To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth. —Voltaire
George Bernard Shaw, the great author and playwright wrote, “All autobiographies are lies. I do not mean unconscious, unintentional lies. I mean deliberate lies.” While it is difficult to disprove him, off late, a new trend has emerged – of eulogizing the dead and re-imagining them in ways that may sound flattering but are quite divorced from reality, thus making many obituaries as much of a lie as autobiographies. The bible says, ‘Thou shall not speak ill of the dead’ and many cultures across the world strongly believe that. When Britain’s iron lady and former prime minister Margaret Thatcher passed away some years ago, the world was left grappling with the question of how to view a leader also known for her tyranny. The publications in Britain were divided between eulogisation of the ‘great leader’ to banner headlines screaming ‘rejoice’. The morality of both positions may be debatable. It is one thing to not speak ill and yet another to peddle lies in pursuit of ritualistic eulogisation of the dead. The ancient Roman statesman, Marcus Tullius Cicero, said, “The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.” That is why it is important to sift fact from fiction especially when famous personalities, weighed by the worth of their ideas, conviction and work, die. In the annals of history, the obituaries of famous personalities will go down as a record and, therefore, there is need to speak the truth rather than go overboard and resort to customary praise with no shred of evidence or with selective facts. If the ritual of eulogisation was a moral obligation, Hilter’s epitaph would have read something like this: ‘A great humanist and a true liberal democrat.’
When former Indian prime minister and BJP leader Atal Behari Vajpayee passed away on Thursday, my preferred choice would have been to remain silent and not speak the biblical ill. But in the face of a barrage of unquestioned eulogisation coming from liberal academics and journalist colleagues, it is important to make my contribution to countering the many myths being woven and putting the record straight for posterity. It is difficult to ignore Vajpayee or leave his charismatic leadership which had a wide appeal among masses unacknowledged. His personality carried traits of dignity, humility, civility and patience. It is difficult to dispute his great oratory skills and the magic they wove on the people including his detractors. It is said that Nehru, impressed by his oratory skills, introduced Vajpayee to a foreign dignitary with the words that he would become prime minister of the country one day. To his gift of the gab, I would like to add the incident of 1992 Ekta yatra led by Murli Manohar Joshi to Kashmir, which I covered from Jammu. The BJP had provoked lakhs of volunteers to join the march to Lal Chowk to hoist the tricolor who descended in Jammu, where the BJP settled for a small group to be sent to the Valley in the peak militancy days; the crowds were restless at the decision and smacked some kind of a sell-out. It was left to Vajpayee to address a huge rally the evening before the proposed march to cool down the tempers. Unlike many of his Sanghi colleagues gifted only with the power of rousing passions, he also had the ability to tame the aroused passions. His intelligence, wit and humour that disarmed his opponents completely is also well documented.
But to extol him for his humanistic virtues, his secular appeal and his respect for democracy is a falsehood that not only stands in striking contrast from his professed conviction in RSS ideals and ideology but is also an incorrect or selective reading of his words.
His speech at the fall of his 13 day government in 1996 is being profusely quoted to show his high regard for democracy, wherein he said, “Governments will come and go…..This country should survive, its democracy should survive.” He is also on record to have said later that if BJP comes to power in majority, it will end this system of frequent elections. In 1996, he is eulogised for not making any attempt to indulge in horse-trading to prove his majority on the floor of the parliament, which is true, but later to remain in power he pursued with great zeal the art, that his opponents had followed before him, of making strange political bedfellows including Bansi Lal, George Fernandes, Mamta Banerjee and alternated between AIADMK and DMK solely for the sake of power.
Half truths are a convenient way of peddling lies. Historians like Ramachandra Guha would thus take the liberty to conclude that Vajpayee did not allow the pernicious ideology of RSS to subdue his humanity by castigating Narendra Modi for Gujarat communal carnage in 2002. Vajpayee’s words can be selectively picked up to give that interpretation. For three days, after the Gujarat violence started, as prime minister he had chosen to maintain silence. Later when he chose to remind Modi of his Rajdharma at a dais he shared with the latter, Vajpayee had added, “..and I am confident that he is following that Rajdharma”.
His speech the same year at BJP national executive meeting in Goa more lucidly maps Vajpayee’s stand on Gujarat violence, where he indulged in vitriolic Muslim bashing and the sole reference to Gujarat was about Godhra with the question, “who lit the fire and how did it spread?” Before that, he was complicit in provoking mobs to bring down the Babri mosque in 1992. His fiery speeches at the site, embalmed in craftiness of saner words, speak about the need “to remove the sharp-edged stones for clearing space for kar sevaks to perform bhajans” as well as need “to erect something for performing yagnas.”
Vajpayee is eulogized for his attempts to broker peace with Pakistan and begin a process of dialogue with Kashmiris. Till date, he would remain the Indian prime minister who showed unprecedented courage and political will to that extent, but there was lack of consistency in this project. During his tenure as prime minister, he oscillated between bellicose rhetoric and friendship with Pakistan. Though India and Pakistan eventually moved towards a composite dialogue, his contribution to the eventual complexity of the conflict in the shape of Operation Prakaram, slogan of ‘aar paar ki ladai’ and Pokhran nuclear tests cannot be underscored. It was obvious he understood the significance of strategic geo-politics of the day which necessitated a change in India-Pakistan rhetoric and on Kashmir. One must also grant the devil his due for freeing the proposition of talks with Kashmiris from the trappings of “within the constitutional framework” to within the ambit of “Kashmiriyat, Insaaniyat and Jamhooriyat”, though he was not the first prime minister to do so. Before he uttered those famous words, PVR Narasimha Rao as prime minister had already spoken of “sky is the limit” with respect to dialogue on Kashmir. The inspiration for his peace project remains a matter of speculation.
Many regard Vajpayee as a liberal and moderate man in the RSS-BJP. His mannerisms, his patience and usual eloquence of his speeches made him stand apart from much of the rest of his clan. He was intelligent, well-read and well-versed both with the geo-political conditions as well as the sensibilities of majority Indians and that is why he felt that things needed to be done differently from the otherwise fascist and sectarian methods adopted by his organization members. He was an RSS man who had mastered the art of deception which he felt was the best way to carry on his ideological agenda in the light of two limitations. He was aware of the limitations of power, especially in a coalition with a motley of ideologically different parties. Before his 13 day government fell, in his speech in the parliament he spoke of being treated as a pariah for raising RSS’s favourite contentious issues like Article 370 and assured that as long as the BJP was not in majority, these issues were not his focus. He was also aware of the limitations of appeal of the RSS ideology among the masses of India.
To Vajpayee goes the credit of erecting that façade of moderation that paved the way for greater legitimacy and respectability of the RSS and its acceptance among the masses.