Two men who dominated Indian Parliament for several decades passed away in the third week of August. While politicians paid respects to Somnath Chatterjee and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the media was honest in assessing the contributions and personality of Chatterjee but lost all perspective in Vajpayee’s case.
One should not be uncharitable to the dead. But the rule is meant for individuals in their personal lives, not for a person in the line of reporting or analysing news. Here the focus has to be on truth and information, where fairness and objectivity should not be compromised.
While recounting the achievements of a public figure and relating the person’s life and his/her contributions to society, the media is not just informing the public but also recording history. And history has to be honest and truthful. Otherwise it becomes hagiography. After Vajpayee’s death was officially announced on August 16, the visual and print media treated Vajpayee with undue reverence. What one got to hear and read of Vajpayee was unadulterated hagiography.
The only truth that a few journalists dared to say was that Vajpayee was fond of food rich in calories and he loved his drink. A public figure’s personal life is of little consequence to the public once s/he is dead. However, people need to be given the right perspective about the person’s public life.
In Vajpayee’s case, the media may not have been lying. Members of the Fourth Estate may have been blinded by Vajpayee’s kindness towards them. His personal note of friendliness seemed to have made journalists to overlook the actual person Vajpayee was. This is why seasoned media professionals and journalism schools advice journalists to keep a distance from their subjects while studying and reporting about them.
So who was Vajpayee really? To put it in one sentence, he was a practical and successful politician. That would mean he was an effective communicator, someone who was concerned about public welfare and worked towards it, but also someone who was ambitious and enjoyed power and someone who was pretentious when he needed to cover his personal biases, faults or weaknesses. As a politician who rose to hold the highest office in government, he was crafty and exploited people and situations to reach there.
He was not a favourite of the RSS and its disciplined men. That was not because he was more like a ‘Congressman in the Sangh’, as many have written, nor because he was suspected to be secular in his outlook, nor because he was not an orthodox Hindu moulded in tradition. The RSS did not like him that much because he was not a typical soldier of the Sangh who adhered to its diehard principles in the most disciplined manner. Vajpayee breached its rules on several things from food habits and celibacy to inconsistent outlook on minorities and political opponents.
Vajpayee was the Sangh’s enigma. He came from an orthodox Brahmin family and joined the Sangh in his teens, learned its ideas on nationhood and was influenced by its views in whatever he said or did as a politician. However, Vajpayee was also influenced by a lot of other views which he came across while interacting with different sections of people, party leaders and through his readings.
These influences played out too in his public life and the RSS frowned on them. While such a mixed behaviour helped Vajpayee win friends outside his Sangh and widen his outlook and circle, these were good enough reasons for the RSS to abandon him for being an ‘unworthy disciple’.
However, the Sangh was isolated and was looking to widen its base. It never had many talented public speakers of the calibre of Vajpayee. One can safely say that the Sangh hence wanted to tap Vajpayee’s potential. However, Vajpayee made sure he was not just exploited but made personal gains while serving the RSS.
Vajpayee was not a ‘right man in the wrong party’ as Jyoti Basu once said. The phrase has been repeated innumerable times and helped in building the wrong perception about him. Nor was Vajpayee’s premiership on the mould of Jawaharlal Nehru, as former President Pranab Mukherjee outrageously claimed in his obituary column in the newspapers.
Every crooner is not an Elvis Presley and no Indian PM will come close to Nehru, who was a visionary, philosopher and intellectual giant, yet a compassionate soul who felt deeply for the poorest citizen and worked tirelessly to rebuild a civilisation left in a shambles by centuries of plunder, exploitation and slavery of all kinds.
Vajpayee’s affable mannerisms made him a preferred choice of small parties looking for the fishes and loaves of office but it is just politically naïve to believe that these parties would not have done business with L K Advani, had he not stepped aside and declared Vajpayee as the PM candidate. Advani’s compulsion was the charge-sheet in the Jain hawala case, not about the love potential allies supposedly had for Vajpayee over him.
If being affable was such a great quality, how has Narendra Modi attracted almost all the same allies such as Ram Vilas Paswan and Nitish Kumar, apart from the ‘permanent friends’ Shiv Sena and Shiromani Akali Dal? Power is the ultimate magnetism that can transcend several barriers. If there are parties that stand perennially opposed to each other, it is because they are turf rivals. When one of them ceases to be the other’s challenger, the parties align to fight the common rival, as now seen in UP (SP-BSP), or in West Bengal (CPM-Congress).
Vajpayee was a typical politician who thrived on opportunism. He could one day call Indira Gandhi ‘Durga’ for defeating Pakistan but next day criticise her for ‘using the war’ to win elections, which he himself did in 1999 after Kargil War. He never acknowledged the major role the Bofors howitzer played in helping India win the Kargil War while he earlier was part of the campaign not just against the bribes received from the Bofors deal but in misinforming the public that the Bofors gun would boomerang on the jawans operating them.
He relished the goodies at Iftaar parties wearing skull caps but made virulent speeches against Muslims too. Former CPI General Secretary Indrajit Gupta quoted Vajpayee’s speech — made in Assam during the controversial 1983 assembly elections — where he said ‘illegal immigrants should be cut into pieces’. This was days before the Nellie massacre. He asked Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to perform his raj dharma after visiting riot relief camps in 2002, only to add in Goa a few weeks later, ‘who lit the fire’. Vajpayee was personally affable and politically shrewd, not a saint.(Published on 20th August 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 34)