Those who have known Atal for years say that for him the RSS was his alma mater where he had learnt the lessons of life and which had made a man of him. He once wrote, “[the] Sangh is my soul”. But as a practical man, he was not ready to be dictated to by the Sangh on every move that he made and every step that he took.

What made him successfully resist the pressure from the RSS was the fact that he was head and shoulders above all those who could challenge him in the BJP and the Jana Sangh before that. Moreover, there was nobody in the RSS who could be seconded to the party to challenge him.

A case in point is Nanaji Deshmukh, an RSS man who built the Jana Sangh through his assiduous efforts in UP. Largely responsible for the elevation of Atal as the president of the Jana Sangh, for a few years thereafter Nanaji closely assisted him in gaining ground in the party.

However, the two drifted apart and in the end Nanaji quit the party altogether and settled to a life of rural development in Chitrakoot, on the border of UP and Madhya Pradesh. Nanaji, an extremely capable organisation man, realized that there was no way that he could handle Atal, even though the latter had won the first Lok Sabha polls in Balrampur only because of the work done on the ground by him.

After the Gujarat riots of 2002, however, Atal seems to have lost out to the RSS.

The organisation gained ascendancy with the help of hardliners in the party as also the Sangh Parivar. The first indication of this came on 4 April 2002, when Atal visited Gujarat after the bloody riots in which one thousand people lost their lives. The riots had followed the burning of the compartment of a train that was bringing back kar sevaks from Ayodhya. The incident had happened on 27 February 2002.

At a press conference Atal, with the Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi by his side, said that the government’s job was to practise rajadharma and kings and rulers cannot discriminate between people on the basis of birth, caste and religion. Unexpectedly, in what was seen as a snub, Modi said, “Wohi toh nibha rahein hain [That’s what we are doing].” The audience was shocked and Atal kept quiet.

Atal, disquieted with the way the Gujarat riots had been handled, decided to get rid of Modi at the national executive of the party scheduled a week later at Goa. As per the plan, in a face-saver for Modi, he would submit his resignation at Goa and would be allowed to quit.

On the flight to Goa, tremendous pressure was exerted on Atal by Advani to not accept Modi’s resignation. Somehow word about the proposal for Modi to resign had leaked out. Young and mid-level leaders of the party started raising slogans, “Istifa mat do, istifa mat do [Don’t quit, don’t quit],” the moment Modi stood up to resign. In fact, a resolution was passed that Modi and his government had done their best while facing the challenge during the riots. Thus Atal was stymied. Modi, as is widely known, was a core RSS man who had become the chief minister of a state without being a legislator or an MP.

Two months later, in July 2002, Advani was elevated as deputy prime minister. Though Advani’s well-wishers had been lobbying in party circles, from the very beginning in 1999, for him to become deputy prime minister, Atal had resisted.

In fact, Atal had propped up a wall of moderate leaders around him. These included Jaswant Singh and Brajesh Mishra, who besides being Atal’s principal secretary was also the national security advisor. George Fernandes, a minister but not from the BJP, had been given an important position and Atal also took the support of Nitish Kumar and the Andhra Pradesh chief minister, Chandrababu Naidu, to keep the RSS lobby at bay.

He had also ensured low-key presidents for the BJP, many of whom like Bangaru Laxman, who had served the Atal government as a minister of state, had no independent standing. Others like Jana Krishnamurthi and Venkaiah Naidu came from states (Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh respectively) where the BJP had little support among the electorate.

Atal took the line that these leaders were being installed so that they could make a difference in the vote base in their states. However, this was a thinly veiled tactic to place weak leaders, who could not even get elected from their own states much less challenge Atal, at the top.

In October 2002, a few months after Atal had made a failed bid to make Modi resign, the RSS demanded a high-level meeting with government representatives and the BJP. This was to review the working of the government and decide on a mid-term course correction.

As per newspaper reports of that time, the three major areas where correction was sought were economic policies, which the RSS considered too liberal and anti-Swadeshi; Pakistan, where it said that the government had not been able to counter the moves of that country; and the Ram temple issue. Atal, Advani and Venkaiah Naidu, the BJP president, met a team consisting of the RSS boss KS Sudarshan, joint general secretary HV Seshadri and Madan Das Devi. Although the talks were inconclusive, more importantly, the RSS had got Atal to the discussion table officially, and this is what mattered.

On the Ram temple issue, the RSS launched a new offensive for building the temple directly as well as through its affiliate, the VHP, from the beginning of 2003. VHP general secretary Giriraj Kishore openly called Atal a “pseudo Hindu” who was not assisting in the Ram temple issue, while the VHP supremo Ashok Singhal declared that Atal was inebriated with power and that he should resign if he could not bring in legislation for the construction of the Ram temple. At the beginning of 2004, Mohan Bhagwat, an important functionary of the RSS, said that it was now time that the temple agenda was taken up once again in right earnest.

Atal, however, continued till the end of his term; but insiders say that he believed that on the basis of his stellar economic performance that had led to “India Shining”, he would have won.

He perceived the Gujarat riots and his failure to rein in Modi as being responsible for the BJP losing the 2004 elections. Nonetheless, looking at Atal’s career, it can safely be asserted that for most of his political life he was able to negotiate with the RSS quite ably, failing only during the last period of his tenure as prime minister.

Excerpted with permission from Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Man From All Seasons, Kingshuk Nag, Rupa Publications India. This article was first published on December 25, 2015.