Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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Vajpayee's way with words and Pondicherry's literature festival

ATAL BIHARI VAJPAYEE had a reputation for being a genial man. He loved laughter and he loved food, especially deep-fried street food. However, beneath the conviviality and inspiring poetry was also a very sharp tongue. Vajpayee had the knack of demolishing people and arguments with the minimum of words. He was both adored and, at the same time, feared.

I recall the flurry of nervous whispers after a small BJP top brass meeting during a National Council meeting in Gandhinagar in the early- 1990s. There was some talk in the meeting about projecting LK Advani more aggressively. As usual, Vajpayee sat through the meeting seemingly preoccupied with other things. Then, after KN Govindacharya, then the Sangathan Mantri deputed by the RSS, had made a remark, Vajpayee butted in with just one sentence: “To put someone’s portrait on the wall, it isn’t necessary to bring down someone else’s portrait.” It was said in Vajpayee’s inimitable Hindi and the effects were immediate. Some 15 minutes later when the meeting dispersed, many of the leaders appeared in a state of shock.

On another occasion, in 1993, just before the state assembly elections after the Ayodhya demolition, there was a small meeting to discuss the BJP manifesto. Predictably, much of the document—or at least the section being discussed—was centred on the Ayodhya dispute and the demolition of December 6th, 1992. Vajpayee sat quietly through most of the presentations. Then, quite abruptly, he asked: “Is that all?”

There was silence in the room. Vajpayee looked around and then continued: “What about education, agriculture, health? Don’t they deserve mention?”

At that time I thought Vajpayee was being a little petulant. Looking back, I think he was wise. He knew from experience that you couldn’t fight an election on a single issue. The results too bore out his conclusion. In 1993, the BJP lost Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and, most important, Uttar Pradesh. It won Rajasthan very narrowly and its only conclusive victory was Delhi.

The 1993 state elections proved a salutary experience. After that, the party gradually began rolling back its aggressive Hindu rhetoric and just before the 1996 General Election, Advani unilaterally announced that Vajpayee would be the party’s prime ministerial candidate. Only Vajpayee had the ability to add incremental votes to the party’s Hindu appeal. He showed the way for the BJP of 2014.

LITERATURE FESTIVALS have become so commonplace in India that there is no novelty left in them. That is because most of them are clones of the Jaipur Literature Festival—the mother of them all—but minus the big international stars. Moreover, of late, many of the festivals have developed the unfortunate habit of hosting sessions that resemble the TV studio discussions that we love to hate. The thin line between literature and current affairs/ politics is often obliterated.

The Lit Fest at Pondicherry appealed to me because it was billed as something different. When a festival goes by the name ‘Bharat Shakti’ and is hosted in a city famous for its association with Sri Aurobindo, you can be sure that the experience will be different. It is possible that some of the invitees may have been deterred by the name and the association, imagining it would be an austere celebration of spiritualism and things up in the air.

Of course it wasn’t. It was like a normal festival, but with one exception: there was a surfeit of delegates from the right-of-centre ecosystem, including many who are not regulars at the Jaipur festival. I didn’t find this strange. Most arty circles and publishing and media houses are dominated by paid-up liberals, lefties and others who make a livelihood by pretending that the darkness of fascism has descended on India. Yes, there are the token conservatives such as me who are regulars, but that’s because I went to the right college and know the Lutyens’ crowd.

Frankly, I see absolutely nothing odd if the Right ecosystem starts getting its house in order and posits an intellectual narrative that is rooted in the Indian experience. For too long, conservatives have been accused of being part of the ‘stupid party’. If they start projecting and fine-tuning their belief systems, it would be a healthy development.

Unfortunately, this is not how the custodians of correctness saw it. The Pondy Lit Fest was sought to be dragged into needless political controversies because its orientation was different. I am glad it was different and I hope that its organisers aren’t deterred by controversies. We need more intellectual variety in English-speaking India.