Assessing Vajpayee: Hindutva True and False
First published in The Sunday Statesman, Nov 13 2005 and The Statesman, Nov 14 2005, Editorial Page Special Article
Atal Behari Vajpayee, mentored by Shyama Prasad Mookerjee himself, became Prime Minister of India for less than a fortnight in 1996, then again in 1998 and again in 1999 and remained so until he was voted out in 2004.
He became PM holding the trust of India’s 120 million Muslims. He was supposed to be the genial, avuncular “good cop” who would keep at bay the harsh forces represented by the unpredictable “bad cop”, his Deputy PM and long-time colleague LK Advani. It was the first time RSS members had come to lead India’s government. How is the Vajpayee-Advani duumvirate to be candidly assessed? The question is important not only for the RSS and BJP engaged in their own introspection and petty politics but for the country as a whole. India needs both a competent Government and a competent Opposition in Parliament, and it is not clear we have ever had either.
Overall, Vajpayee-Advani, as the chief public symbols of the RSS-BJP, earned relatively high marks in office handling India’s strategic and security interests, including the nuclear issue and Pakistan. Equally, they failed badly in their treatment of India’s Muslims and religious minorities in general. This is a paradox that can be explained by the general failure of putative Hindutvadis to acquire an objective understanding of the processes that had led to Independence, Partition, and Pakistan’s creation.
Roughly, their comprehension of these processes has been one which sees all Muslims everywhere as cut from the same communal cloth, regardless of the beliefs or actions of individual Muslims. In such prejudiced eyes, there is no conceptual or ultimate difference between a Jinnah and an Azad, between a Salauddin who attacks India at Kargil and a Lt Hanifuddin who dies for India at Kargil. This is the product of a sloppy and erroneous philosophy of history, which in turn is an outcome of an attitude towards modern science and modes of rigorous reasoning that can only be called backward and retrograde.
It has been signalled most conspicuously by the extremely public adherence of many putative Hindutvadis (and millions of other Indians) to astrology — in apparent ignorance of the fact that all horoscopes assume the Sun rotates around Earth. Astrology, a European invention, came to decline in Europe after the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo became widely understood there.
Like Indian Communists, Hindutvadi ideologues with rare exceptions played no role in the movement that led to Indian independence in 1947 and creation of the modern Indian Republic in 1950. They remained to their credit constantly suspicious of and hostile towards the foreign phenomena that were Bolshevism, Stalinism and Maoism. They remained to their discredit constantly suspicious of and hostile towards Indian Muslims, even at one point seeing virtuous lessons in Hitler’s attitude towards the Jews. They have in their own way subscribed to Ein Reich, Ein Volk but fortunately have always failed to find Ein Fuhrer (on a pattern e.g. of a modern “Netaji”).
Where Nazis saw communists and Jews in conspiracies everywhere, Hindutvadi ideologues have tended to see communists and Muslims, and also Christians and “Macaulayite” Hindus, in conspiracies everywhere. (An equal methodological admiration for Nazism occurred on the part of Muslims in the 1930s led by Rahmat Ali, the Pakistani ideologue — who saw “caste Hindus” as the root of all evil and in conspiracies everywhere.) The paradox of the RSS-BJP success in handling nuclear and security issues quite well and domestic issues of secular governance badly, is explained by this ideology of double hostility towards communism and Muslims.
On the positive side, Vajpayee-Advani advocated a tough clear-headed realpolitik on the issue of Indian’s security. “We should go nuclear and sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty as a nuclear weapons’ state. The whole world will recognise us by our power. We don’t want to be blackmailed and treated as oriental blackies. Nuclear weapons will give us prestige, power, standing. An Indian will talk straight and walk straight when we have the bomb”. That is what the BJP told the New York Times in 1993.
Three years later, the moment Vajpayee first entered office as PM in May 1996, the government’s scientists who had already secretly assembled the bomb for testing, were instructed to stand by for orders to go ahead. Vajpayee did not know if his Government would survive the vote of confidence required of them. When it was pointed out that if he tested the bomb and lost the vote, a successor Government would have to cope with the consequences, Vajpayee, to his credit and reflecting his political experience and maturity, cancelled the test. When he lost the vote, the public demonstration of Indian nuclear weapons capability was also postponed until May 1998, after he had returned as PM a second time. The bomb was a celebration of Hindu, or more generally, Indian independence in the world. India had nominally freed herself from the British but not from Western culture, according to the RSS. Where the Congress had been in the grip of world communism, the RSS-BJP led India to nuclear freedom – such was their propaganda.
In reality, a long line of prime ministers including Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh and IK Gujral had authorised India’s bomb, and a long line of scientists starting with Homi Bhabha had developed it over several decades.
Vajpayee’s decision finally flushed out Pakistan’s clandestine nuclear weapons developed with North Korea and China. Pakistan is an overtly Islamist state where liberal democracy shows no signs of starting even 65 years after the Lahore Resolution. Its nuclear bombs remain a far greater threat to the world than anyone else’s. Moreover, while India has renounced first use of such weapons, Pakistan has not only not done so, its Foreign Minister Gohar Ayub Khan boasted in 1998-1999 that the next war would be over in two hours with an Indian surrender.
Such glib talk about nuclear war is beyond contempt in its irresponsibility. A study by medical doctors estimated that a Hiroshima-sized bombing of Mumbai would cause 9 million deaths from blast, firestorms, radiation and fallout. An Indian retaliation would end Pakistan’s existence (though the Pakistani super-elite has long ago fled with its assets to Britain and America). An India-Pakistan nuclear exchange would leave a vast wasteland, finally ending all intellectual controversies about Partition and Jinnah’s theory. In reality, each is hardly able to cope with natural calamities like earthquakes, cyclones and floods, and also has very grave macroeconomic crises brewing because of unending deficit-finance and unlimited printing of paper money. For either to imagine itself a major power is a vain boast regardless of the polite flattery from visiting foreign businessmen. Of course, while each remains the principal enemy of the other, neither is a serious military force in the world.
After the exchange of nuclear tests in 1998, Vajpayee took the bus across the Wagah border to meet Nawaz Sharif in February 1999. He claimed it was a diplomatic and psychological breakthrough as indeed it was for a moment. But it had not been his original idea. AM Khusro, who accompanied him on the bus, had worked with Rajiv Gandhi in 1990-1991 when Rajiv was advised to make such a Sadat-like move. Furthermore, Vajpayee failed to see the significance of the Pakistani military chiefs led by Pervez Musharraf refusing to meet him formally, which would have entailed saluting him when he was their enemy.
Vajpayee also may not have known the Pakistani monument he visited was later “purified” with rose water by orthodox Muslim believers. So much for Indian diplomatic triumphs or Pakistan’s diplomatic niceties towards their kaffir guest. BJP foreign ministers later ingratiated themselves with Ariel Sharon because he was an enemy of Muslims — though again the BJP seemed unaware that “a single hair” shorn from idol-worshipping Hindu women at Tirupathi was enough for orthodox rabbis to declare as “impure” the wigs worn by Jewish women made from such hair. The evil of “untouchability” has not been a “caste Hindu” monopoly.
According to the Sharif-Musharraf plan secretly brewing during Vajpayee’s Pakistan visit, the Kargil infiltration followed. India’s Army and Air Force gamely fought back in the initial weeks suffering relatively severe losses, but the country seemed mesmerised by World Cup cricket and there was no significant political leadership from Vajpayee’s Government until the second week of June 1999. It was only after Brajesh Mishra was provoked by an analysis of how Pakistan might actually succeed (with the possibility of hidden Pakistani plans of a blitzkrieg and missile attacks), that Vajpayee’s Government seemed to wake up from its stupor, mobilised forces rapidly and threatened Pakistan with direst consequences, a threat made credible because it was conveyed by Mishra via the Americans. The Pakistanis backed down, which led soon to Musharraf’s coup détat against Sharif, and the world has had to deal with a Pakistani state synonymous with Musharraf ever since. The Vajpayee-Advani military triumph at Kargil was short-lived, as it was followed within months by an abject surrender to the Taliban’s terrorists at Kandahar airport.
In the meantime, on 23 January 1999, the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were murdered by a savage anti-Christian mob as they slept in their car in rural Orissa. Vajpayee, the agreeable face of the RSS-BJP with allegedly impeccable secular credentials, responded without the moral strength that was necessary from a leader of all of India’s people. It was a model of weakness of political will and comprehension that would be followed in the larger catastrophe to occur in Gujarat.
On 27 February 2002, a train approaching Godhra station had a bunch of travelling rowdies bullying ticketed passengers, ticket-collectors and local tea-vendors. The vendors belonged to a lowly Muslim caste whose members were entrenched around Godhra and the nearby Signal Falia. During an extended stop at Godhra station, the altercations grew fiercer — the rowdies forcing people to shout slogans and roughing them up when they did not. False rumours flew that the rowdies had molested a Muslim woman and her two daughters who had been waiting on the platform. As the train left Godhra, a gang of rioters led by one tea-shop owner and other tea-vendors gathered before Signal Falia, stopped the train and assaulted it with stones and petrol-bombs.
One whole compartment was completely burnt, scores of passengers, including 26 women and 12 children, were incinerated, many of whom remain unidentified. (Some of those supposed to be in the compartment according to Railway lists were later found alive and well, as they had moved due to the rowdyism.) Throughout the day, Godhra District Collector Jayanthi Ravi stated on television and radio that a riot had occurred and appealed for calm. But after 7 pm, the State’s political executive called it a “pre-planned violent act of terrorism”, and an organised pogrom began against Muslims across the State. Over several weeks, thousands were killed and raped and turned into refugees inside their own country.
Gujarat’s chief political executive, a Vajpayee-Advani protégé, should have been immediately held accountable; instead he continued to receive their political patronage. Vajpayee, en route to a planned business trip abroad, made a perfunctory visit to the scene of the civil horror, then proceeded to Singapore, where he was shown moving around on a golf-cart wearing designer goggles. He had clearly failed to grasp the dimensions or the gravity of the nature of the office he held. Vajpayee thus came to lose the trust of India’s Muslims and minorities in general which he had earned by his moderation and maturity over many decades in the Opposition. The RSS-BJP had lost, perhaps permanently, the last opportunity to make their actions tally with their sweet words about a united Indian people living in bliss in a common sacred Motherland.
Vajpayee’s finance and economic planning ministers were as ignorant of the reality of India’s macroeconomics as the Stalinist New Delhi bureaucrats pampered by Congress and its Communist friends. These bureaucrats continued in power under Vajpayee. Plus the RSS’s pseudo-economists were enough to scare away all except a minor econometrician and a shallow economic historian. The latter led the BJP up the garden path in 2003-2004 with talk about India’s economy being on the point of “take off” (based on defunct American theory from the 1960s), which misled them into the “India Shining” campaign and electoral defeat. The BJP finance minister, thus misled, revealed his own ignorance of his job-requirements when he happily spoke on TV of how much he sympathised with businessmen who had told him CBI, CVC and CAG were the initials holding India back from this (bogus) “take off”. Equally innocent of economics, the BJP’s planning chief went about promising vast government subsidies to already-rich Indians abroad to become “venture capitalists” in India! Instead of reversing the woeful Stalinism of the Congress decades overall, Vajpayee’s Government super-imposed a crony capitalism upon it. Budgetary discipline was not even begun to be sought — another BJP finance minister revelling publicly in his ignorance of Maynard Keynes.
The signal of monetary crisis that was the UTI fiasco was papered over with more paper money printing. Privatisation was briefly made a fetish — despite there being sound conservative reasons not to privatise in India until the fiscal and monetary haemorrhaging is stopped. Liquidating real assets prior to a likely massive inflation of paper assets caused by deficit-financing, is not a public good.
RSS members and protégés appointed to government posts and placed in charge of government moneys revealed themselves as corrupt and nepotistic as anyone else. The overall failure of the management of India’s public institutions and organs of State continued under Vajpayee-Advani just as it had done for decades earlier. Vajpayee-Advani evinced no vision of a modern political economy as reformers of other major countries have done, such as Thatcher, Reagan, Gorbachev-Yeltsin, Adenauer-Erhardt, De Gaulle, even Deng Tsiaoping.