Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s complex relationship with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh
Vajpayee’s foreign policy, the firmness with which he kept the Sangh out of political decision making and his outreach to the minorities were distant from the RSS’s ideological positions . There were disagreements yet each time the former PM prevailed.
Uneasy, frosty and strained were some of the adjectives commonly used to characterise the relationship between Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was prime minister in the early 2000s and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), ideological mentor of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Both sides — KS Sudarshan was the RSS chief at the time — made little effort to hide the fact that they had their differences. Yet, in the Sangh Parivaar, Vajpayee is feted today for the ease with which he straddled the roles of a political leader and an ideal Swayamsevak.
Vajpayee’s foreign policy, the firmness with which he kept the Sangh out of political decision making and his outreach to the minorities were distant from the RSS’s ideological positions on these issues. There were disagreements and even complaints from the RSS. Each time, the former PM prevailed.
The Sangh’s open criticism of his economic policies and his non-committal approach towards the construction of a Ram Temple on a disputed site in Ayodhya set him up for criticism, but his ideological moorings remained unwavering.
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As leader of a government that was a coalition of 24 parties, Vajpayee had the unenviable task of giving space to allies and at the same time accommodating the views of the Sangh and its hardline Hindutva affiliates. Although he credited the RSS for shaping his politics, he was acutely aware of the ramifications of giving in to some RSS demands.
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Former Rajya Sabha member and journalist HK Dua, who worked as media advisor to the former PM, recalls Vajpayee was a “man of consensus” and took the decision to improve ties with Pakistan, China and the US, which was out of line with the Sangh’s position.
Dua recalled how during his visit to Lahore in 1999, making a speech from the Minar-e-Pakistan, Vajpayee said that India accepted the birth of Pakistan. That was in contrast to the stand of the RSS, which still swears by the concept of Akhand Bharat.
“Despite Kargil, he went ahead and had talks with the author of the war Gen Parvez Musharraf, he wanted peace and to improve ties with the neighbour,” Dua said, recalling the Kargil conflict that followed months after Vajpayee’s historic bus journey to Pakistan. “ He wanted to resolve the Kashmir issue and announced a unilateral ceasefire and spoke of having talks within the ambit of insaniyat ( humanity).”.
On Vajpayee’s ties with the RSS, Dua said he kept the organisation at a distance, not allowing it to dictate policy to the government or weigh in on crucial appointments.
“He did not seek their approval or advice. He would not meet Sudarshan for months. He was a statesman not a politician who won the faith of the minorities and his constituency was larger than the RSS and BJP,” Dua said.
Discordant note between the Sangh and Vajpayee were conspicuous over issues such as the Rath Yatra (led by his long-term associate LK Advani to espouse the cause of a Ram temple in Ayodhya) and over his response to the 2002 Gujarat riots, yet the communication channels were kept open, a senior RSS functionary said on condition of anonymity.
“The Sangh was not very happy with his decision to hire Brajesh Mishra as the national security advisor, they did not approve of Jaswant Singh being given a ministerial berth, so while he agreed to drop Singh, he was steadfast in letting Misra hold the top job. He managed to bring people around,” the functionary said.
His ability to win people over, including political opponents, is what former RSS functionary and BJP general secretary Govindacharya remembers.
Govindacharya ,who was famously quoted once as having called Vajpayee a Mukhota or mask, said that as a Swayamsevak Vajpayee stood out for his mental matrix and conviction.
“His 1991 speech on Hindutva at the Boat Club in Delhi is unparalleled. He said we are not all Shakha goers, so we must learn to see the other’s point of view. His responses were different and even while disagreeing with the Sangh, he knew where to draw the line,” Govindacharya said.
On calling Vajpayee a mukhota, he clarified : “I had called him the most popular and acceptable face of the BJP; someone misconstrued the sentence it and turned face into a mask. Naturally, Vajpayee was upset and complained to Sudarshan, but I got a chance to explain my position to him. I wrote a 17-page letter to clarify what I had said and we were back to being amiable. He was fond of me.”
The first swayamsevak to have risen to the post of PM, Vajpayee’s relations with the RSS functionaries did not sour although the working relationship with the parent organisation remained testy for most part of his prime ministership.
In a piece written for an RSS publication in 2012, Vajpayee said the simple reason for his long association with the organisation was that he liked the Sangh. “I like its ideology, and above all I like the RSS attitude towards people, towards one another which is found only in the RSS,” he wrote.
Having come into contact with the RSS in 1939 through Arya Kumar Sabha, a youth branch of te Arya Samaj, in Gwalior, he began to attend the Shakha on the suggestion of Bhoodev Shastri, a senior worker of the former.
He creditedRSS pracharak Narayanrao Tarte for shaping him. He wrote his famous poem ‘Hindu Tan-man Hindu Jeevan’ in class X in 1947 and decided to give up studies to become a whole-time volunteer of the RSS.
In the piece, Vajpayee referred to how the Sangh fostered the spirit of social harmony by citing the example of his older brother who had refused to eat food cooked by others, but eventually came around.
“The RSS does not change only individuals. It changes also the collective mind. This is the beauty of the RSS ethos. In our spiritual tradition an individual can attain great heights,” he wrote about the organisation.