In his death, Atal Bihari Vajpayee may have provided the BJP just the shot in the arm it needed ahead of the 2019 elections. While he was alive and ailing, very few in the party bothered about him. In fact, it is entirely possible that had he not been ailing and confined to his home, he would have met the same fate that befell on Lal Krishna Advani, his closest aide for 65 years, and other stalwarts in the party like Murli Manohar Joshi and Yashwant Sinha and become a member of the party’s Margdarshak Mandal. But as soon as he died on August 16, efforts to resurrect him in the public memory have begun in right earnest. The events since then – Prime Minister Narendra Modi walking with Vajpayee’s hearse for 6 kms in the scorching Delhi heat, the ‘asthi kalas yatras’ across the country, plans to immerse his ashes in 100 rivers across India, the memorial services organized throughout the country – suggest that the BJP would leave no stone unturned to make political capital out of Vajpayee’s death.
Cynical though it may sound, it makes sound political sense too. Veteran journalist and political commentator Rabi Das is spot on when he says that the BJP may have found in Vajpayee the icon it sorely lacked all these years. For all the efforts of the Modi government over the last four years, it has failed to make a national icon out of Deeendayal Upadhyay. Nor has it succeeded in usurping Sardar Ballavbhai Patel’s legacy as its own. It was, therefore, in desperate need of an icon of its own. And the long-forgotten Vajpayee fits the bill perfectly. For one thing, he was a rare BJP leader loved and adored by all sections of society irrespective of their political leanings. For another, his is the moderate, liberal face of the BJP that may persuade the uncommitted voter, put off by the hardcore Hindutva line pursued by the current dispensation, to vote for the BJP.
Well, one can always argue that there is little chance of Vajpayee doing after his death what he could not do in his lifetime: ensuring a second successive innings in power at the Centre for his party. But there is something about the Indian psyche that finds virtues in a person after his death. One just has to remember what happened to Biju Patnaik to see that a dead Vajpayee may do for his party what he could not while alive. Like Vajpayee in 2004, no one – not even his adversaries, I dare say – believed Biju Patnaik, who was voted to power with an unprecedented 123 out of the 147 Assembly seats in 1990, would be reduced to just 46 seats and voted out in 1995. Janata Dal, the party he headed, did no better in the 1996 parliamentary elections, winning just four seats, two of them by Biju himself. But his death in April, 1997 changed the entire political equation in Odisha. The party formed in his name after his death with his son Naveen Patnaik at the helm has romped home in every election since then, in alliance with the BJP for the first 11 years and on its own since 2009. Biju looms large over the party and the government with every second scheme named after him and ‘fulfilling his dream’ is the ace his son has used to devastating effect to win election after election. It is possible that in voting for the party named after Biju, the people are atoning for their ‘folly’ of not re-electing him in 1995. And the same could happen in case of Vajpayee too.
It may sound harsh and even heartless. But the truth is Vajpayee could not have chosen a better time to die as far as the BJP is concerned. All available indicators suggest that after four years in power, the BJP is not quite in the position it was on the eve of the 2014 elections and is set to lose a significant number of seats in 2019. The economy is still recovering from the twin effects of demonetization and GST while there are far too many youths chasing too few jobs. The lynch mobs, backed by the Hindutva forces, have created a sense of fear among large sections of the population, Muslims and Dalits, in particular. To top it all, the ‘Modi magic’ that brought in the votes for it in 2014 is beginning to fade. The party was thus in dire need of something to boost its chances in the next elections.
In his death, Vajpayee may just have provided the BJP just the fillip it badly needed.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).