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November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

OCTOBER 22, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 42

The Man Behind the Mask
As Atal Bihari Vajpayee begins his third term as India's prime minister, he remains beholden to his Hindu nationalist benefactors. Yet increasingly he is his own man
By AJAY SINGH


Vajpayee says he'd rather not be premier, that his ideal life would involve simple pleasures like a movie and dinner with friends. A likely story
Rakesh Sahai for Asiaweek
A king in ancient India accidentally cuts off a finger and summons his wazir, or prime minister, for advice. "Whatever happens is for the good," says the wazir. Angered by his deputy's insulting fatalism, the king fires him. A few days later, the ruler is out hunting alone when he is captured by a band of savages. They are preparing to sacrifice him to the gods - when one of them notices the king's missing digit. According to the rules, only people with intact limbs can be sacrificed. The king is set free. Struck by the wazir's prophecy, the monarch reinstates him but asks: If everything happens for the best, what good could have possibly come from your dismissal? "My lord," the adviser replies, "if I had been serving you, I would have accompanied you to the hunt and been sacrificed in your place."

The legend is a favorite of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee - and he rarely misses a chance to recount it during election campaigns, including the recent one that catapulted his Bharatiya Janata Party back to power this month at the head of the 24-party National Democratic Alliance (NDA). When Vajpayee's previous government ran aground in April, his old friend N. M. Ghatate, a New Delhi jurist, expressed his sympathy. "Don't worry," Vajpayee told him. "Whatever happens is for the good."

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Vajpayee The Indian PM remains beholden to his Hindu nationalist benefactors. Yet increasingly he is being his own man

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Vajpayee's fatalism has kept him afloat in a sea of adversity. From the moment he assumed office in March last year - his first stint as PM in 1996 lasted just 13 days - Vajpayee lurched from one crisis to another. It all began with his administration's failure to manage the international fallout from India's shock nuclear tests in May 1998. Weeks later, the administration rolled back several budget proposals. Then came the BJP's humiliating defeat in three key state elections. Throughout its tenure, the coalition government embarrassed itself almost daily by failing to control intra-party squabbling. The disunity climaxed in the dissolution of Parliament and the recent elections, which concluded Oct. 3. Yet paradoxically the government's very blunders enabled Vajpayee to prove his mettle as a leader and bolster his image as an unrivaled candidate for premier. How did he improve his personal standing as PM even as his party's reputation was in tatters? The answer lies in Vajpayee's intriguing leadership style.

Vajpayee, 74, has long been described as the "right man in the wrong party." He is often seen as a liberal in the Nehru mold who seems out of place in the BJP. There is some truth to this. Vajpayee has always practiced the politics of accommodation, which has traditionally been alien to a centralizing, authoritarian party like the BJP. He was among the first politicians to propose the idea of coalition governments long before they became unavoidable in India. Vajpayee urged the BJP to participate in state-level coalitions as far back as 1967, enabling the Hindu nationalists to come to power for the first time, nipping decades of rule by the Congress party. Vajpayee also played a moderating role in several key campaigns of the Hindu nationalists, including a nationwide movement in the 1960s to ban cow slaughter, an affront to Muslims.

Perhaps the most well-known example of Vajpayee's liberalism is his stand on the infamous Ayodhya incident. Vajpayee was conspicuously absent from the BJP-led gathering of Hindu militants who destroyed the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya on Dec. 6, 1992. When reached for comment, he reportedly sobbed and choked as he expressed his outrage. Small wonder then that as many as 23 national and regional parties with diverse ideologies have chosen to rally around him in their common aim to keep Congress out of power. The BJP is still seen by almost all its allies as a communal party and they are not prepared to back it without the moderate Vajpayee as PM. Without him, the NDA would never have materialized; take him away and it would crumble. Vajpayee is the NDA's anchor, its main vote-catcher - a reality that the alliance tacitly acknowledged by featuring portraits of him throughout its election manifesto.

Yet Vajpayee's liberal leanings are anathema to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the powerful grassroots organization that is the BJP's parent body, as well as the fountainhead of militant Hinduism. Vajpayee spent his early life under the shadow of the RSS; like many members he never married so as to dedicate his life to the nation. But he has had a troubled relationship with the group for the past 15 years or so. One of his toughest challenges after becoming PM last year was how to balance the demands of his coalition partners with those of his militant mentors.

The allies and Vajpayee wanted moderate politicians to get important berths in the Cabinet; the RSS vetoed several candidates proposed by Vajpayee, forcing him to appoint BJP hardliners to key ministries critical for the spread of militant Hindu ideology. Within six months of his coming to power, tensions between the PM and the RSS grew to such an extent that a section of the otherwise highly disciplined RSS began calling Vajpayee names in public. The taunting turned belligerent after the BJP was thrashed in three state elections last year, largely because the RSS withheld support.

Then, in February, the RSS attacks on Vajpayee stopped. Why? Apparently the RSS was warned that either it stop targeting Vajpayee, or his government would probe allegations of tax evasion against the organization and some of its affiliates, particularly the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council. The strategy worked in part because the RSS has a vested interest in ensuring the survival of a BJP-led coalition. If the RSS cannot have a government headed by a hardliner, the next best thing is to support a liberal like Vajpayee. After all, in the final analysis, he is considered an RSS man.

But Vajpayee has his own agenda. Since his rift with the RSS widened, he has been trying to surround himself with such liberal BJP leaders as former foreign minister Jaswant Singh and ex-finance minister Yashwant Sinha. At the same time, he is reaching out to centrist parties, both within and without the NDA, in an attempt to expand his support base and occupy the political middle ground largely vacated by Congress.

Nonetheless, debate continues to rage as to whether Vajpayee represents a moderate side of the BJP or if he is merely the party's pseudo-liberal face. The controversy grew last year when the BJP's chief ideologue K.N. Govindacharya called Vajpayee the party's mukhota, or moderate "mask." The implication was that Vajpayee has the same political convictions as Lal Krishna Advani, the de facto deputy PM and home minister in the previous administration. Advani is known for his hardline views and it is he who called the shots in government until Vajpayee tamed the RSS. Govindacharya's statement, later denied, also seemed to dovetail with what critics of the BJP have long maintained: that the Vajpayee-Advani duo were playing good cop, bad cop. If true, the real Vajpayee supports the concept of a Hindu nation.

It is impossible to say with any certainty whether Vajpayee represents the BJP's moderate face, as opposed to a genuine faction, or if he is something of a dissident. This much is clear: Vajpayee is a shrewd opportunist whose main aim is to expand his political base and hold on to power.

When historians chronicle Vajpayee's legacy, perhaps the most enduring image of his rule will be the PM standing before a crater in the western Thar Desert - site of last year's atomic explosions. Arming India with nuclear weapons has been one of the BJP's long-standing promises, and Vajpayee decided to conduct the tests within a day or two of coming to power (he had also planned the tests during his 13-day tenure in 1996).

Regardless of whether the decision was right or wrong, it was not something a statesman would have rushed into. Three previous PMs had resisted the urge to conduct tests, even though they could have shored up public support for their shaky governments by doing so. Though he told Asiaweek that he felt a "great responsibility" when he gave the green light for the tests, in political terms Vajpayee's act was not much different from a populist politician distributing free rice to voters.

main pakistan indonesia india malaysia Whether the tests actually translated into political support for the BJP is a matter of considerable debate. Most observers are unanimous that a wave of nationwide euphoria subsided within two months in the face of the government's subsequent administrative blunders. Vajpayee, for his part, proved to be an extremely shrewd political manipulator. In a brilliant move, he foiled RSS and VHP plans to celebrate the explosions by taking soil from the test site and using it to consecrate new temples across the nation. On the surface, Vajpayee's move may be seen as yet another example of his moderation. In fact, Vajpayee really meant to keep his Hindu nationalist rivals from stealing political thunder from the tests.

Vajpayee may be a master politician but nobody would call him a man of action. Nearly half a century in public life, rather than great accomplishments, has made him into the leader he is today. Plus charm, oodles of it. "When he wants to," says political commentator Janardhan Thakur, "Vajpayee can charm birds off trees simply by being what he is - an immensely attractive human being." This was powerfully evident during his acclaimed "bus diplomacy" tour to Pakistan last year.

One of the most memorable events during the historic visit was a speech Vajpayee gave to a large gathering of distinguished guests, including Nawaz Sharif, in the sprawling gardens of the governor's residence in Lahore. Wearing a dhoti (sarong), a Hindu costume that is often an object of derision in Islamic Pakistan, Vajpayee looked more like a shabbily-dressed Indian merchant than prime minister of the world's largest democracy. But that image dissipated when Vajpayee, a master orator, uttered three short sentences: "I came yesterday. I am going back today. This is the way of the world." The audience was floored by the utter simplicity of the words, a reflection of the speaker's earthiness. As the speech progressed, people shook their heads in amazement. Some wiped away tears.

Vajpayee likes to tell people that he'd really rather not be prime minister. He recently confided that he would prefer to have a leisurely morning, make a speech in Parliament, nap in the afternoon, see a movie in the evening, meet friends, eat dinner and then sleep. The PM was being disingenuous. Still, it is true that Vajpayee dislikes appointments before 9 a.m. He reserves early mornings for a walk in the garden with his two dogs Sassy and Sophie, reading and quiet reflection. An avid parliamentarian, he prefers to work amid the hustle and bustle of the House rather than be closeted in the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), which is run by a team of advisers (including not a few relatives).

Until a few years ago, Vajpayee's evenings weren't complete without several shots of whisky, followed by a hearty dinner that often included prawns, his favorite dish. The PM no longer drinks because of poor health - he has one kidney and there have been rumors of prostate cancer. He is asleep by 11 p.m. (One of the few times Vajpayee broke this routine was on May 10, 1998, eve of the nuclear tests. That night, he slept next to a white telephone installed by the army, waiting for the news that would earn him a place in history.)

Vajpayee is a gentleman politician - a cultured man with an engaging ease. "He is gentle to the core," says Sudheendhra Kulkarni, director of communications at the PMO. "In his 17 months as prime minister I never saw him lose his temper." Someone recently asked Vajpayee how he managed to retain his poise through all the ups and downs he has suffered in office since he first became PM in 1996. As he often does, Vajpayee turned to legend for an answer. He invoked the example of the Hindu deity Ram, whose expression and attitude remained unchanged when he was crowned king of Ayodhya and when, moments later, he was exiled to the forest for 14 years.

However history may judge Vajpayee, it cannot begrudge him a comparison with Ram in at least one respect. Minutes after he lost the parliamentary vote of confidence by a single vote in April, a stunned MP asked Vajpayee what the protocol was for leaving the House. "Forget the protocol," Vajpayee chuckled in his typically good-humored Hindi. "Just snatch up your belongings and get out." The prime minster might well have said instead: Whatever happens is for the good.

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