The Liberhan Commission provides an opportunity to make a more honest and less black-and-white evaluation of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani.

Critics have panned the Liberhan Commission report on the December 6, 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid on multiple counts, berating Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan especially for placing the Teflon Atal Bihari Vajpayee alongside such accomplished disrupters as Vinay Katiyar, Sadhvi Rithambara and Pravin Togadia.

It is a measure of the rarefied place politics has accorded the former Prime Minister that on Monday the Congress was forced to jump on the ‘save Vajpayee’ bandwagon. Speaking in the Lok Sabha, Salman Khursheed, Minister for Minority Affairs, all but regretted Mr. Vajpayee’s inclusion in the list of 68 men and women whom the Liberhan report held culpable for the Babri crime. Hardly anyone objected to the presence of Lal Krishna Advani’s name on the same list.

The judge’s conclusions are undoubtedly problematic. Unlike Mr. Advani who was in the thick of pre- and post-demolition action in Ayodhya, Mr. Vajpayee was all along on the sidelines. Yet in conferring this dubious honour on the former Prime Minister, the learned judge unwittingly broke the enduring stereotype of “moderate-Vajpayee” and “hardline Advani,” thereby providing an opportunity for a more honest and less black-and-white appraisal of the former Prime Minister and his deputy.

The celebration of Mr. Vajpayee has grown inversely with the popularity of his party, reaching hagiographic proportions in the currently adrift Bharatiya Janata Party. Mr. Advani’s inability to arrest the BJP’s precipitous decline, and the impression he has given of clinging to position, have only added to the Vajpayee persona and aura.

The Liberhan Commission report provides the perfect backdrop for re-evaluating the two key figures who, between them, shaped the BJP’s fortunes. Under their watch, the party scaled great heights as it plumbed the depths but, more relevantly, it grew from a sidelined introvert to a fearsome bully capable of repeatedly pushing the country to the brink. Analysts have judged Mr. Advani more guilty of divisive politics than Mr. Vajpayee, and not without reason. Mr. Advani was visibly in command whenever the BJP ran amok, as was the case during the Ram rath yatra, which he used to whip up frenzy and which inevitably set the stage for the destruction of the Babri Masjid.

By contrast, the former Prime Minister was famously toasted as the “right man in the wrong party.” He would be in the background as Mr. Advani rallied and thundered, emerging to take his place at the top once the BJP began to assimilate the limitations of combative politics. Mr. Advani was the chosen one as far as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was concerned. The RSS distrusted Mr. Vajpayee, and would not easily accept the transition to the Vajpayee era. But as the former Deputy Prime Minister himself records in his book, My Country, My Life, the ideologue was ill-suited to forge electoral partnerships, which alone could place the BJP within the reach of power. Who better to drive the coalition than the “liberal-secular” Mr. Vajpayee?

Mr. Vajpayee’s accomplishments are many, and it is entirely to his credit that the BJP-led alliance ruled for six years. But his vulnerabilities have been numerous too, though such has been the Vajpayee myth that he could move to the periphery when a wrong was done, and win commendations when a right happened.

Indeed, a dispassionate reading of the BJP’s history will establish not only Mr. Vajpayee’s frequent excursions into “communal” territory but also his failure to frontally confront the RSS despite being uniquely placed to do so. Ironically, and probably for all the wrong reasons, that job was done by Mr. Advani. In a speech delivered at the party’s national executive in Chennai on September 18-19, 2005, the former Home Minister showed the RSS its place in a manner that went beyond anything attempted by Mr. Vajpayee and which is unlikely to be equalled by any future BJP leader. Long ago, in August 1979, Mr. Vajpayee did write an article in the Indian Express, critical of the RSS but that was by a compact with the BJP’s mentor. The Jana Sangh, which was under pressure to renounce the RSS, needed to save its place in the Janata Party. Mr. Vajpayee’s piece was intended to suggest distance between the Jana Sangh members of the Janata Party and the RSS.

Mr. Vajpayee was a schoolboy when he penned a poem which went on to attain fame beyond the imagination of a child his age. The lyrics, Hindu tan man, Hindu jeevan, rag, rag mera Hindu parichay (I am Hindu in heart and body, my life is Hindu, Hindu is my only identity), inspired many generations of RSS volunteers and continues to be sung at RSS shakhas. Obviously, the song was justified by the path he took. Mr. Vajpayee joined the RSS and was among the first batch of pracharaks to migrate to the Jana Sangh.

In 1983, Mr. Vajpayee hit the headlines for a speech he made during the violent Assam election which was fought on the foreigners’ issue, and which saw the massacre of over 2000 mostly Muslim men and women in Nellie. The BJP disowned the speech. However, thanks to the irrepressible Indrajit Gupta, who read out excerpts from it in the Lok Sabha while debating the motion of confidence moved by Mr. Vajpayee on May 28, 1996, we now know what he said. And what Mr. Vajpayee said (about foreigners being chopped into pieces) is not very different from what Varun Gandhi would say a quarter of a century later, winning universal approbation for the violent, divisive imagery he evoked.

This was not the only occasion when Mr. Vajpayee slipped into libellous language. He did so as Prime Minister. In the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, he famously asked “ kisne lagayee aag? (who lit the fire?),” and went on to insinuate that Muslims cannot co-exist with non-Muslims. A hallmark of Mr. Vajpayee’s career has been his effortless ability to flip-flop between statesmanlike large-heartedness and pandering to the vile instincts of a raw swayamsevak. He rose to towering heights when he visited the Minar-e-Pakistan, when he pushed for peace with our western neighbour and when he reached out to Kashmiris. No assessment of Mr. Vajpayee can be complete without acknowledging that Kashmir held its first free and fair election under a government headed by him.

But then there is also the string of self-indicting statements — while on a visit to Staten Island in September 2000, he shared a platform with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and declared himself a swayamsevak first. Three months later, on the anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, he described the construction of the Ram temple as “a national sentiment” that awaited fulfilment. It was an impolitic thing to say on a day that commemorated the Masjid’s brutal end. In the Lok Sabha, Jaipal Reddy would describe the remark as the “slip of the mask.” Yet Mr. Vajpayee got away with it because with characteristic aplomb he would soon make a u-turn — handing out the assurance from distant Kumarakom that any solution to Ayodhya would have to be “peaceful and amicable.”

What sets Mr. Vajpayee apart from Mr. Advani is the former’s instinctive reaction to situations. He could change colour and tone so often and so quickly that critics would tear their hair trying to pin him down to one position. For every comment that Mr. Vajpayee made, there would be a counter comment with an escape clause.

Those who know the former Prime Minister insist that he was genuinely stricken by the enormity of December 6, 1992, and wrote out his resignation in atonement. A month into the cataclysmic climax, Mr. Vajpayee himself acknowledged the speculation, saying in witty verse, “ jaaye to jaaye kahan? (where do I go?)”. And yet in March 2005, the weekly magazine Outlook produced a video recording of a speech he made in Lucknow on December 5, 1992, which captured a relaxed Mr. Vajpayee quite enjoying the prospect of karsevaks gathering in strength at Ayodhya. “ Kar seva rok ne ka sawal hi nahi hai (no question of stopping the kar seva),” he asserted, adding that it was natural for people to assemble in large numbers for it.

When Mr. Advani tried the somersault, he landed on his nose. This is because he could never multi-task like his senior colleague. Mr. Advani breathed so much fire during the Ayodhya agitation that the embers virtually extinguished his career. His Jinnah Avatar did not work because his audience was not trained to accept deviations from the Ayodhya warrior. Nonetheless, history will record that Mr. Advani went where Mr. Vajpayee dared not go. Asked to resign for the Jinnah adventure, Mr. Advani lambasted the RSS: “But lately an impression has gained ground that no political or organisation decision can be taken without the consent of the RSS functionaries. This perception, we hold, will do no good either to the party [BJP] or the RSS…”

Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Advani come from the same stock and subscribe to a common divisive worldview. Except one was clever enough to appear different and the other tried but failed.

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