Atal Behari Vajpayee: A saint and a sinner

Written by Javed Anand | Published on: August 17, 2018

Was the BJP stalwart and former prime minister really “a right man in the wrong party” or was the sangh parivar his “soul”?


Was Atal Behari Vajpayee “a right man in the wrong party”, a highly sensitive and humane poet who knew the true meaning of insaniyat (humaneness) and samvedna (sensitiveness), as many would have it? Or should one recall the former prime minister’s own words: “The Sangh is my soul”? 
One way of answering the question is to refer back to where the BJP leader stood when the sangh parivar bared its own “soul” in 1992 – when the Babri Masjid was razed to the ground, and again in 2002 -- when Vajpayee was prime minister while Gujarat’s Muslims were subjected to unprecedented mass crimes under the watch of the state’s then chief minister, Narendra Modi. (
In the Liberhan Commission report (
on the role of various actors in the Ramjanmabhoomi movement that culminated in the demolition of the centuries-old mosque, Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan was unsparing in his damnation of Vajpayee as being among the “pseudo-moderate elements of the Sangh Parivar” who provided “an acceptable veneer to the less popular decisions and a facade for the brash members of the Sangh Parivar” and who “cannot be given the benefit of the doubt and exonerated of culpability”.
There’s more. Unlike other BJP stalwarts like LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi, who watched the Babri Masjid being brought down in Ayodhya, Vajpayee was in Delhi on December 6, 1992. While he subsequently maintained that he was neither present at the demolition nor had any prior knowledge of what the sangh parivar had planned for that day, a video recorded by the intelligence agencies which surfaced in 2004 ( raised serious doubts about his pretence at innocence.
Again, his role when Gujarat burned in 2002 raises serious questions about what happened to the poet’s insaaniyat and samvedna when it counted the most. During his visit to Gujarat in April 2002, he called upon chief minister Modi to perform his “rajdharma” and lamented over what face he as prime minister will show the world. But in Goa soon thereafter, holding Muslims themselves responsible for triggering the Gujarat carnage, he demanded to know why it was that “wherever there are Muslims, there is extremism”. (
Here below are excerpts from the Liberhan commission report:
“166. The pseudo-moderate elements within the Parivar
“166.1. The conundrum which fixed the Commission during its long hearings and extensive fact finding efforts was to reconcile the stance of the public face of the Sangh Parivar with the actions which defied law, morality and political ethics.
“166.2. On one hand, the leaders like AB Vajpayee, Murli Manohar Joshi and LK Advani, who are the undeniable public face and leaders of the BJP and thus of the Parivar, constantly protested their innocence and denounced the events of December 1992. Appearing as a witness before the Commission, Advani sought to reiterate his anguish at the demolition of the disputed structure and was at pains to state that he had never made any inflammatory statement, even during his Rath Yatras.
“166.3. On the other hand it stands established beyond doubt that the events of the day were neither spontaneous nor unplanned nor an unforeseen overflowing of the people's emotions, nor the result of a foreign conspiracy as some overly imaginative people have tried to suggest.
“166.4. In such a case, the logical questions that beg to be answered are whether the pseudo-moderates knew what was going on, whether they were in fact the prime movers of the show, whether they were in control of the Parivar and finally, could they have done anything to prevent the demolition and subsequent violence?
“166.5. The Commission, having had the benefit of tens of thousands of pages worth of press reports, books, official records and documentation and having analysed many hours of audio and video recordings and having observed the witnesses, is unable to hold even these pseudo-moderates innocent of any wrongdoings.
“166.6. It cannot be assumed even for a moment that LK Advani, AB Vajpayee or MM Joshi did not know the designs of the Sangh Parivar. Even though these leaders were deemed and used by the Parivar as the publicly acceptable faces and the articulated voices of the Parivar and thus used to reassure the cautious masses, they were party to the decisions which had been taken.
“166.7. These people, who may be called pseudo-moderates could not have defied the mandate of the Sangh Parivar, and more specifically the diktat of the RSS, without having bowed out of public life as leaders of the BJP. They were not in control of the RSS and had absolutely no influence over the direction that they had been told to follow. The pseudo-moderate leadership of the BJP was as much a tool in the hands of the RSS as any other organization or entity and these leaders stood to inherit the political successes engineered by the RSS.
“166.8. The BJP was and remains an appendage of the RSS which had the purpose only of providing an acceptable veneer to the less popular decisions and a facade for the brash members of the Sangh Parivar. The much repeated and much denied remarks attributed to Govindacharya who called Vajpayee a Mukhota or a mask may be more appropriately applied to the BJP's top leadership at the time collectively. Without leaders like Joshi, Advani and Vajpayee, the RSS might have been able to achieve de facto clout, but would not have been able to legitimize its hold on the Indian system by translating that clout into political success.
“166.9. The BJP was therefore an essential ingredient in the Parivar smorgasbord and essential to capture de jure power and authority, in furtherance of its goals of establishing the Hindu Rashtra.
“166.10. Be that as it may, the evidence that has been led before the Commission does not show that the pseudo-moderates were in charge of the situation, much less capable of changing the course that the campaign was taking. It stands proved that the pseudo-moderates were charged with the task of projecting the RSS's decisions in the best possible light and to translate them into terms which would be acceptable to the general masses. The role of the BJP pseudo-moderates thereafter came to an end, and beyond acting as translators, could do little more.
“166.11. These leaders cannot however be given the benefit of the doubt and exonerated of culpability. The defence of "superior orders" has historically never been available, and least of all to those whom the people have trusted and voted into power.
“166.12. These leaders have violated the trust of the people and have allowed their actions to be dictated not by the voters but by a small group of individuals who have used them to implement agendas unsanctioned by the will of the common person. There can be no greater betrayal or crime in a democracy and this Commission has no hesitation in condemning these pseudo-moderates for their sins of omission”.
In his recommendations, Justice Liberhan noted:  “The events of December 6, 1992 and the many subsequent events have already shown to the nation the danger and the disruptive potential of allowing the intermixing of religion and politics. It is imperative therefore for the people, acting through their elected representatives, to undertake an objective study of whether or not the existing constitutional, statutory and institutional safeguards have proven to be efficacious. It seems highly probable from a cursory study of recent affairs that the measures adopted so far have been overly optimistic and have not entirely succeeded in providing secular governance, unaffected and uncoloured by religious or regional affiliations”.
Justice Liberhan’s findings and recommendations were ignored just as the recommendations of numerous previous judicial commissions of enquiry. Meanwhile, India has “progressed” from a Vajpayee to a Modi and the sangh parivar it appears is no longer in need of a mukhota.