This is the Atal Behari Vajpayee whom his supporters believe India needs, even if a section of the Sangh parivar may not recognise that. There is a sense of pragmatism—at times flirting with statesmanship—in the BJP's prime ministerial candidate as he leads his party to the hustings.
Because in the end, for the BJP, everything seems to be boiling down to this one man. Whose popularity and appeal far outstrips that of his party. In fact, at a time when popular support for various political formations in the country seems to have peaked, give or take a little, the BJP has pinned its hopes on Vajpayee to make the crucial difference between getting close to and achieving power. It is time for the best man to be groom. That, in a sentence, is the keynote of the BJP's election campaign for the 12th Lok Sabha.
Vajpayee set the tone for this move himself as he launched his campaign in Uttar Pradesh from Gorakhpur on January 22 in trademark style, playing to a packed ground on his bachelor status, and linking it to his desire to lead the country: "I came to Gorakhpur nearly 40 years ago. For a marriage. No, it wasn't mine. It was my elder brother's. I came as the best man. Once again I am in Gorakhpur but this time for a consummation devoutly to be wished for." The thousands who came to hear him tittered, then laughed out aloud and finally broke into sustained applause. The message had gone through.
The content of his speeches on his two-day tour of UP is equally significant; the emphasis was on issues of healthcare, infant mortality, rising prices, stability, corruption, the empowerment of women, and what he termed the panacea to these ills, "good governance without prejudice". No mention of Ayodhya, a uniform civil code or Article 370. Only that the "Kauravas (his political opponents) are on the other side and I have come to you to help me win the battle against them."
But to stretch the Mahabharata idiom, the Vajpayee in the fray this time is not the brave Arjun but the more introspective Yudhishtir. And he has, in effect, put himself at stake to give the final push to what is being termed the BJP's "final assault".
IN the over 40 years that I have been in public life, I have striven to keep my record clean. From Nehruji to Gujral, I have seen all the prime ministers Independent India has had, nearly all the time as part of the Opposition. You have all seen my behaviour and character as a member of the Opposition. I have tried to work for the country in whatever position I may have had. We always accepted the fact that we did not have the mandate in the past. But our opponents seem to be having trouble in accepting change," he told a mammoth crowd at Allahabad.
At close quarters, Vajpayee shows no signs of the pressure he certainly must be under. This is, after all, the second time he has been projected as prime minister, the first spell having lasted only 13 days. With the Sonia factor beginning to show signs of having some effect and the possibility of a "secular gang-up" becoming more likely in a post-poll scenario, he has chosen the high-risk policy of placing a wager of his record in public life as the counter to these developments.
AS elections draw nearer, however, there does seem to a shift in Vajpayee's stance. The earlier, "ignore Sonia" tactic has been replaced by a frontal attack on Sonia, the party she represents, and, of course, Bofors. In fact, many of the BJP's senior leaders are convinced that Sonia's decision to campaign was a direct result of the growing acceptability of a Vajpayee-led BJP government and the corresponding decline in Congress prospects.
But he still sleeps easily. Even on the tiny eight-seater beechcraft airplane that ferried him on his campaign tour to UP, even as his co-passengers fight hard to keep the food down as the plane hits an air pocket. A few minutes before the plane is to land he wakes up, pops a couple of pieces of mishri in his mouth, glances through his pocket diary and is ready to speak. Extempore, as always.
Known to be a stickler for punctuality at public meetings, he gets mildly irritated at the fact that he is running late. " Arre Atalji, chalta hai. Workers thoda late start hee chah rahe the ," pipes up UP BJP president Rajnath Singh who is accompanying Vajpayee on the tour. " Sab chalta hai kyon? Wah! " is his muttered response, only half-jokingly.
At meeting after meeting, Vajpayee holds the attention of his audience despite speaking of issues that don't easily lend themselves to hyperbole. Using a technique he seems to have perfected, he leads with an anecdote and, having got his audience's attention, suddenly changes tack, connects it with a serious issue. Sample this: "There was a cow which landed up in court and conveyed to the magistrate that she was apprehensive that policemen would come and arrest her. She had heard that the constabulary was on the lookout for those who eat fodder and had come to apply for anticipatory bail! (laughter) But corruption is not a laughing matter. Because this is the money which can be used for building hospitals to ensure infants do not die as soon as they are born and the ill can be treated."
As his campaign moves into the last stretch, it is becoming apparent that Vajpayee is to be projected as the moderate, middle-of-the-road, balancing force; which is a persona he is very comfortable with. The question is whether the goodwill Vajpayee has generated will translate into votes. He is certainly in demand, with BJP candidates falling over each other to try and get him to pay a visit to their constituency, believing that he will give them the winning edge. It would be fair to add that his party too has not been sniping at the difference in "emphasis and priority" that have marked Vajpayee's campaign till now, for the same reason.
Because the campaign has been built around Vajpayee, this election has also willy-nilly become about what he stands for. "Trust me... I am there... I will handle it," were some of the general reactions from Vajpayee when questioned on the possibility of confrontations and social tensions if the BJP comes to power. If he becomes prime minister, the burden of belief will be upon him.