The voice of those who wanted to expel erstwhile Jana Sangh members from the party was getting more and more shrill. In this context, two important developments took place in the first week of April. On 4 April, the National Executive of the Janata Party was scheduled to hold a crucial meeting in Delhi to take a final decision on the ‘dual membership’ issue. In anticipation of the outcome of this meeting, we, the former members of the Jana Sangh, decided to hold a national convention in Delhi the following day. Morarji Desai and some others made a last-ditch effort to retain us within the Janata Party on the basis of a mutually acceptable compromise. But the die had been cast.
The Janata Party’s national executive rejected, by a vote of seventeen to fourteen, the compromise formula and resolved to expel all former Jana Sangh members from the organisation.
Our expulsion from the Janata Party came as a big relief to all of us from the Jana Sangh. But at the same time, we were deeply saddened by it. After all, our merger in the Janata Party in 1977, responding to the call of venerable Jayaprakash Narayan, was total and unconditional. Both psychologically and politically, we had identified ourselves completely with the new party. Therefore, our moment of final parting from the Janata Party evoked mixed emotions in my heart, and in the hearts of all my colleagues: loss, sadness, good-riddance and finally, liberation!
The two-day national convention on 5-6 April 1980 added another invigorating emotion—that of determination. Over 3,500 delegates assembled at Delhi’s Ferozeshah Kotla ground and resolved, on 6 April, to form a new political organisation called the Bharatiya Janata Party. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was elected its first President and I, along with Sikandar Bakht and Suraj Bhan, was given the responsibility of General Secretary.
‘WHO SAYS THERE IS NO ALTERNATIVE TO THE CONGRESS? I AM SEEING ONE IN FRONT OF ME.’
As we embarked upon a new phase in our political journey, an unforgettable milestone came in the form of the BJP’s first plenary session in Bombay on 28-30 December 1980. Nearly 50,000 delegates congregated under a specially erected tent at a sprawling open ground near Bandra Reclamation adjoining the Arabian Sea. The venue was appropriately called ‘Samata Nagar’ to underscore the BJP’s commitment to social and economic equality.
The plenary session of the party’s National Council was marked by a display of overflowing enthusiasm, confidence and determination on the part of both the leaders and the delegates. In a short period since the formation of the BJP in April, as many as twenty-five lakh new members had been enrolled and party units had been set up in practically every state in India.
As per the BJP’s constitution, Atalji was formally elected President by the National Council.
The Bombay session will also be remembered for the special appearance of Mohammed Currim Chagla, a former minister in several Congress governments at the Centre and a hero of the struggle against the Emergency. In his address, Chagla, who had by then long retired from politics, remarked, ‘Who says there is no alternative to the Congress in the country? I see the alternative right in front of me in the form of the Bharatiya Janata Party. And in Atal Bihari Vajpayee, I see the alternative to Indira Gandhi.’
Chagla pointedly refuted the charge that the BJP was a communal party. ‘Indira keeps repeating,’ he said, ‘in the newspapers and on radio every other day that this party is dominated by the RSS, that it is communal, and that every communal riot that takes place is caused by the RSS. This is a charge that I would like to refute. The BJP is not a communal party.’ Advising the BJP to project itself as a national alternative to the Congress, he said, ‘I admire your discipline, your honesty and your dedication. Let me now suggest that you project your future as a national party.… Look at other parties, like the Lok Dal or the Congress (U). These parties have leaders without followers. The communists may have a following, but they are not national parties. They look to Moscow or Peking to get their orders. So their credentials for consideration as replacements for Indira Gandhi are immediately ruled out. Therefore, this is the only party left.’
BIRTH-PANGS OF THE NEW PARTY
The beginning of the 1980s witnessed another important development in Indian politics. On 23 June 1980, Sanjay Gandhi, the younger of the two sons of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, died in an airplane crash in New Delhi. After this, a systematic campaign was orchestrated inside the ruling party to induct Sanjay’s elder brother Rajiv, who was then a pilot with Indian Airlines, into the leadership position. In less than two years, Rajiv was made the General Secretary of the Congress party, a move that sent clear signals that Indira Gandhi had made up her mind to ensure dynastic succession.
The biggest electoral setback to our party came in 1984 from a factor that was as unexpected as it was tragic. On 31 October, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was gunned down inside her official residence by two of her own bodyguards—Satwant Singh and Beant Singh. Even as Indira Gandhi’s body was lying in state, Rajiv was administered the vote of office as Prime Minister by President Giani Zail Singh in the evening of 31 October. At forty, he became India’s youngest Prime Minister, with no prior ministerial experience. In a cynical move to exploit the sympathy wave, the government dissolved the Lok Sabha and called for fresh elections to be held within forty-five days.
In the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP became the worst victim of the ‘sympathy wave’. Our party could win from only two constituencies in a House of 542 MPs—one in Gujarat and the other in Andhra Pradesh. Unbelievably, even Atalji lost his seat from Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. The Congress won as many as 401 seats, better than its best performances during the premiership of Nehru or Indira Gandhi.
Naturally, the pall of defeat hung over the party as its national executive met in Calcutta in March 1985. ‘As the President of the party,’ Atalji said, ‘I take full moral responsibility for the failure of the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections, and I shall be gladly willing to undergo any punishment that the party decides.’ The party, however, promptly turned down his offer to resign. For, everyone in the BJP knew that our tally of two seats in the Lok Sabha was by no means a true reflection of our party’s real presence in Indian politics.
Nevertheless, Atalji insisted on me taking over the presidentship of the party, saying he had had a long innings since its inception. At that time there was no provision in the party’s constitution that a person may remain President only for two consecutive terms of two years each. This limit was incorporated later. However, Atalji was insistent: ‘Let there be no permanent fixtures for any post.’ Thus, I was elected President of the BJP at the plenary session of its national council, held at Indraprastha Stadium in New Delhi, in May 1986.
With this began a new phase in both my party’s and my own political journey.