They were loyal workers expanding the party’s footprint through 1990s; literal conservatives who didn’t let the BJP wither away between 2004-2014; and consummate administrators when their leaders put that responsibility on them.
The celebratory mood, which had engulfed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its supporters due to the NDA government’s historic move to remove the state of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status has been punctuated abruptly with the news of the untimely passing of two of its most towering leaders – Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj.
Both mentored by none other than LK Advani, their rise to the top echelons of the party and Indian politics was nothing short of meteoric – student leaders with the ABVP, young foot soldiers against the Emergency, intelligent voices when in opposition and exemplary ministers when in government. – Jaitley and Swaraj have etched their lore in the annals of the BJP forever.
For supporters of the BJP (including yours truly) who were drawn towards the party during the mid-1990s, these losses would have come as bitter pills to swallow.
This is because both Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley were very much leading lights of the BJP, which stormed into power during those heady years and captured the nation’s imagination with a gleaming lineup of charismatic leaders and audacious ideas.
Many of those leaders are not part of the national political scene today. Jaitley and Swaraj, the incomparable Atal Behari Vajpayee, Bhairon Singh Shekawat, Pramod Mahajan, Ananth Kumar and Manohar Parrikar are no longer with us.
Many others like LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Jaswant Singh, Uma Bharti, Kalyan Singh and Govindacharya are politically inactive.
A few of the others like the former ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha have moved onto other political tents.
It will be difficult to imagine for the newer supporters of the party - considering how easily the Modi-Shah duo managed to correct a 7-decade long injustice – but this seemingly insurmountable dominance of the party today has not been one of its characteristics until fairly recently and the role that the leaders of the BJP had in making the party the dominant force it is cannot be understated.
For most of its history, the BJP - and its predecessor the Jan Sangh - fought its battles on the margins of national politics.
In the form of the political wing of a Hindutva movement, it was always considered an important voice in the scheme of things and its early leaders like Dr Syama Prasad Mookerjee and Deen Dhayal Upadhyay had posed serious ideological challenges to the Nehruvian school of thought before both their lives were tragically cut short.
However, the party struggled to establish itself as a major electoral rival to the Congress behemoth, with the Left alliances and the Swatantra Party being the more successful opposition formations during the initial decades of the Indian Republic.
It was only towards the end of the 1980s, with the collapse of Rajiv Gandhi’s resolve in the face of Islamic extremists and his broken promise to the Hindu community regarding the Ram Mandir, that the party got its chance to manifest its political ideology in a movement which had public resonance.
As the political front representing the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the party seized the imagination of the Hindi belt and changed Indian politics forever.
The 1990s saw the party also undertake the first major expansion of its political base. So far ridiculed as a party of ‘Brahmins and Baniyas’, the Ram Mandir agitation saw the BJP extend its influence over both the OBCs and the middle classes.
While leaders like Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti and Govindacharya scorched the heartland stitching up social alliances, the likes of Swaraj, Mahajan and Jaitley played an equally critical role in presenting the soft face of the party to the educated middle classes of India.
The 1990s also coincided with the start of the TV news boom in India, with emerging sections of the middle classes first getting exposed to live telecasts of parliamentary debates, news discussions and in-depth interviews.
It was a special time and 1996 was a special year, when India –approaching its 50th year as an independent nation - first elected a BJP government to centre and then tuned-in in large numbers to watch what they expected would be a nail-biting floor test.
Not many realised at the time how crucial the floor test of 1996 would prove to be for the BJP’s fortunes.
Despite their success in the elections, the BJP and its leaders were still far away from being a known entity in many parts of the country.
Many doubts lingered in the minds of common Indians regarding the party’s ability to lead a stable national government and its leadership’s capability to deliver proper governance to an expansive and complicated country like India.
In fact, for many who watched, it would have been their first chance to get a glimpse of what the saffron party was all about.
We know now that Vajpayee failed to get the numbers on that day but, along with his fresh and bustling band of cohorts, gave a riveting performance during the parliamentary debate that endeared them to the nation and erased the doubts which existed on whether the BJP was ready to govern the world’s largest democracy.
This sentiment was strengthened over the next two years which the party spent in the opposition benches.
The combination of the experienced Vajpayee-Advani-Joshi trio and the likes of the young Sushma Swaraj, Mahajan, Uma Bharti and Jaitley painted a picture of stark contrast from the scheming and opportunistic appearances of United Front and Congress formations.
When Vajpayee returned in 1998, the ‘class of 96’ went onto to hold key positions in the national government - many of them for the first time.
Although not without its hiccups, the Vajpayee government delivered a stable and forward looking government to India and despite its unexpected defeat in 2004, the NDA’s work during the 1998-2004 years sealed the BJP’s position as the second pole of India’s polity.
What followed the shock result of 2004 was undoubtedly a testing decade - rumours of tactical differences, personal rivalries and disconnect from the party base surrounded the leadership.
Even so, it is a testament to the ideological cohesiveness of its leadership and organisation that the spectacle of mass desertions and innumerable breakups into splinter groups never really plagued the BJP despite two consecutive defeats at the centre.
In fact, during those years, as the likes of Advani, Jaitley and Swaraj kept up the fight at the centre, the ranks of the BJP were further enhanced through the successes of strong state leaders like Shivraj Singh Chouhan, BS Yediyurappa, Raman Singh and of course, Narendra Modi.
And today, things have changed dramatically from that lost decade.
Under the Modi-Shah duo, not only has the BJP evolved into the most dominant political party in the country it has also succeeded in effecting a dramatic shift in the narrative of national politics – bringing the Indian conservative movement’s perspectives to the front and centre of national discourse.
Mistakes of the Vajpayee-led NDA government have been learnt, and both the party and government today operate synergistically towards building an India that has been the goal of their ideological predecessors for decades.
As time moves on, along with its expected electoral successes, it is critical for the BJP to ensure that it continues to remember the years gone by, the battles of yesterday - both won and lost - and the ones who fought them – sometimes purely on conviction and with little promise of victory.
This should be even truer in the case of those who are not with us today.
The soaring oratory of Atal Behari Vajpayee, the composed arguments of Arun Jaitley, the incisive speeches of Sushma Swaraj and the endearing spirit of Pramod Mahajan should never be too far away from the minds and memories of any supporter of the BJP.
Without a doubt, none of the successes that the party enjoys today would have been possible without the breakthrough these leaders helped it achieve in the 1990s.
It was a time when the party fought off a powerful Congress ecosystem, daunting caste faultiness and significant political cynicism to begin to chart a new future for India and a new idiom for its politics.
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