boiled RSS egg like Madhok had wrested control from Vajpayee in 1968, this faction would have remained true to their basic principles but never won the respectability and wide acceptance that Vajpayee’s method invited from people who would otherwise have found those basic principles abhorrent.
Vajpayee himself seems to have known this. In the mid-1990s, when he won an award in Parliament, he said: “I am aware of my limitations and I recognize my faults. The adjudicators must have ignored my limitations and mistakes to select me. This is a wonderful, unique nation. You can even worship a stone by putting vermillion on it." He meant it in another context, but Vajpayee, when situations demanded it, wore the vermillion and said strange things, and when it suited him, posed as a less threatening stone.
This is perhaps why the opposition, while willing to parley with him, remained suspicious that Vajpayee’s poetry and moderation were a mask to further his own ambitions in an arrangement that also furthered an odious agenda shaped by other forces—forces he could not entirely control. Some years after the destruction in Babri, Ullekh points out, a video emerged that has Vajpayee, on the eve of the tragedy, joking that the “earth has to be levelled" for any ceremony to be performed. He may not have known what was about to happen, but he was quite willing to add fuel to the fire with which others lit a blaze. This was also the prime minister who described the demand for a temple as “an expression of national sentiment which is yet to be fulfilled". The only defence here is that other prime ministers too have played with fire, and regretted it.
Vajpayee did, for most part however, play the statesman and earn respect, though his power was incomplete. More impatient, more aggressive elements in his own party worked to push him aside—it was almost as if having come to power on the back of his appeal, they felt it was now time for real business. The constitutional review and its 1,979-page report went nowhere, though—while his party rebutted the Congress’ criticism with a document titled Let Facts Speak For Themselves, pointing out that party’s attempts to “thoroughly re-examine" the Constitution years before, the din was too loud. And in 2004, the BJP lost power, and Vajpayee dissolved into retirement and illness. Today the BJP is under a different leadership—what plans, if any, are proposed for the Constitution need to be seen.
Medium Rare is a weekly column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles Of The House Of Travancore. He tweets at @UnamPillai.