Former Prime Minister VP Singh once told this writer that Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Jaswant Singh, had come to him sometime in the 1990s with a proposal to form a new political party. Such an entity should consist of elements from the BJP, the Congress, and the socialists, and position itself as a centrist formation, they said to him.

Singh said he rejected their proposal because he was not absolutely certain of their motives.

This anecdote illustrates the problems inherent to analysing the life of Vajpayee, who passed away on August 16. On the one hand, it reinforces what pundits loved to think of Vajpayee – that he was a right man in a wrong party. Yet it also bears out those who claimed his liberalism was just a veneer to conceal his abiding faith in Hindutva.

Vajpayee joined the RSS as a 20-year-old and became a pracharak or full-time propagandist soon thereafter. Yet the image of being a liberal stuck to him because of his lifestyle. Unlike most RSS pracharaks, he loved his chicken and prawns and relished his sundowners. He was not abrasive; he could be critical without ceasing to be civil. In his later years, he became an avuncular figure.

Amiability and fondness for life do not liberal politics make. Until Vajpayee began to reinvent a new persona for himself sometime in the 1980s, there was little confusion over who he was: an unalloyed Hindutva leader.

For instance, five days after the government decided to lift the ban on the RSS on July 15, 1949, which had been imposed on it in the wake of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, Vajpayee delivered a feverish speech in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh. He criticised the “government and Congressmen for having allegedly blundered in banning the RSS, the only organisation which could really do something for Hindus,” Akshaya Mukul writes in Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India.

Those were the days India had just about started to recover from the horrific Partition violence. But it was not Partition which had turned Vajpayee to his Hindu identity. Years before, as a schoolboy, Vajpayee had penned a poem which read, “Hindu tan man, Hindu Jeevan, rag, rag mera Hindu parichay (I am Hindu in heart and body, my life is Hindu, Hindu is my only identity.)”

It won him fame beyond what the young Vajpayee had imagined. The lyrics “inspired many generations of RSS volunteers and continues to be sung at RSS shakhas,” wrote the journalist Vidya Subrahmaniam in 2009 in The Hindu.

‘Brute power’

Yet it might be said that even young Vajpayee had an instinctive sense of the dark side of Hindutva. For instance, at an RSS camp in Wardha in the 1950s, Vajpayee asked then sarsanghchalak MS Golwalkar,

“The nature of power is such that the moment it gets centralised it generally turns into brute power; what is the guarantee that your theory of intense power culled from ancient Indian philosophy and religion will not become brutal?”

To Vajpayee’s question, Golwalkar replied, “Any power that is fundamentally spiritual will never become pashvik (brute power).”

We do not know what Vajpayee thought of Golwalkar’s answer. But the late Outlook editor Vinod Mehta and the magazine’s proprietors got a taste of the brute power of the Prime Minister’s Office during the years Vajpayee was its head. For featuring “Rigging the PMO”, a story on how the Prime Minister’s Office was favouring big mega corporates, the business and residential establishments of Outlook’s proprietors were raided countrywide. They were harassed for months until they sued for peace.

By then, Vajpayee had already been depicted as a liberal misfit in the Sangh Parivar. He was no longer remembered as the man who was present at the site where lakhs had assembled on Nov 7, 1966 to demand a ban on the cow-slaughter. Provocative speeches instigated the assembled throng to resort to violence. For a few hours, it even seemed Parliament would come under attack.

It was certainly a show the Hindu Right had scripted. Vajpayee did indeed try to pacify the mob, but it was neither liberal nor astute of him to have graced the occasion.

Nor did the media recall the speech Vajpayee delivered in the Lok Sabha on May 14, 1970. Taking part in a debate on the communal riots of Ahmedabad and Bhiwandi, Vajpayee said

“Whatever the reason, our Muslim brethren are getting more and more communal, and as a reaction Hindus are getting more and more aggressive. Nobody made the Hindus aggressive. If you want to give the credit for this to us, we are willing to take it. But Hindus will no more take a beating in this country. Hindus will not start, Hindus will not initiate. If you promote Muslim communalism, the other feeling will run high. Communalism is like a double-edged sword, it acts both ways...I agree, the feeling of the revenge is not good. We cannot allow any individual to take the law in his hands. But will this rule apply only to Hindus? Will it not apply to Muslims?”

His speech, wrote the author AG Noorani in Frontline in 2004, “invited a tongue-lashing from Indira Gandhi.”

The above was once again quoted by Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Somnath Chatterjee, while taking part in an April 30, 2002 discussion in Lok Sabha over the violence against minorities in Gujarat.

‘Moderate’ or ‘hardliner’?

Vajpayee’s identity as a Hindutva leader underwent a gradual change during the 1970s and 1980s. It was largely because the Jana Sangh, the earlier avatar of the BJP, joined the movement against Emergency that Indira Gandhi had imposed. It merged with the Janata Party and then split from it.

The Jana Sangh was reborn as BJP, and Vajpayee as a moderate, different in sensibilities from those who had emerged from the RSS nursery.

But the hardliner in him did surface occasionally. The nation was made aware of it during the debate on a confidence motion that the 13-day Vajpayee government had moved in 1996. The Communist Party of India leader Indrajit Gupta quoted from the speech Vajpayee had made during the 1983 election campaign in Assam, soon after the Nellie massacre, where Vajpayee was reported to have said,

“Foreigners have come here; and the government does nothing. What if they had come into Punjab instead, people would have chopped them into pieces and thrown them away.”

Yet, to be fair to Vajpayee, he never claimed that his ideology was different from his party’s. In an interview to Frontline in November 1996, he said,

“Let me make it clear that all this is part of the Left’s Goebbelsian propaganda  – I am a moderate, the party is not; I am secular, the party is not.”

But let us be clear, it was not the Left, but the media, taking cue from the BJP’s spinmeisters, that loved to depict him as a moderate, a liberal, citing his lifestyle, his amiable nature, his humour, to prove its point.

There was a reason for it – India had been deeply divided over the Mandal-Mandir politics. It was thought Vajpayee could straddle the divide. For an upper caste-middle class dominated media, Vajpayee’s moderation and liberalism were beyond doubt.

Not even when Vajpayee would slip up. For instance, on his visit to the United States in 2000, he attended a function where there were over a 100 sadhus in attendance. One of them asked him a question when the temple in Ayodhya would be built. Vajpayee, quite cryptically, replied,

“If we [BJP] can do so well with a limited majority, when we have a two-thirds majority we will make an India of everyone’s dreams.”

It could well have been an ambiguous reply to keep Hindutva hardliners at bay. But to remove any doubt, he spelt it out. “Once a swayamsevak, always a swayamsevak.”

Yet, on December 6 of the same year, Vajpayee declared that the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya was an expression of national sentiment. A tide of criticism buffeted him. Three weeks later, he wrote, a newspaper piece while on his year-end retreat in Kerala: My musings from Kumarakom-I: Time to resolve the problems of the past. Referring to his remark of December 6, Vajpayee wrote,

“Overnight I was transformed by a section of the media and the political class from a “moderate” to a “hardliner”. “Vajpayee Unmasked,” they said, conveniently masking the fact that my long stint in public life is an open book.” 


It contradicted, in many ways, what he had said to Frontline in 1996. He did reiterate that he was Constitutionally-bound to adhere to the judicial verdict on Ayodhya.

‘Who started the fire?’

The Gujarat riots of 2002 prompted Vajpayee to speak about raj dharma, which the nation found reassuring. He is also said to have been inclined to removing then Chief Minister Narendra Modi from power.

Yet, two months later, at the national executive meeting of the BJP in Goa, on April 12, 2002, Vajpayee was back to playing the role of the hardliner.

“If the conspiracy to burn alive the innocent, helpless and blameless travellers on the Sabarmati Express had not been hatched, the Gujarat tragedy could have been averted.” 

To make sure his audience had decoded his message, Vajpayee added,

“The later incidents are condemnable, but who started the fire? How did the fire spread?” 

Vajpayee did not stop there. He said Muslims could not live in peace with their neighbours anywhere and went on to link the spread of Islam with the use of terror and threats. On being questioned in Parliament, he sought to put a gloss on his remarks in Goa by stating on the floor of the Lok Sabha on May 1, 2002 that he had spoken only about followers of ‘militant Islam’:

Wherever such Muslims live, they tend not to live in co-existence with others, not to mingle with others; instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats”.

When it emerged that in the video recording of the Goa speech, the word “such” or “aise” had not been used before the word “Muslims”and by this interpolation Vajpayee had sought to alter the meaning of the sentence, he faced the possibility of a privilege motion, which was dropped only after he gave a clarification that his reference was “only to followers of militant Islam”. He explained the misleading speech in Lok Sabha as a result of having read from a “corrected transcript”.


When the Babri Masjid was demolished on Dec 6, 1992, Vajpayee called it the saddest day of his life. Yet his sorrow is so difficult to square up with the video, taped by the Intelligence Agency, that the Outlook magazine featured in March 2005. It showed Vajpayee telling a gathering of kar sevaks on Dec 5, 1992 that there was no question of stopping the kar seva in Ayodhya, where the ground had to be levelled. Vajpayee explained it away as a speech made in lighter vein that was not intended to be provocative.

In October 1997, then BJP general secretary KN Govindacharya told three British diplomats that Vajpayee was not a power within the organisation. “He is only the mask for the party,” Govindacharya said, and then later claimed he had been misquoted, and that he had actually called Vajpayee the face of the party.

It is impossible to tell whether Vajpayee’s moderation, his much-touted liberalism, was a mask he wore for the party. Or he had indeed changed from his early days in the RSS. Perhaps he was a divided soul who swung between moderate and hardline positions, depending on his own political compulsions. But liberal he certainly wasn’t.