The Real Difference Between Modi And Vajpayee
In days gone by
NEW DELHI: “Bhaiyon aur Behno,
Jo desh ka mood hai, wahi Delhi ka mood hai!
Jo desh chahta hai, wahi Delhi chahta hai!”
(Delhi wants what the nation wants)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while campaigning for the Delhi Assembly elections, could not have been more clear. And given the fact that he is a politician with experience, he is probably right.
Delhi has voted for change, resoundingly so, and this will have a national impact. It has emerged from the electoral exercise, more united than ever before.
A parody social media site carried a photograph of PM Modi and his right hand BJP president Amit Shah looking glum and, just under it, former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi laughing with glee over the results. It is no secret that there are many in the BJP who are delighted with the results, starting from the elders to the local BJP leaders who have been extremely upset about the manner in which the elections were handled.
Looking at the photographs one was struck by the difference between Vajpayee and Modi. Both are loyal Rashtriya Swayamsevak ideologues and stand by all that the RSS stands for. But that is where the similarity ends and the differences begin. Of temperament of course, but also in the exercise of their politics.
The biggest and crucial difference is that Vajpayee functioned through the BJP and the organisation, while Modi functions outside the BJP creating his own parallel structure of individuals drawn from the RSS, its radical affiliates, and ‘loyalists’ swearing allegiance to him personally. This was Vajpayee’s strength, and Modi’s weakness as, while this system worked in a small state like Gujarat, it cannot be extended to cover all of India without serious repercussions on the party and its future.
Vajpayee had differences with many of the senior leaders in the party, particularly when he became Prime Minister. But he managed these, and the levels of civility and consultation continued through government with the seniors having a say in Cabinet decisions and party policies. Vajpayee worked through the state units of the BJP that remained in charge of all major events, including elections. The RSS had a consultative position, but given Vajpayee’s aversion to personalised attacks and threatening postures, it had to function inside some controlled parameters. For instance the RSS chief at the time could not declare his commitment to a Hindu Rashtra as happens now, with the present incumbent stressing this not once but several times.
In relying on the BJP and the senior party leaders Vajpayee’s style of functioning was democratic. Being a consummate politician he tended to listen to the ground as was evident in his decision not to send Indian troops to Iraq despite considerable pressure from both without and within the country.
The BJP thus flourished under Vajpayee, with the RSS in fact going into a sulk on occasion. And while to some the difference might not be palpable, suffice it to say that the BJP being a political party that fought the elections still had levels of accountability that have never curtailed the RSS or affiliates like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal from spewing venom.
PM Modi is of course a different kettle of fish. He works outside the BJP and has his own fleet of loyalists drawn from the RSS, BJP. VHP and others who then become part of a parallel structure, now being run by Amit Shah who Modi insisted on bringing in as the BJP president. Modi is working closely with the RSS and the affiliate organisations with his victory in the Lok Sabha polls unleashing forces that are carrying out a virulent drive against communal harmony. The Prime Minister has maintained silence throughout with even the New York Times, in an editorial, echoing Indian columnists in urging him to break this and come out against those promoting religious intolerance.
The Prime Minister ran Gujarat as an authoritarian leader, and the same streak is on display in Delhi. The Prime Ministers Office calls the shots to a point where rumours within the establishment now insist that even the budget is being prepared there and not in the Finance Ministry. True or false is imperative in the face of the perception, fast gaining ground, that Modi’s is the last word on every issue, and he does not like to be tampered with.
PM Modi has a tight control over the government, with Ministers and senior bureaucrats not using their mobile telephones for sensitive conversations. He does not consult, he orders. He does not like people to approach him, he approaches who he needs to speak with. And has zero tolerance for criticism, controlling the Bharatiya Janata party with an iron fist through his Man Friday BJP President Amit Shah. Interestingly a story that went viral in the establishment points to this authoritarian side of the Prime Minister. The story suggesting a fall from grace of industrialist Mukesh Ambani says that when he was introducing his wife to the Prime Minister, he made the mistake of placing his hand on Modi’s back. In fact a photograph of PM Modi with the couple captures this, and this says the bureaucratic grapevine, angered the Prime Minister who immediately distanced Ambani.
When Aam Aadmi won the Delhi elections, crackers were burst in government colonies in celebration of the BJP defeat.
Vajpayee had close friends who were not with the RSS. These people he spent evenings with were not minions but friends. One of them Brajesh Mishra rose to become the National Security Advisor, enjoying freedom as well as clout from his proximity to the then Prime Minister. Mishra told this writer once that he had the freedom to take decisions but that he never did this. “ I carry chits of paper in my pockets with various things I need the PM to clear,” he said pulling out a folded note to confirm this. “Whenever I meet the Prime Minister I give these to him so he can read and revert to me with his decision. So I never take any step without informing him fully, and getting his assent,” he said. But as he added, Vajpayee never interfered, having trust in Mishra. In fact he did not interfere in the functioning of Ministries either, except in his role of a guide and mentor and the first amongst equals in the Cabinet as per the Indian Constitution.
Vajpayee also liked to take the advice of several ‘intellectuals’ with a wide variety of retired bureaucrats, editors, columnists, academics frequenting the PMO during his days. This was quite unlike the present PM who is reticent when it comes to meeting other points of view, with his interactions amongst the BJP itself minimalist from all records.
PM Modi likes media coverage and spends a great deal in giving advertisements to the print media and television news channels. He is not as forthcoming when it comes to meeting the media, although he has had had an open interaction with senior journalists, as well as closed room meetings with select editors. Former PM Vajpayee had an active media advisor in Ashok Tandon who was accessible to all, including BJP critics in the media. There were several interactions with Vajpayee at the time. One recalls two comparable media events. Vajpayee after coming to power hosted a luncheon for senior journalists at the official residence, regardless of who was a critic or not. After the lunch, even while he was having desert (with a notorious sweet tooth) he sat back and took a volley of questions on all possible issues from the scribes. PM Modi had his first interaction with journalists at the BJP headquarters where all posed for a selfie, and no awkward questions were asked. As one journalist who attended the meeting said later, “no one dared as he has such a foreboding presence.”
BJP leaders respected and liked PM Vajpayee. They spoke their mind in meetings, rebelled openly against decisions, and as one UP leader said recently, “we could always persuade him to listen to us and act accordingly. BJP leaders are openly terrified of PM Modi. No one speaks out, with the Prime Minister having imposed a virtual gag order on them. At a dinner a BJP functionary, again from Uttar Pradesh said in response to a remark that secretaries to the government of India were using mobile phones registered in the name of their drivers, “and what makes you think that the Ministers talk on their own phones.” And this was not said in jest.
In Delhi there is visible glee about the BJP’s rout. The Congress had been routed in the last Assembly elections, the BJP in these despite pulling out every possible plug. PM Modi was the only campaigner as he has been in all the elections since his victory. PM Vajpayee was always one of the campaigners sharing his dais with other BJP seniors, even so called adversaries like LK Advani. As sources said, “the BJP campaigned in elections then, Modiji campaigns in elections now.”
The difference between the two BJP Prime Ministers is thus not about ideology. They both believe in the same ideology propounded by the RSS, in the same forefathers, the same mission, and the same goal. Both were RSS pracharaks. The difference is in style and approach. And as his colleague once said famously of Vajpayee, he was astute enough to wear the ‘mask’ of democracy without ever letting it slip.