Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who kept a distance from the Ram temple movement and in private conversations objected to its agitational stance, became more acceptable as the leader who practised moderation within a party such as the BJP. It was therefore decided that the party would build a personality-oriented campaign around him in 1998-his long record as a parliamentarian stood him in good stead, besides friendships and respect that he had earned across the political spectrum.
Was Vajpayee really opposed to the Ram temple movement? I believe at some level there was a genuine revulsion, perhaps even aesthetic, in the way things were panning out around the mandir-masjid. I remember following him to Surat in Gujarat during the campaign trail. One day, even as he stepped out of his car, a volunteer who appeared to be in a state of frenzy, began shouting, 'Jai Shri Ram' (Hail, Shri Ram). I vividly recall Vajpayee turning around and snapping rather poetically, 'Bolte raho Jai Shri Ram; aur karo mat koi kaam!' (Keep shouting Jai Shri Ram; do little else)! It was one of those Vajpayee moments I shall always remember.
Around the same time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee granted me an interview, which was published in the magazine where I then worked, as part of one of the first cover stories I wrote on the BJP. We spoke about many things, but the major thrust of the interview was that he wished to separate the BJP from RSS. 'It is ridiculous to say that the BJP would be remote controlled by the RSS. The RSS has views of its own. The BJP has views of its own. And the BJP is adjusting to a more real situation.'
Another memory from the 1998 campaign is of the time when a reporter asked the BJP's prime minister-designate point-blank (which seems impossible to do these days) what if his party lost the elections. Unfazed, and with a twinkle in his eyes, Vajpayee had retorted, 'Then it will be agli bari, Atal Bihari' (The next time over, Atal Bihari Vajpayee; the campaign slogan in 1998 was, Abki bari Atal Bihari, this time around, it's Atal Bihari). It was this self-deprecating humour in Hindi that made the man stand out among conventional politicians.
Some years had passed since the demolition of the Babri masjid on 6 December, 1992. The hero of 1998 was Atal Bihari Vajpayee. On the day he filed his nomination for the Lok Sabha elections from Lucknow, he conducted himself like a typical 'pseudo secularist', a phrase that was put into regular usage by his close ally, L. K. Advani. Vajpayee tried, in a manner of speaking, to keep all the gods happy. He held a havan in the morning; then visited a Christian college where he released a version of the New Testament in the Awadhi dialect; and ended his day at an Iftar that was attended by several of the city's notables.
What could one make of this except to conclude that the party that had spearheaded the Ram temple agitation was in 1998 consciously trying to blunt the counter-polarisation. This was not about attracting new voter blocs that were traditionally hostile to them, but about getting new alliance partners and making it easier for regional parties to tie up with the BJP led by Vajpayee. The party was reaching out to an audience that had till now shunned saffron.
On 4 December 1997, the then President of India, K. R. Narayanan dissolved the 11th Lok Sabha. There was a certain irony in the fact that it coincided with the BJP holding its first all-India Muslim Youth Conference at a stadium in Delhi. Vajpayee couldn't resist cracking a joke even on that day-'People may suggest that we have an understanding with the President to dissolve the Lok Sabha on the day we have our first Muslim conference.
I remember being told by party cadre how they had instructions not to raise the 'Jai Shri Ram' slogan. Naturally, I attended the event and was quite amused to see silence on Ram, but leader after leader going up on stage and reciting Urdu couplets, showering praises on Muslim heroes, many I hadn't even ever heard of. L. K. Advani proceeded to give examples of India's composite culture: he spoke of Hindus visiting Sufi shrines, and Meo Muslims.
K. R. Malkani,veteran Jana Sangh leader, who at that time headed the Deendayal Research Institute, came up with two gems which I dutifully noted in my reporter's notebook - 'Ram-Rahim ek hain, Krishna-Kaaba ek hain,' (Ram and Rahim, as Krishna and Kaaba are one and the same), he said in the spirit of oneness. But the very next line had prompted Atalji to stare at Malkani, who said, 'No Muslim will oppose Atalji even if he stands from Islamabad.'
However, the news point for me that day was a significant statement by L. K. Advani who appealed to Muslims to give up their claim on the Babri masjid in Ayodhya, while assuring them that he would personally negotiate with the VHP to find a settlement to the Kashi and Mathura disputes.
Excerpted with permission of Westland from Saba Naqvi's book 'Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee to Modi'. Pre-order your copy here.