The culmination of the Ayodhya movement was a moment of glory for Advani. It seemed that he was now in an unassailable position and that the sidelined Atal had totally lost out. Many in the saffron party believed that it was a matter of time before the Narasimha Rao government fell and a government headed by Advani took office.
However, politics is unpredictable. So, surprisingly, the BJP was soon in a downslide. The first jolt that the party got was in UP a few months later when fresh assembly elections were held there, after the BJP government was dismissed in the aftermath of the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the assembly dissolved. The party, with 177 seats, had 44 seats less than its tally of 221 (in a House of 425) in the previous election in 1991. There was, however, a 2 per cent increase in the vote share from 31 per cent to 33 per cent.
Political analysts perceived this is as evidence of a marginal increase in the support base of the party, but the lower number of seats meant that other parties had ganged together against the BJP. That is why even after recording a higher percentage of votes, the party got less seats. The major gainer of the election was the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), a party advocating the dalit cause. Since the BJP under Advani had sought to include dalits in the Hindu cause of the temple, this implied that even if they had been swayed by the Ram Janmabhoomi issue, when it came to voting they had stood behind the BSP. Also, it was obvious that the ganging up of various parties, implicitly so, had happened because many no longer trusted the BJP and Advani after Ayodhya - more so as the demolition of the Babri Masjid brought in its wake bloody riots leading to nearly a thousand deaths in Mumbai, Surat, Bhopal and many other places. The Mumbai RDX bombings in March 1993, in reaction to Ayodhya, that led to the deaths of over three hundred people, also led to a fall in the BJP's equity, both nationally and internationally.
The party was now perceived as an outfit of rabble rousers and fire-breathing hardliners. What strengthened this image was the assertion made by elements in the Sangh Parivar that after the reclamation of the Ram Janmabhoomi they would now 'liberate' Kashi where a mosque stood next to the Vishwanath temple. The mosque had been constructed by Aurangzeb after destroying the temple. But two centuries later, the temple had been reconstructed, leaving the mosque intact. Now the hardline elements wanted to destroy the mosque and expand the temple. Additionally, they also wanted to reclaim the Krishna Janmabhoomi in Mathura.
In such circumstances, no other party was willing to do business with the BJP. This dealt a blow to the leadership of Advani (because he was seen as the patron of the extreme elements in the party), and this meant, conversely, that Atal, as the moderate face of the party, was more acceptable than him.
But what made Advani's continuance untenable was something else - the hawala scandal and the Jain diaries. It was alleged that many top Indian politicians, including L.K. Advani, had been paid bribes by businessmen in the period between 1987 and 1991. As proof of this, the diary of a businessman, S.K. Jain, was produced by law enforcement agencies. The politicians were from various parties. Following a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) investigated the case and chargesheeted many politicians, including L.K. Advani. Even before he could be chargesheeted, Advani, reading the writing on the wall, passed on the baton to Atal. He also vowed not to contest elections before he was absolved of the charges. The transfer of leadership took place at the party's annual meeting in 1995 in Mumbai. Without telling anyone or consulting the RSS, Advani stood up and told the audience that the BJP's prime ministerial candidate for the next general elections, slated in 1996, would be Atal Bihari Vajpayee. There was momentary silence in the hall before the audience broke into applause. Slogans of 'Agli baari Atal Bihari' rent the air.
'Advaniji realized that it was not possible for him to continue and without any prompting passed on the mantle of leadership to Atalji', says Jagdish Shettigar, who was the convener of the economic cell of the party and a national executive member then. Shettigar adds, 'Advaniji understood that other parties would do business with the BJP only if it was headed by Atalji. And the BJP's support base was not broad or deep enough to propel it to power on its own.' Thus, the Ayodhya movement (although it had resulted in the sidelining of Atal) ultimately worked to his advantage and brought him back centrestage.
In 1997, however, Advani was absolved of all allegations in the hawala scandal by the Delhi High Court. On 22 December 2014, nearly two decades later, television channel CNN IBN asked Advani why he had ceded position to Atal and announced him as the prime ministerial candidate in 1995. Advani said that Atal was the 'natural choice' and therefore his naming of Vajpayee could not be taken as an instance of his ceding ground. Advani said that Atal was his role model and guide all through their decades-old association. However, when asked how the two worked together in the period when Advani became important in the party in the late 1980s, he was evasive. He answered that the two worked together well and digressed, saying that Atal was well known for his culinary skills and made good khichdi! Clearly, there was some tension between the two, but party insiders say that Atal never passed any comments against Advani during this period, except once disapproving of Advani being weighed against blood donated. Another time, pointing to the rath yatris, he is said to have commented, 'Dekho dekho, there goes Advaniji's vanarsena.' A party insider says, 'Atalji was dignified and took everything in his stride.'
Many think that the hawala case against Advani was a stratagem by the Narasimha Rao regime to keep him away from centrestage. Narasimha Rao was perceived to be a soft Hindu and his associates felt that he apprehended that he could be upstaged by Advani. Hence, the hawala case was instituted. Rao had good relations with Atal and any day preferred him over Advani, say those in the know of things. However, there is no real evidence to suggest that the case was deliberately instituted by the Rao regime. Moreover, following a public interest litigation that had been filed, the Supreme Court had handed over the case to the CBI and was monitoring it. Thus, the apex court had more to do with the case than the government. However, the Rao government did put indirect pressure on the BJP and Advani when, in 1994, the then home minister S.B. Chavan sought to amend the Constitution to delink politics from religion and bring in a change in the Representation of People's Act to derecognize parties that did not conform to the basic tenets of secularism. This move was a thinly disguised attempt to put the BJP on the backfoot.
In the late 1980s and very early 1990s, Atal appeared morose to many who knew him reasonably well. But as the party grew, his optimism also returned. As the BJP's political stock grew, many important persons in the country, who were fed up with the Congress raj, began to flock to the party and its offices. Atal used to be a regular fixture at the BJP headquarters at 11, Ashok Road in New Delhi those days, and was busy meeting people. Many important people sought to meet Atal whom they were more comfortable with than Advani. At this time, the leader of the BJP parliamentary party was, however, Advani.
'Every morning top leaders of the party would meet together for informal discussions in the BJP office. Views would be exchanged on a wide range of matters,' says Shettigar.
One of the important persons with whom Atal would confabulate those days was Brajesh Mishra, who would later become his principal secretary and national security advisor. Even then party insiders knew that Atal was taking rigorous briefing on foreign affairs from Mishra. Many who joined the party in the early 1990s, found Atal open and welcoming. 'He was ready to listen to us and sought our point of view. He encouraged us to talk. I found him very endearing,' says a former civil servant who joined the party in 1991.
Some insiders think that Atal also gained because Murli Manohar Joshi was asserting himself as a leader as he had been the president of the party for two years. 'This meant that Advani had to contend with not only Atal but also Murli Manohar Joshi. The latter was also a hardliner, so his presence tended to challenge in some ways the leadership of Advani. The result was that it was advantageous for Atal.'
A lot of water has passed through the Ganga and Yamuna in the last twenty years and the country's politics has changed. But in the mid-1990s only a moderate leader like Atal was acceptable to the masses.
'If a moderate Atal were to be challenged by the hardcore Advani in contemporary times, the situation would have been different. The country has now moved into an era of intense right-wing politics which was not the case then,' says a party insider, who would rather not be identified.
Jyotirmaya Sharma, a Hindutva expert, is of a different opinion. He says it is all about occupying the 'middle ground' in politics. He avers that Atal understood that to be successful in politics in India one has to be on the 'middle ground'. This, according to Sharma, means that even if one has an extreme view on some subject, one can articulate it but not push it to the extremes. Atal knew this but Advani wore his heart on his sleeve and, at least in the mid-1990s, did not know how to retract himself from his position, says. Thus, Atal may have been interested in the Ram temple but was not seen as intractable, unlike Advani, says Sharma.
As election time came closer, it seemed clearer that Narasimha Rao would not be able to make the cut a second time. The Rao government had been surrounded by controversies from the beginning. There was the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) scandal, wherein some MPs from the party had been bribed in exchange for their support to the minority government on the floor of the House in 1991. Then Harshad Mehta, the prime accused in the stock exchange scam of 1992, claimed that he had been to Narasimha Rao's house along with an industrialist and had personally paid `1 crore in cash. This payment was a donation to the Congress party but was naturally seen as quid-pro-quo for letting him off the hook. Numerous other scandals like the fertilizer scam and the sugar scam tainted the Narasimha Rao government. All this dented its image.
The main achievement of the regime was to initiate the process of liberalization in the economy and pull it out of a morass, by freeing industry from licensing and other controls. When Narasimha Rao took over, the foreign exchange position was so fragile that the country had to pawn its gold reserves (lying in the vaults of the Reserve Bank of India [RBI]) to borrow from abroad. The initial efforts at reforms had been lauded by all. In fact, Atal and his party claimed in private that the agenda pursued by the Rao government was actually the programme set out by the BJP. However, faced with opposition from powerful lobbies, the process of reforms was halted in 1995, allowing Atal and his party to criticize the government that was already groaning under the burden of anti-incumbency.
By the time campaigning for the 1996 election began, Atal was sure that the BJP would come to power. Journalist Bharti Sinha says, 'I accompanied him as a journalist during his campaign. He got solid applause and crowd response wherever he went out to campaign,' Sinha, whose father was a Communist Party of India (CPI) MP says that even in her father's area in Bihar, that was in those days a communist stronghold, Atal got a huge response. 'This was quite apparent,' she says. Sinha also adds that Atal himself seemed quite confident, 'He turned to me at one point and said that, "looking from crowd response, it seems that main pradhan mantri baan hi jaoonga".'
Veteran political analysts recall that the 1996 elections were the first where the effects of the expenditure limits set by the Election Commission and its ban on loudspeakers began to be seen. In this lacklustre election, the BJP took a leaf out of the Congress's book and started projecting Atal Bihari Vajpayee as prime minister in waiting. In the past, the Congress had woven its election campaign around the persona of a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. For the first time, the Congress candidate - Narasimha Rao - was not from the Nehru-Gandhi family. BJP strategists very smartly projected the electoral battle as an Atal versus Rao fight, instead of a BJP versus Congress one. 'Ek ek kar ke sabki baari, ab ki baari Atal Bihari,' was the slogan raised by BJP cadres.
Since Rao was perceived as a weak leader and his government had been rocked by corruption, the strategy seemed to work. The previous two elections of 1989 and 1991 had seen the party aggressively pursuing the Ram temple agenda. This time the BJP put it on the backburner except in UP, where it promised that the temple would soon be built. The party also campaigned on the slogan of 'Parivartan ke ore [Towards change]' and bombarded voters with posters, pamphlets, banners and Atal badges. Films and advertisements were also released. Atal himself sought re-election from his Lucknow constituency. Since he was missing from his constituency (because he had to canvass all across the country), a sculptor was commissioned to prepare Atal's bust. This was paraded across the constituency so that the voters could at least see his bust if not the real him. BJP strategists felt that this was essential because his rival, cine star Raj Babbar, was campaigning vigorously across the length and breadth of the constituency. In the end, not surprisingly, Atal won the elections convincingly; polling about 4,00,000, or 52 per cent, of the votes. Raj Babbar, who contested on a Samajwadi Party ticket, secured about 3,00,000, or 36 per cent, of the votes cast. Amazingly, there were fifty-eight candidates in the fray. The candidate who came last polled a mere forty-one votes. However, the voting percentage in the constituency was pretty low at 51 per cent. It was surprising that even the presence of a prime ministerial candidate had not motivated the voters to turn out in larger numbers.
The BJP came out tops in the election, winning 161 seats. This was more than the 140 seats secured by the Congress. Strangely, however, it polled a lower percentage of votes (at 20 per cent) than the Congress (which polled 28 per cent of the votes). This meant that the Congress vote base was spread wider and that of the BJP was more concentrated, which allowed it to secure more seats with a lower percentage of votes. President Shankar Dayal Sharma called upon the leader of the BJP, that is Atal, to form the government. This was even though the party had won far less than the 272 halfway mark in the House of 543 MPs. Atal accepted the offer from the president and became the first BJP prime minister of the country on 16 May 1996.
However, at the end of thirteen days, Atal realized that he could not cobble together a majority, what with the left and the Congress joining forces to keep the BJP out of power. Only the Shiv Sena, Akali Dal and Samata Party had agreed to go with the BJP. Atal announced on the floor of the Lok Sabha that he would resign, and in a speech that was telecast nationally on Doordarshan, he made a strong plea. This was the first time that a political speech was being telecast on television to an audience across the country, which sat riveted before the television. Atal, in his poignant speech, harped on the politics of negativism and reactionary politics: 'That is politics to stop us at any cost by making untouchables of us - this is not healthy politics.'
He also argued that 'I have been accused that I am craving for power and my acts are as a result of my craving for power. If people have given my party the highest number of seats, should I shy away from staking a claim for power? Should I run away from the battlefield to betray the confidence reposed by the people in making us the single largest party?'
Atal also answered the charge that his party should not have tried to form the government since the BJP got only a minority of votes. He pointed out that the first-past-the-post Westminster system that was followed in the country counted only the seats that a party won and not the percentage of votes polled. By implication, the BJP could not be blamed for jumping in to try and form a government.
That day the BJP stood isolated and failed to hold on to the government, but Atal's powerful speech did not fail to stir a large number of people who watched him speak emotionally. This certainly had a positive impact on the prospects of the party in future polls, which was visible two years from then. For the record, Atal's thirteen-day government was succeeded by a broad left-of-centre alliance, led by the then Karnataka chief minister H.D. Deve Gowda, which took office in June 1996. The government lasted till the third week of April 1997 with tension between the coalition partners and the Congress, on whose support the government depended, pulling it down. Two days later, I.K. Gujral, who had, many years ago, been a close associate of Indira Gandhi's, came at the head of the same alliance. The government led by Gujral lasted a few months before falling.
There were fresh elections in March 1998 and the BJP again emerged as the party with the most number of MPs. It won 182 seats and polled 25 per cent of the votes cast, increasing both its tally of seats as well as votes polled. Atal himself had again contested from Lucknow and won by a massive majority, polling 57 per cent of the votes. In the contest involving fourteen candidates, at second place was Muzaffar Ali of the Samajwadi Party.
This time many other parties were willing to do business with the BJP. Besides its old allies, the TDP of Andhra Pradesh, the AIADMK of Tamil Nadu, and the Biju Janata Dal of Odisha joined the National Democratic Alliance government. The combination was basically an anti-Congress front because all the parties that joined were regional parties that had the Congress as their main opposition in their states. Thus, Atal Bihari Vajpayee again became the prime minister on 19 March 1998 with a thin majority. This government was to last for thirteen months.
The government this time fell after the AIADMK withdrew its support. AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaa had a whole range of demands that the Atal government was unable to fulfil. Among these was the dismissal of the DMK government that ruled Tamil Nadu. Jayalalithaa had been arraigned in a major corruption case and desperately wanted the state government out. She had supported the Atal government for this unstated reason.
After the AIADMK withdrew support, Atal and his allies made a herculean effort to rescue the government but, in a match down to the wire, it lost the no confidence motion in the Lok Sabha by just a single vote. On 17 April 1999, the government got 269 votes in its favour while 270 votes went against. On the morning of that day, Atal spoke to BSP chief Mayawati, who promised to support the government. However, when Mayawati stood up to address the Lok Sabha, she announced that her party would vote against the government. Saifuddin Soz of the National Conference defied his party bosses and went against the government, and Congressman Giridhar Gamang, who had not resigned his membership of the Lok Sabha in spite of being the chief minister of Odisha for the last few months, voted against the government.
Atal was heartbroken after the government fell and the scene was described by his advisor Sudheendra Kulkarni. Writing in the India Today thirty-fifth anniversary issue, in November 2011, Kulkarni disclosed, 'I remember how heartbroken Atalji was that day. After the vote, he emerged out of the Lok Sabha and walked ever so slowly to his office in room number ten of the Parliament House. As soon as he entered the room which was already filled with his senior colleagues, he broke down. "Hum keval ek vote se haare, keval ek vote," he said, tears running down his face.' 'He felt betrayed, not only in 1998 but also in 1996 after his government fell. In view of his wide contacts across the political spectrum, Atal had felt that he would get support,' says senior journalist Kumar Ketkar. 'I had never seen Mr Vajpayee so dejected ever before. It was that [sic] he was sure he would continue to be
the prime minister but had failed to [sic].'
Excerpted from Atal Bihari Vajpayee: A Man For All Seasons by Kingshuk Nag with permission from Rupa Publications India. Order your copy here.