Among the many things Atal Bihari Vajpayee will be remembered for is his skill as an orator. For me, his most riveting speech was the one he delivered on the floor of the Lok Sabha in 1996 during the confidence vote of his 13-day-old BJP government when it was on the verge of collapse. Vajpayee’s speech that day stands out for multiple reasons. It was the first time a major political speech in parliament had the attention of the entire nation as it was telecast live on Doordarshan. It was the beginning of an era where mass politics converged with mass communication to shape public opinion.
The master politician that Vajpayee was, he turned the negativity in parliament during the debate on the confidence motion to his advantage as he sought to win the confidence of the people. A poignant moment was when Vajpayee recounted his decades of experience in public service as he sought to counter his critics:
“I have spent decades doing this, but today I have been at the receiving end of much personal criticism... I thank the mere four parties that stood by me, including the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal, despite everyone else ganging up against us... I have been accused that I am craving for power and that my actions are a result of my craving for power... If the people have given my party the highest number of seats should I shy away from staking a claim for power... Should I run away from the battlefield to betray the confidence reposed by the people in making us the single largest party...?
The question Vajpayee posed that day to the Lok Sabha and to the nation at large assumes relevance today as the 2014 Lok Sabha elections loom closer. The BJP is once again in the pole position to emerge as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha, going by the projections of most opinion polls.
It is instructive to note the arguments Vajpayee makes in defence of the first-past-the-post electoral system to make his case for why he attempted to form a government though he was short on numbers.
“I am being asked how many percentage votes did you get but the Westminister method we have adopted, we don’t look at percentage of votes, we look at seats, you can’t have it both ways... It has happened many times that a party that has not won a plurality of votes but has won more seats... We have to only go by the number of seats and not by the percentage votes, we don’t count negative votes in our parliamentary system... How can you say the mandate is against us, when we were not even a player in many states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra, and the fight was between those of you who have now gotten together to oppose us...”
In political terms, the portion of the speech most relevant to the present political debate was the political opportunism of the Congress, the Left parties and the regional parties, which came together to stop the BJP and Atal Bihari Vajpayee at all costs, even going to the extent of labelling Vajpayee ‘Hitler’.
“Say clearly and directly that you will not let me assume power at any cost... The bogey of Hitler is being raised in this House, I am being labelled fascist... I have been at this for four decades, I have fought this fight democratically, contesting elections and I am being accused of adopting fascist methods... This is politics of negativism, this is reactionary politics, this is politics to stop us at any cost by making untouchables of us – this is not healthy politics...”
Reacting to Vajpayee’s remarks, Somnath Chatterjee of the CPI-M stood up and screamed, “You are all alone, you stand all isolated.”
It was from that grand isolation that Vajpayee went on to earn the mandate of the nation in two successive Lok Sabha elections with a BJP-led NDA government in Delhi.
As we mark Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s 89th birthday, his speech from 1996 ought to be a reminder to those politically opposed to the BJP that negativism and dishonest political labelling have no place in our political process and will once again be rejected by the voters of India in 2014 as they did in the 1990s.
Shashi Shekhar is chief digital officer at Niti Digital and is popularly known on social media for his centre-right political blog Offstumped.