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Is Vajpayee Another Nehru?

By Mani Shankar Aiyar

18 March, 2004
The Indian Express

More bogus even than the pretensions of the ‘India Shining’ campaign is the attempt by the BJP and a section of the media to project Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a second Nehru. First, why the BJP should want to compare Vajpayee to the Nehru they excoriated through life and have systematically denigrated after death is difficult to understand. Second, there is no comparison. Only contrast.

Jawaharlal Nehru rose from inherited riches to self-imposed deprivation. Vajpayee has descended from humble origins to high living. Nehru spent the better part of his adulthood in incarceration fighting imperial rule. Vajpayee’s sole contribution to the freedom movement was carefully keeping out of jail through his notorious September 1, 1942 confession to a colonial court, at the height of the Quit India movement, “Maine tho kuch nuksan nahi kiya”. Nehru was the chosen moral and ideological heir of the greatest Indian ever, Mahatma Gandhi. Vajpayee traces his descent (the pun is intended) from communal-racists like Golwalkar and Savarkar. He entered politics under the patronage of the founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, a man who had not hesitated, after the resignation in 1939 of the Congress provincial ministries when India was dragged by the Brits into war without consulting the Indians, to form a cross-communal alliance in Bengal with A.K.M. Fazlul Haq, the mover of the 1940 Pakistan resolution at Lahore.

It is the political opportunism he learned at the feet of Mookherjee that has brought Vajpayee to power and kept him there six long years. Never before has a prime minister deliberately kept aside his own agenda merely to come to power. After all, power must have a purpose. Vajpayee’s claim to notoriety is that he has none; power is his purpose. What would one make of a Sonia Gandhi who set aside the Congress agenda in order to forge an alliance with the BJP to implement not her programme but the BJP’s? Is this not what the BJP have done? Do we not admire Vajpayee only because he has persuaded his lot to eschew their goals merely for him and his ministers to taste the fruits of office? And do we admire Nehru because he stood for nothing?

When riots broke out in Delhi during the trauma of Partition, did Nehru sit back or go right there into the crowd hitting out at those who would hit the cowering Muslim? What did Vajpayee do when a similar situation arose in a state ruled by his own party colleagues? Did he even visit Gujarat, let alone sail into the mob flailing his fists as Nehru had done? And when a measure of order had been restored, contrast the consistency with which Nehru espoused the secular cause with the inconsistencies, double-standards and doublespeak that marked Vajpayee’s words and action on Gujarat. Yes, Gujarat was on the edge of a state election that the BJP desperately needed to win. But Nehru, too, was in 1951 on the edge of a general election the Congress needed desperately to win. It was the first election ever with full adult franchise in a nation divided by religious hate where 85 per cent of the electorate belonged to the majority religion and every adult voter had a searing personal memory of the terrible tribulations of Partition. Had Nehru been Vajpayee he would have surrendered to the temptation of sacrificing a minority to appease a majority. He chose not to. With but a few months to go to the polls, Nehru in May 1951 refused permission to the president of India to visit Somnath for the inauguration of the restored temple. It was in keeping with his refusal a year earlier to extract a tooth for a tooth by expelling Indian Muslims to avenge the expulsion of Pakistani Hindus. Instead, in April 1950, he entered into the Nehru-Liaquat pact which pledged the two countries bilaterally to protect their respective minorities unilaterally. So unpopular was the pact with his own Congress legislators that after his post-pact meeting with the Congress Parliamentary Party, Nehru submitted his resignation. It was then that Sardar Patel rose to his Olympian heights. The genuine Lauh Purush took it upon himself to bring the seething Congress dissidents back into the fold. Together, the duumvirate restored India to the secular path.

Contrast Vajpayee and Advani in Gujarat. While Advani actively encouraged his acolyte, Narendra Modi, in the outrages perpetrated there, Vajpayee fiddled. Instead of firmly stepping in to stop the worst state-sponsored pogrom in the history of independent India (for the exposure of which this journal has deservedly won an award for best journalism), Vajpayee first fumbled, then indulged in a generalised sermon on ‘dharma raj’ at the Shah Alam camp, only to go back on his word within hours in an interview given in Singapore, then proclaimed in Goa to a party conclave that Muslims make bad neighbours, then denied he had said so, then admitted he had when confronted with the taped evidence of his voice. And this Master Deceiver of himself, let alone his people, is being projected as a second Nehru? God forbid!

Nehru embraced socialism during his 1927 visit to Europe, especially after his encounter in Brussels with the League against Imperialism. His espousal of state-sponsored economic development was vindicated by the spectacular Soviet miracle of the thirties that within a decade transformed the Soviet Union from a serf-ridden backwater into an economic and military superpower which withstood Hitler where all of west Europe had succumbed. But Nehru’s admiration for the Soviet economic model was tempered by repugnance at the immense human suffering it entailed. He, therefore, rejected the Stalinist model and opted for the democratic alternative of an indigenous mixed economy in which priority lay with the poor. That was the socialism he espoused through the freedom movement and into the 17 years of his premiership.

The contrast with flibberty-gibbet Vajpayee could not be starker. When Vajpayee founded the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980, he proclaimed its economic plank to be ‘Gandhian socialism’. He then went on to oppose the liberalisation of the economy under Rao-Manmohan Singh. Then he embraced the ‘swadeshi’ creed of the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. And finally as prime minister, he became the vanguard of a lunatic right-wing Shourieism.

In foreign policy, Nehru went down the “road less travelled”. Nonalignment was the policy of just one country, ours, from 1945 (when Nehru became member for external relations in the interim cabinet) to the Brioni conference in 1956. By the time the Nonaligned Summit was held in Delhi in 1983, two-thirds of the international community had embraced Nehru’s foreign policy. That is the measure of a pioneer. Vajpayee has made India a foot-soldier of the Bush camp. Is his subsidiary alliance with the US an achievement? When Nehru died, the Economist had a photograph of him at the UN on its cover, the page suffused in darkness, only his hauntingly sensitive face subtly lit up. The legend read, ‘World without Nehru’. Will that be Vajpayee’s place in the hearts of the human family when the Reaper finally arrives as he must with his inescapable sickle?