Profile: Atal Behari Vajpayee

The orator who finds himself miscast as a warmonger

Peter Popham
Saturday 25 May 2002 00:00 BST

At an army camp on the edge of the Kashmir Valley this week, a portly old gentleman with bushy eyebrows and a fleshy, sleepy, humorous face hobbled onto a makeshift stage in front of 600 soldiers and proceeded to scare the pants off the entire world.

His name is Atal Bihari Vajpayee and he is the 77-year-old Prime Minister of India. He is famous in that country for the captivating quality of his Hindi rhetoric, and he was on top form last Wednesday; chin thrust out, right arm flung forward, stretching the pauses between phrases to breaking point, tossing out the fearful words like confetti.

"Our goal is victory," he told the men. "It is time to wage a decisive battle. India is forced to fight a war thrust on it, and we will emerge victorious. Let there be no doubt: a challenge has been thrown to India, and we accept it."

It was Mr Vajpayee's speech this week at Kupwara that more than any other single event persuaded the international community that India has resolved to fight a fourth war with Pakistan; even at the risk of provoking the world's first nuclear exchange; at the risk of seeing its capital incinerated.

Those who have kept an eye on India will also have remembered that it was the same fleshy, genial features that told the world four years ago that India had begun conducting nuclear tests – reawakening fears of a nuclear holocaust that the end of the Cold War had put to sleep.

And those watching very closely would have taken note of another vague, vivid performance by the man Indians affectionately call Atalji, only a month ago. "Wherever Muslims are living," he told a party rally in Goa, "they don't want to live in harmony. They don't mix with the society. They are not interested in living in peace." This was his considered response, six weeks on, to the pogroms in Gujarat in which some 2,000 Muslims met bestial deaths at the hands of friends of Mr Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – stabbed, dismembered, raped, burned alive.

The man who ignited a nuclear arms race in South Asia, justified the murderers and rapists of Gujarat and now threatens to plunge the region into war is, however, a more puzzling and complicated figure that that list of achievements suggests.

It was, for example, less than a year ago that Mr Vajpayee was plausibly said to be dreaming of getting the Nobel Peace Prize for bringing India and Pakistan together. India, under his government, has moved barely one inch towards achieving a political solution to the festering problem of Kashmir – but that is not for want of Mr Vajpayee's trying. He has repeatedly announced initiatives intended to jolt the stalemate in the direction of peace. Each time the hawks at his side have managed to frustrate him.

The parodoxes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee stretch back to the roots of his political career. Born in 1924 in the boiling hot princely state of Gwalior, deep in north India's so-called Hindu belt, he was the son of a Brahmin country schoolteacher, and fell under the spell of the fascist-inspired Hindu nationalists while in his teens.

He joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the "Association of National Volunteers", a paramilitary nationalist sect of ardent young Hindus, and drilled with them in khaki shorts, exchanging crisp salutes, working to infuse Hindu society with efficiency, ardour and discipline. He remains a proud member of the RSS – the ideological backbone of his party – to this day.

But from an early age, Mr Vajpayee was more complicated than the run of Hindu volunteers. He was, for example, an aspiring litterateur. "My father," he wrote last year, "was a well-known and respected poet... My elder brother also took to writing poetry, and soon I was doing so too." He has continued to write not very wonderful poems throughout his life.

Though inspired by visions of India made great again by militant Hinduism, there was something hopelessly wet about Mr Vajpayee from the word go. He came under the influence of Shyam Prasad Mookerjee, the most moderate figure in the nationalist camp. And although the nationalists were sworn enemies of the Congress party, Mr Vajpayee himself was transfixed by the figure of Nehru, India's first prime minister.

"He idolised Nehru," a veteran political commentator says. "He saw him as the model of a leader." Ideologically, though, it was all wrong – like a rising member of Mosley's Black Shirts developing a crush on Stafford Cripps. "He always had one leg in the other political tradition," an observer of his career says.

After dabbling in law and journalism, Mr Vajpayee was elected to Parliament in 1957, aged 33. By then he had discovered his true gift, which was public speaking. Nehru, who also knew a thing or two about oratory, reciprocated Mr Vajpayee's admiration, and predicted that one day he would rise to high office.

For a long time that looked like a poor bet: Congress continued to dominate Indian politics for 30 years after Independence. Mr Vajpayee's first nibble at power came in 1977, when he briefly became foreign minister in an anti-Congress coalition government – and as such made his first tentative experiments in what has been, despite this week's outburst, the dominant theme of his time in government: improving relations with Pakistan.

Nineteen more years went by. The Congress hegemony began to crack and dissolve. In 1996 he became Prime Minister for the first time – for the space of less than a fortnight. Then in March 1998, the BJP, long considered a pariah in Indian politics because of its avowed communalism, mastered the art of welding together sundry provincial parties into an unwieldy but roughly workable coalition – and he has been Prime Minister ever since. A rupture in the coalition in 1998 led to a general election in which the BJP and its fellow travellers managed to improve their standing.

Mr Vajpayee brought to the most powerful office in the land the same profound ambivalence that has haunted his career: ambivalence about whether he is at heart a man of the left or of the right; ambivalence even – look at that dreamy, self-indulgent face – about whether, way back in his youth, he had plumped for the right profession.

In an anthology of his verse, published last year, he wrote, "Sometimes I am overcome by an urge to leave it all [politics] behind and lose myself in books, writing, and thought. But I have been unable to do that. I have lived over seven decades caught in this dilemma, and what is left of my life will probably be spent no differently."

Such doubt, such misgivings, are not usually the stuff of high political achievement. But in the case of Mr Vajpayee, they have served the BJP very well: they explain why it is in power.

It was during a taped discussion with British diplomats in 1997 that the general secretary of the BJP, a man known simply as Govindacharya, let the cat out of the bag, offering the starkest explanation of Mr Vajpayee's role. Mr Vajpayee, he said, "is the party's mukhota, its mask. The real leader is the party's president, LK Advani."

Lal Krishna Advani, Home Minister in the BJP government and listed by Mr Vajpayee on the BJP's website as one of his closest friends, is the Prime Minister's dark shadow. In this government, neither man can do without the other. Mr Advani is the hard, calculating, unforgiving ideologue, who knows precisely where he is going and how he plans to get there. It was Mr Advani's rath yatra, his nationalist pilgrimage of 1992, criss-crossing India and sparking anti-Muslim riots in many places, which culminated in a Hindu mob tearing down the Babri Masjid mosque in Ayodhya, on the site which the nationalists claim to be the birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram. Thousands died in the subsequent communal uproar.

That event was traumatic for India's self-image as a country committed to secularism, and called into question for the first time the Nehruvian consensus about, in Mr Vajpayee's own words, "the dynamic unity that underlies India's diversity". But it also translated into a surge of mass Hindu support for the BJP, which by 1996 had carried the party for the first time into government.

Mr Vajpayee and Mr Advani, Mr Advani and Mr Vajpayee: it was a matchless double act. While Mr Advani provided the fuel for the surge to power, the base of mass support, it was Mr Vajpayee who made the party acceptable both to its coalition partners and to the Indian media: likeable, liberal, funny Atalji, the man with a liking for whisky and women, who lived in a curious but stable ménage á trois with his lifelong lover and her husband; the man who with his vivid, dreamy rhetoric had a genius for being all things to all men.

Electorally it held together. In every other way, however, it has been a fiasco. As soon as the BJP came to power in 1998 they carried out their longstanding promise to stage nuclear tests. It was a huge popular success, but as a way to make India stronger and more secure it has been massively counterproductive.

Its main consequence was to force Pakistan to go down the same road, carrying out tests of its own, and enabling it to adopt for the first time the overt posture of nuclear deterrence that has terrified the world this week. Now Pakistan could attack India, reasonably secure in the knowledge that India could not take the fight on to Pakistani soil for fear of provoking a nuclear attack. Lo and behold: within little more than a year of the BJP taking power, India found itself struggling to fend off a determined Pakistani intrusion at Kargil in Kashmir. It was the first Indo- Pakistani war for 28 years.

The pogroms at Gujarat in March this year stunned many Indians, as the bestial face of the BJP's friends was revealed for the first time, and for once the wine of Mr Vajpayee's rhetoric ran dry. Finally this week we have the menace of total war – with Mr Vajpayee, bitterly miscast as warmonger in chief. "The masks have dropped away," he wrote in one poem. "The spell has broken, I face the terror of truth..." But he has no one to blame but himself.

Life story

Born: Atal Bihari Vajpayee, 25 December 1924, Gwalior, India.

Family: Unmarried. Son of Shri Krishna Bihari Vajpayee and Krishna Devi.

Education: Victoria (now Laxmibai) Collage, Gwalior, and DAV College, Kanpur. MA (Political Science).

Political career: Member of the Indian National Congress 1942-46; Member of Parliament 1957-62, 1967-84, and 1991 onwards. Founder member of Bharatiya Jana Sangh (BJS) 1951, and parliamentary leader 1957-77. Founder member of Janata Party, which merged with BJS in 1977. Parliamentary leader and president of BJP, which was formed in 1980 after Janata Party collapsed. Minister for Foreign Affairs 1977-79 and 1998; Leader of the Opposition 1993-98; Prime Minister of India 15-28 May 1996, 1998 onwards.

Jailed: By the British in 1942 and by Indira Gandhi in 1975-77.

Hobbies Reading, writing, travelling, cooking.

Books: Lok sabha mein atalji (a collection of speeches); Mrityu ya hatya, Amar balidan, Kaidi kavirai ki kundalian (a collection of poems written in jail during the 1975-77 emergency); New dimensions of India's foreign policy; Jana sangh aur musalman; Three decades in parliament (speeches in three volumes); Amar aag hai (a collection of poems).

He says: "I have a vision of India; an India free of hunger and fear, an India free of illiteracy and want."

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