Late Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a product of an era when Jawaharlal Nehru's vision defined India's tryst with destiny. And when the foundations of liberal and constitutional democracy were being laid amidst the high adventure of nation building. And where science, technology and cultural diversity became the categorical imperative.

Vajpayee’s ideological grooming in right wing nurseries was hugely tempered by that vision of Nehru who had predicted that he would one day become the Prime Minister of India.

It would be instructive to note that Vajpayee quoted extensively from Nehru's Discovery of India on the social and cultural diversity of India while replying to the vote of confidence he sought in Lok Sabha for his Government which lasted for thirteen days.

However, he was a creature of the Sangh and its ideology deeply determined his thought and action, even as the rough edges of that ideology were blunted by the constitutional scheme within which he had to operate.

Recall Vajpayee’s statement at the Goa meet of the BJP where he as the Prime Minister of India famously said that he was a Swayam Sevak and his party would build India as envisioned by Swayam Sevaks if they got the mandate of the people. In that speech he targeted Muslims for their so called intolerance in words that certainly was not expected from a Prime Minister of India, representing all Indians.

He said, “Wherever Muslims live, they don’t like to live in co-existence with others, they don’t like to mingle with others; and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats. The world has become alert to this danger." Those words were certainly not ‘moderate’ as many liberals described Vajpayee.

The late Prime Minister’s opponents often derisively referred to him as a "Mukhota" (mask) who combined in himself the ideological core of his party and some features of liberalism which enabled him to navigate easily through the rough and tumble of politics and public life. In the process he carved for himself the position of one acceptable to leaders of all political persuasion.

Late socialist and professor Madhu Dandavate described Vajpayee as "a hard spoken soft liner" and Advani as a "soft spoken hard liner".

There was in Vajpayee the manifest quality of a hard spoken leader with a lurking desire to reveal his hard line position as and when favourable and opportune conditions prevailed. He was an astute right wing leader looking for opportunities to push his ideological goals and translate them to reality.

What held him in check was the constitutional framework within which he had to operate with a fractured mandate and within the framework of a coalition of parties consisting of diverse ideologies.

One of the glaring instances of his ardent desire to push forward the ideology of right wing ideologies was evident in his recommendation to then President K R Narayanan to award the Bharat Ratna to V D Savarkar. He concurred with the President’s choice of Bismillah Khan, the accomplished Shehnai player but insisted that the RSS ideologue be given similar honour.

Narayanan had serious reservations on Savarkar's name and so he sat on the file for months together. On December 25 when Narayanan went to greet Vajpayee on his birthday, the then Prime Minister told him that since he had not heard anything from the President about his suggestion of Savarkar he was obviously not happy about it, and so he was withdrawing it. This example of Vajpayee recommending Bharat ratna for Savarkar and eventually withdrawing it, clearly indicates his role as a champion of Hindutva ideology and at the same time his flexibility to steer clear of it when he is checkmated by high constitutional functionaries.

May be because of his grooming in the era informed by the Nehruvian legacy he could realise the limitations of Hindutva ideology in a constitutional scheme that India adopted for governance.

The modicum liberalism that Vajpayee had was exemplified by many of his decisions which included his approval to engage in dialogue with Hizbul Mujahideen within the framework of Insaniyat, humanism. He did so because Hizbul Mujahideen was not willing to pursue talks with the Indian Government within the framework of the Constitution of India but within the framework of Insaniyat.

While agreeing for engagement within the framework of Insaniyat Vajpayee said that the Constitution of India is nothing but the manifestation of Insaniyat.

Another display of his so called liberal disposition was amply manifested when he asked then Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi, current Prime Minister, to uphold Rajdharma in dealing with the massacre of thousands of people including the large number of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 after Godhra killings.

He wanted Modi to resign as Chief Minister and failed in his attempts to secure his removal as L.K.Advani stood behind Modi to oppose Vajpayee's decision.

However, the man who wanted the Chief Minister of Gujarat to uphold Rajdharma failed to do so himself as the Prime Minister when he refused to give time to meet victims of the Gujarat riots when they came to Delhi and desperately wanted to meet PM Vajpayee. The desperate and terrorised victims eventually sought time from President K R Narayanan. Their plight so moved President Narayanan, and he was so shaken by their pain and suffering that he almost broke down.

However, in face of the worldwide condemnation of the 2002 Gujarat riots Prime Minister Vajpayee famously said that he had no use of that Hinduism which is used to cause violence and bloodshed and he wanted the Hinduism expounded by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda. It was a stunning and subtle indictment of the Hindutva which was used to generate and justify the Gujarat violence.

On an earlier occasion when terrible caste violence occurred in Bihar and there was police complicity with upper castes to kill Dalits, Vajpayee while speaking in Parliament said that civil servants at the time of recruitment should be assessed for caste prejudices. And failed if tested as positive. It was indeed a bold suggestion to ensure bureaucratic and police neutrality and impartiality.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was , thus, a mixture of right wing ideology with slight proclivities for liberalism. It is because of his advent as a public figure in the Nehruvian era he could put a leash on his right wing ideology , with touches of liberalism that made him popular not only in India but Pakistan. His legacy deserves deeper study.