On the sixteenth day of May in 1996, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee took oath as tenth Prime Minister of India millions of people across the world felt that a genuine power transfer is happening in the country after British quit in 1947. Political pundits and social thinkers considered Congress Party as a mere offshoot of erstwhile British administration such that the brown sahibs of ‘Grand Old Party’ replaced white sahibs in Lutyen’s Delhi after India’s independence.
Even the brief interregnum in 1977 and in 1989, when non-Congress parties took reins at New Delhi it were the Congress converts who were on the driving seat and Vajpayee remained a pillion rider.
Vajpayee an ardent critic of Congress and its policies, represented the Sangh Parivar that draws inspiration from country’s glorious ancient past and advocates for policies that are innately developed within India rather than parachuting them from the West. Vajpayee crisply announced in chaste Hindi that Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, the then President of India, had appointed him as Prime Minister and he had 13 days to prove majority in the Parliament. There was widespread euphoria at this power transfer and it was believed that Vajapyee would pull it through. But then this was a different era, Bhartiya Janta Party—BJP was still a political untouchable and Vajpayee refrained from horse trading, an euphemism for outright buying out of parliamentarians for voting in favour of the government in power.
“…hum sankhya bal ke saamne sir jhukate hain…main apna tyagpatra rashtrapati mahodaya ko saunpne jaa raha hoon…(we bow in front of the numbers’ power… I am going to tender my resignation to the President of India,” Vajpayee said on the floor of Parliament, conceding defeat that his party could not cobble up the required number of parliamentarians necessary to remain in power. This was the end of his 13-day government. This speech which was telecast live on national news channels had millions of countrymen in tears who felt that their leader was denied the rightful place by Delhi’s power brokers.
This was the kind of affection Vajpayee commanded in a pluralist society and a culturally diverse country. His speech mesmerized listeners and very few politicians in post-independence India can match up to Vajpayee’s charisma.
As destiny would have it, a couple of years later Vajpayee was back on the hot seat of Prime Minister, albeit with a wafer-thin majority. Barely thirteen months had passed and Vajpayee faced the biggest challenge of his life. He had lost the no-confidence motion with a single vote and was leading a care-taker government when news poured in that Pakistan had intruded Kargil peaks of Kashmir Valley. Vajpayee, the poet, did not dither. Pakistan had back-stabbed India at Kargil, but Vajapyee was undaunted and he flexed his muscles. He refused to blink and put his weight behind the armed forces, despite leading a wobbly coalition.
Pakistani intruders were hunted down by our armed forces and India scored a diplomatic and military victory. The Kargil victory brought BJP back to power, this time with a relatively comfortable majority and Vajpayee stayed at the helm till 2004.
Vajpayee led the opposition ranks for almost half-century. During these years he crisscrossed the country, had detailed interactions with scientists, economists, environmentalists, diplomats, domain experts of all hues and of course the common man. It were these interactions with common people and their issues that made him aware of the bottlenecks created by previous Congress regimes. He knew that lack of infrastructure, especially roads, is a major hindrance to India’s economic progress so after taking the country’s reins in 1999, he initiated the ambitious Golden Quadrilateral and East-West Corridor project of connecting far-ends of India through wide roads. His yet another novel idea was to join the numerous rivers of India through a meshwork of canals, which could rid the country of droughts and famines. Vociferous protests by Communist environmentalists did not let this ambitious idea take off. It was his acumen that India needs nuclear muscle to survive in an increasingly hostile neighbourhood that led to the successful Pokhran nuclear tests. And despite objections from conservative sections within the Sangh Parivar he made honest efforts to mend ties with our rouge neighbour Pakistan.
A democrat at heart, Vajpayee liked to take people along, made friends across the political spectrum but never felt shy to put his weight behind critical issues. Though a statesman par-excellence, Vajpayee underestimated the potential of scheming boot-lickers of the Delhi durbar, deceitful durbaris and Lutyen’s leeches who swarm the power corridors of Lutyen’s Delhi.
The most glaring blemish on Vajpayee’s otherwise illustrious career as a statesman, was his inability to understand the deeper politics of these durbaris behind the “mukhauta” (mask) remark. These conniving boot-licking Delhi durbaris lapped up an innocent remark by Kodipakam Neelameghacharya Govindacharya, BJP’s then organisational general secretary, translated it incorrectly and used their devious propaganda machinery to swiftly establish that Govindacharya had called Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the ‘mukhauta’ of Sangh Parivar.
Vajpayee was very upset about the remark, and rightly so, at being called the “mukhauta” of Sangh Parivar by none other than KN Govindacharya, who was also an RSS Pracharak.
It did not occur to Vajpayee, or probably he could not gauge that the brewing controversy over Govindacharya calling him the “mukhauta” could be the handiwork of a few within the Sangh Parivar who were unhappy with Govindacharya’s meteoric rise and were itching to script a downfall for him. In reality, this coterie within the Sangh Parivar, the Delhi durbaris and the cabal of Lutyen’s leeches sniffed an opportunity when Govindacharya in his meeting with British High Commission officials called Vajpayee as the “face” of BJP.
Govindacharya’s innocent remark wherein he called Vajpayee the “face” of BJP travelled through Chinese whispers, was first loosely translated into “chehra” (Hindi word for ‘face’) and subsequently metamorphosed into“ mukhauta” when told to Bhanu Pratap Shukla, a former editor of RSS-mouthpiece Panchjanya.
Bhanu Pratap Shukla wrote an article that said Govindacharya had called Vajpayee as the “mukhauta” of Sangh Parivar.
This news spread like wildfire. It was almost immediately lapped up by boot-licking Delhi durbaris, the coterie within Sangh Parivar, Lutyen’s leeches and the Communist brigade. This diverse spectrum of power brokers from Left to the Right spectrum joined hands and fanned the controversy. Reams of pages were written saying that Vajpayee, the most liberal amongst the Sangh Parivar, is merely a “mask” for Hindu ultranationalists and that Govindacharya’s remarks have exposed their real and hidden agenda. Words and phrases were almost thrust into the mouth of Sangh stalwart Govindacharya.
Being the organisational general secretary of BJP, Govindacharya occupied a vital position during those days. He worked as a bridge between the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. His words could make or break political careers. Above everything else, Govindacharya was a no-nonsense man and could easily separate wheat from chaff. Boot-lickers, Delhi durbaris, Communist forces and Lutyen’s leeches were finding it difficult to make a mark at 11, Ashoka Road--the then BJP Headquarters. Communist brigade and their comrades in Congress were finding it difficult to run their devious and dubious agenda.
Bhanu Pratap Shukla’s article where he claimed that Govindacharya had called Vajapyee as the “mukhauta” of Sangh Parivar was manna from heaven for these motley groups. One fed the other and this controversy grew bigger and bigger within a fortnight. The issue was blown out of proportion and made front page headlines. The budding news channels and their half-baked anchors found a ready made masala item to play on 24x7.
Vajpayee was aghast and pained at all of this. Soon after at one of the public functions he painfully said that he was no longer the face of the party, rather its mask. And he had his reasons. He had devoted his life for the ideology, thoughts and organisation of Sangh Parivar, steering the BJP from two seats in 1984 to 182 seats in 1999. So, if the man (Govindacharya) entrusted to act as ballast for the Sangh Parivar calls him (Vajpayee) as “mukhauta” then surely a big conspiracy must be brewing against him.
Weeks passed by but the controversy refused to die down, rather it grew bigger by the day thanks to the concerted efforts by the durbaris within the Sangh parivar and Communist-Congress nexus. Govindacharya took it upon himself to clear the air. He submitted the original text of his talks with British High Commission officials and called for a press meet. He strongly denied calling Vajpayee as the “mukhauta” and explained that he had called him as the “face” of BJP and a Prime Ministerial candidate. This was right, Vajpayee till the time he faced a debilitating stroke in 2008 was indeed the “face” of Sangh Parivar.
Govindacharya’s vehement denial was buried and dismissed. Worse, even Vajpayee fell into this trap. “I used to revere Atal ji a lot. I met him personally to explain this entire issue to him and clarified that I had never used this word “mukhauta” for him,” Govindacharya said (read full interview). But, probably by then, the perception management of the brokers of Delhi durbar, Lutyen’s leeches and Communist-Congress nexus had had a deeper impact on Vajpayee. A section within the Sangh Parivar was also working overtime to discredit Govindacharya. Vajpayee merely said, “jo ho gaya so ho gaya, ab aage ki socho, kaam karo (whatever happened has happened, now think ahead and work”).
If anything, Vajpayee could have taken cue from a similar remark that was wrongly attributed to him and has stuck with him. Those were the times when India had just won the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. Vajpayee praised Indira Gandhi for successfully leading the country during the war against Pakistan and liberating East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Well, Vajpayee had merely praised Indira Gandhi for the victory, but soon after his speech a Congressman stood up and said ‘Indira Gandhi is Goddess Durga’. This statement was then meticulously weaved in as Vajpayee’s endorsement to Indira Gandhi and has since been successfully propagated by spin doctors within Congress and power brokers that Vajpayee had eulogised Indira Gandhi as Goddess Durga. Despite denials the perception stays on that Vajpayee called Indira Gandhi as Durga.
This episode must have alerted Vajpayee about the perception management skills of Delhi durbaris and the prowess of Congress-Communist nexus. These Lutyen’s leeches use every possible trick up their sleeve to protect their interests and to destroy and discredit genuine thinkers who have the potential to upset their apple cart.
Vajpayee is now no more but then this concocted “mukhauta” controversy destroyed the political career of Govindacharya. He remains a political pariah till date and is shunned both by the BJP and the RSS leaders.
The least that Vajpayee could have done was to objectively study and analyse the sequence of events and then clarify that Govindacharya never called him as the “mukhauta” and that would have been the end of this needless controversy. But his reaction gave fuel to Delhi durbaris, the boot-lickers within Sangh Parivar and Lutyen’s leeches who lapped up the opportunity to effectively sideline a genuine thinker like Govindacharya. A nation cannot progress if it continues to sideline thinkers who work selflessly for the betterment of society. In this battle between sycophants and thinkers, whenever the sycophants win, it’s the country and its people who loose. They remain bereft of the foresight of the thinker who can usher progress and prosperity with their sagacity.
The nation will always remember Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a great orator, poet, statesman and a courageous Prime Minister who gave India the nuclear deterrent and hunted down Pakistani intruders in Kargil. He will always have several feathers in his cap, but whenever history would analyse him in toto the blemish of his shortcoming to respond wisely to the “mukhauta” controversy will be hard to forget.
(Vivek Sinha is a Journalist, Filmmaker and Author of the Novel "Chip in the Madrasa". His Twitter handle is @viveksinha28)