The Slatest

Atal Bihari Vajpayee Helped Bring Hindu Nationalism Into the Mainstream

An Indian Bharatiya Janata Party worker pays tribute at a portrait of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the state of Guwahati on Friday.
An Indian Bharatiya Janata Party worker pays tribute at a portrait of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the state of Guwahati on Friday. Biju Boro/Getty Images

On Thursday, former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, an enormously influential figure in the country’s politics, died at the age of 93. His passing has been widely mourned throughout India and internationally, with tributes pouring in from current Prime Minister Narendra Modi, prominent opposition politicians like Rahul Gandhi, and even the Israeli government. Before his cremation, his remains were delivered to the headquarters of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the nationalist political party he founded and that currently controls India’s government.

Vajpayee was born in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh in 1924. As a teenager, he volunteered with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—familiarly known as the RSS—a nationalist organization dedicated to the principle of Hindutva, or “Hinduness,” a fraught ideology that’s been historically defined as the promotion of ideals pertaining to Hinduism. Considering the dominance of Hinduism within India, and the Hindu-Muslim tension that fueled the interreligious violence that led to the split of India and Pakistan in 1947 and has continued in waves ever since, Hindutva has often been associated with xenophobia. The ranks of the RSS and its ideology shaped the careers of some of India’s most powerful leaders today, including Modi and President Ram Nath Kovind. A few years after partition and independence, the RSS gave birth to the Bharatiya Jana Sangh party, which opposed the socialist policies of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Initially holding only a few seats in India’s lower house during the ’50s, the BJS won more representation in the ’60s when it formed a coalition with other small-time parties, but it was still a marginal force.

Vajpayee was first elected to Parliament in 1957 and rose through the ranks of the BJS, becoming president of the party in the late ’60s and guiding the philosophy of the party through various iterations. He gained popularity for his sweeping and spontaneous rhetorical style and bustling rallies, and was well known as a poet, too. Publicly, he was regarded as the more reasonable, gentler image of the party’s often fiery views. His words even wowed Prime Minister Nehru, who once predicted he would become prime minister one day.

The breakthrough moment for Hindu nationalist politics came in the ’70s when the harsh authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter, caused a backlash that the BJS took advantage of, again merging with other parties to form the Janata Party, united by sheer opposition to Gandhi. The party won a majority of seats in the 1977 election and installed Morarji Desai as prime minister; Vajpayee became the minister of external affairs. After the party splintered along ideological lines just a couple of years later, Vajpayee and more right-leaning leaders formed the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1980. Although Vajpayee was generally known as a moderate within the RSS and BJP, the party leaned harder into Hindutva and catapulted off escalating Hindu-Muslim tensions to come to power in the late ’90s.

Vajpayee first became prime minister for just 13 days in 1996, but his main tenure was from 1998 to 2004, following a collapse of a third-party United Front government. While in office, Vajpayee presided over India’s transition away from Nehru-style socialism, including the privatization of many government-owned organizations and a new emphasis on foreign investment. He also established the country as a nuclear state, giving the approval for three test nuclear explosions in 1998, meant as a deterrent to China and Pakistan. The act was condemned by then U.S. President Bill Clinton and set off an arms race with Pakistan, which soon detonated nuclear devices of its own. Nuclear tensions were tempered by a summit between Vajpayee and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999. Vajpayee also oversaw numerous conflicts while in office, including the Kargil War with Pakistan, a skirmish over the shared state of Kashmir, and the 2002 Gujarat riots, a series of Hindu-Muslim conflicts that left over 1,000 people dead. At the time, Vajpayee controversially remarked, “In Indonesia, Malaysia, wherever Muslims are living they don’t want to live in harmony. They don’t mix with the society. They are not interested in living in peace.” The government claimed that his remarks were taken out of context, but the Hindutva roots of the BJP were clearly on display. The governor of Gujarat at the time, who was accused of turning a blind eye to, or even abetting the violence, was Narendra Modi.

Vajpayee was not as anti-Nehru as many of his acolytes, and on other occasions he refused to stoke hatred of India’s Muslims, but he nevertheless used his rhetorical skill to make BJP policies more palatable to the masses. To this day, he is still the only prime minister not of the liberal, historically dominant Congress Party to serve a full term, although this is likely to change if Modi rides his term out to the 2019 elections.

The divisive nature of the party he led has been on display, even after his death: Swami Agnivesh, a former Indian minister and anti–bonded labor activist whose outspoken views have sometimes been labeled as “anti-Hindu,” was attacked outside the BJP office and called a “traitor” while on his way to pay respects to Vajpayee.

Although he was well-regarded throughout the country and popular even among many who didn’t share his views, Vajpayee’s lasting legacy may be the party he created and its continuing extremism.