As India goes through crucial national elections, questions have risen from various quarters as to what it may mean for the country, not least because the incumbent prime minister, Narendra Modi, is expected to return to office. Because the BJP is now nearly synonymous with Modi, many observers who are not well versed in India’s modern history would hardly be faulted for believing that the party can never be decoupled from brand Modi.

The difference

However, The Saffron Storm: From Vajpayee to Modi by journalist Saba Naqvi – recently republished in an updated edition – which traces the staggering rise of the BJP from the country’s political margins, tells us otherwise. Naqvi weaves her narration through the years between former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Modi, hammering home a clear picture of two contrasting personalities.

For those who don’t have a memory of the Vajpayee days, and associate BJP solely with the persona of Modi and his authoritarian impulses, the book has many surprises to offer. Consider this: In the run-up to the 1998 elections that gave the BJP its first major electoral victory at the Centre, Vajpayee projected himself as a defender of India’s federalism and promised to end the misuse of Article 356, the very Article that the Modi government invoked in 2018 in the run-up to dismembering Jammu and Kashmir as a state.

Vajpayee kept the RSS at an arm’s length (the Sangh parivar’s objections notwithstanding, Vajpayee continued to keep Jaswant Singh in his inner circle), and emphasised the legacy of Jayprakash Narayan, a socialist leader who galvanised a fierce political campaign against Indira Gandhi after she declared a state of Emergency.

Naqvi recalls an episode when Vajpayee strictly instructed the BJP party cadre not to shout Jai Shri Ram slogans at BJP’s first India Muslim Youth Conference in 1997. Instead, BJP leaders recited Urdu couplets and lavished praise on the Muslim icons of India. That’s not all. In his second term as PM, Vajpayee recruited PTI journalist Ashok Tandon as his media advisor, as a result of which there was unprecedented accessibility to PMO for journalists of all persuasions – something that is impossible in today’s India.

Elsewhere in the book though, Naqvi admits how Outlook magazine was barred from escorting PM on his foreign trips because of a critical story about PMO approving a few decisions that benefitted certain business houses. “From the very outset, the calibration of ideology was a significant feature of BJP’s rise,” Naqvi writes. “Since the Vajpayee era was fundamentally about coalitions, this ‘moderation’ bit was carefully nuanced.”

Recalling an anecdote that appears to show how polarisation in media wasn’t as extreme as it is today, Naqvi describes her meeting a VHP leader who gave her cow urine churan (digestive) for “better digestion and fair complexion.” Upon returning to office, she dropped the packet at the table of a colleague who is a prominent pro-Modi voice today. “For you,” she told him jokingly, “since this is your ideology.”

It was ultimately the Kargil war that swung the pendulum of public opinion in Vajpayee’s favour. The restraint that he observed won India global adulation, resulting in a “moral victory” for India. The Kargil episode came on the heels of India’s first presidential-style elections that were centred around two personalities: Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi.

It is here that Modi, then playing the role of an interlocutor between RSS and BJP, emerged prominently on the political scene, spewing tirade against Gandhi over her foreign origins – a point that, Naqvi mentions, was given to BJP by Sharad Pawar, a former congressman.

Eventually, with a score of 306 seats, the NDA was safely in office for a full term. However, four years into his third term as PM, Vajpayee grew increasingly unwell, triggering speculation about whether or not he was fit for the office. His deputy LK Advani appeared poised to take over from him. But the succession was forestalled as Advani’s candidature, who spearheaded the movement for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, reinvigorating Hindu nationalism, elicited protests from the NDA’s secular allies, such as the TDP’s Chandrababu Naidu.

Rumblings of incipient Hindutva

Naqvi’s book shows us that Hindu nationalist tendencies, latent till then, did erupt later and were presaged by episodes like Vajpayee’s tiff with KN Govindacharya, an RSS functionary who was pushing the government to enact protectionist economic policies, but ended up sidelined. This standoff between the Sangh parivar and the BJP was intensified further after Vajpayee’s Principal Secretary in the PMO, Brajesh Mishra, was alleged to have described RSS as “irrelevant”, triggering protests from the rightwing group that began pressing for Mishra’s dismissal.

Vajpayee resisted this pressure, but did attempt to mollify the RSS by reiterating a popular Hindutva demand, even if it was out of keeping with his political persona – that the Ram temple should be built on the disputed site in Ayodhya, while a mosque could come up elsewhere.

These developments were a prelude to Modi’s ascent in Gujarat, where the RSS decided to endorse Modi as the chief ministerial face, recounts Naqvi. It was part of their social engineering programme, wherein they pushed OBC leaders like Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti to forget caste differences and unite Hindus .

The subsequent riots in Gujarat in 2002, however, led Vajpayee to censure Modi. Naqvi gives a detailed account of how James Michael Lyngdoh, who was then the Election Commissioner of India, challenged the Gujarat government’s claims of normalcy in the aftermath of the violence and delayed the snap elections that Modi wanted to hold. In 2024, the idea of institutions imposing accountability of this kind seems a distant one sometimes.

Even as the BJP’s electoral performance dropped in the 2004 national elections, it was accompanied by the simultaneous rise of Modi as a leader with mass appeal. While Congress-led UPA was rocked by one financial scandal after another in the late 2000s, Modi carefully cultivated the aura of a business-friendly leader who could deliver.

The Saffron Storm is extremely rich in its details. More importantly, the book drives home an understanding of why coalition governments tend to work better, as variegated political beliefs exert a moderating influence on those at the helm. It is a model that has been forgotten in the current desire for single-party political denomination.

Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar. He was previously a correspondent with The Times of India.

The Saffron Storm: From Vajpayee to Modi, Saba Naqvi, Penguin India.