While researching my new biography of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one fact became quickly obvious: Vajpayee’s unshakeable commitment to Parliament. We can accuse India’s first BJP prime minister of many things, of lapses into communal politics, of compromising with Hindutva extremists, but we can never accuse him of neglecting Parliament or not abiding by its norms. He was the last link twenty-first-century India had to Parliament’s finest years – the 1950s and 1960s.
You could also argue that Vajpayee’s political career was made because of his prowess in Parliament. Vajpayee won his first Lok Sabha victory from Balrampur in 1957 at the age of thirty-three as a candidate for the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. He entered the Lok Sabha as an articulate young firebrand, his stature growing in leaps and bounds because of his sharp, witty, knowledgeable oratory.
He even won elections because of the publicity he garnered from these performances. He went on to win a record ten Lok Sabha victories, not as a representative from a pocket borough but from different constituencies ranging from Balrampur to Gwalior to New Delhi to Gandhinagar to Lucknow, winning from the last, Lucknow, five consecutive times.
Such a career would be impossible to replicate today because Parliament is so shrunken and marginalised.
Prime Minister Modi rarely attends it, nor does the Modi government allow the Opposition any space there. Yet without that platform, Vajpayee, the lifelong Opposition man, might never have succeeded in public life.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Parliament was a lofty place where the nation’s best debated a proud new democracy into existence. An array of speaking talents thundered in the House: Jawaharlal Nehru, Hiren Mukherjee, Bhupesh Gupta, Ram Manohar Lohia, Nath Pai, Minoo Masani – learned, pugnacious men who battled with each other through oratorical firepower. Fighting for space in this brilliant crowd was the young Vajpayee.
In a parliamentary democracy, it is only in the Houses that the Opposition can hold the government accountable. As leader of the tiny Jana Sangh, Vajpayee had to constantly assert his place. Sharpening his skills as an Opposition politician against a dominant Congress made him a supremely effective debater.
His first speech in 1957 made the House sit up because it was delivered in chaste, Sanskritic Hindi. During debates on communal riots, he huffed and puffed so argumentatively on the “positive secularism” of the Jana Sangh, and later, of the BJP, that his phrases and formulations became charters for his party.
Vajpayee’s talents in Parliament were so exceptional that he became indispensable to the Jana Sangh, the BJP, and to the RSS in general. So determined was Jana Sangh party boss Deendayal Upadhyaya not to lose his heavy artillery speeches in the House that he made Vajpayee contest from multiple seats in general elections.
It was this that gave Vajpayee his leverage with the RSS.
He hurled speech after high-voltage speech like veritable brahmastras. In 1957, he bellowed that Nehru’s foreign policy could be described as “neti-neti,” (not this, not that). In 1959, he delivered a stormy intervention on Tibet: “How can India remain silent, when before our eyes a nation...is being destroyed?”
In 1973, he tore into Indira Gandhi: “Can a two-thirds majority declare the Indian republic to be a monarchy? Can a two-thirds majority in Parliament declare Prime Minister Indira Gandhi as Maharani Indira Gandhi?”
And in 1996, when he resigned after his thirteen-day government fell, he delivered perhaps his best speech ever in Parliament, a master-class in theatrical melodrama: “Lord Ram has said: Na bhito marnadasami kevalam dashito yashaha. I don’t fear death, if I fear anything I fear a bad name.”
The Lok Sabha’s former Secretary General P.D.T Achary recalls that Vajpayee’s speeches were so mesmerising that MPs on both sides of the aisle fell silent when he began to speak. “Don’t always be in a hurry to jump into the well of the House,” Vajpayee once counselled his party colleagues. “Learn to debate and argue because democracy’s not just a numbers game.”
Vajpayee’s Parliament has disappeared.
There is an increasing disjunction, too, between electability and parliamentary performance. Media and social-media have become the politician’s preferred platforms. Sound bites, viral videos, tweets, YouTube videos and Facebook campaigns are short-circuiting speeches and debates in the two Houses.
All of these intensify the dominance of personality cults in politics. National and state elections are fought around the personality of the Supreme Leader so that most MPs and MLAs are reduced to faceless proxies coasting along in the backwash of a supremo-generated wave. Both the 2014 and 2019 elections were fought around the persona of Narendra Modi, for example.
But this is not just the case for the BJP. The Trinamool Congress MP Mahua Moitra is a highly impressive speaker in Parliament yet, she is, like most of her party, reliant on the Mamata Banerjee cult to win her seat in Bengal. Supreme Leaders don’t need to prove themselves in Parliament.
In Vajpayee’s time, laws were debated for days, not just hours. Those parliamentary debates are non-existent now. The Modi government has a penchant for steamrolling bills through Parliament, without allowing for even a semblance of any arguments as we saw with the nullification of Article 370, CAA Bill and Farm Laws.
Today less than ten percent of bills are sent to Standing Committees. The prime minister, as I have noted earlier, himself hardly attends Parliament. The Congress’s Rahul Gandhi does not have much time for it either. In the sixteenth Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi didn’t ask a single question during Question Hour.
Powerful politicians in India no longer like to be questioned in Parliament, and the more powerful a government, the more likely it is that it will ignore Parliament entirely. In the “electoral autocracy” that is today’s India, Vajpayee would have been at sea.
Would Vajpayee be the legend of spellbinding eloquence if he was restricted simply to the viral tweet or Facebook post?
No, he would not. Vajpayee’s BJP, unlike Modi’s, was an Opposition party, and it was Parliament that made the Vajpayee phenomenon possible by giving him a stage to perform. It was parliamentary democracy that allowed space for Nehru’s worthiest opponents to emerge, flourish and become stars.
Today we see a tragically withered, weak Parliament, trapped in disruption and deadlock. Yet, in the seventy-fifth year of Independence, the story of Atal Bihari Vajpayee is a reminder that India once had a Parliament where the Indian republic did truly keep its tryst with destiny.
Sagarika Ghose is the author of the former prime minister’s biography, Atal Bihari Vajpayee.