The Bharatiya Janata Party was formed in 1980. And AB Vajpayee was its first President, from 1980 to 1986.

Here's ABV's speech at BJP's first "Adhiveshan" back in 1980 -

Now this is a speech that deserves close analysis

Now why was the BJP formed? It was formed at the end of the tumultuous period of Janata Party rule from 1977-80 during which time the erstwhile Jana Sangh's uneasy existence within the Janata Party proved untenable
So when the members of the former BJS formed a new party in 1980, what did they hope to achieve?

Did they choose to emphasize their "Hindu exceptionalism"? Or did they seek to fashion themselves as a "mainstream" party downplaying their "Hindu" credentials?
The answer is clearly the latter. And the reason for that was mainly the man at the helm - Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Now let's try to dissect this speech of his delivered in 1980 at the dawn of the party's history
Here are some excerpts from the speech -

"Janata Party toot gayi, Magar ham JaiPrakash ke sapnon ko tootne nahin denge"

"Jaiprakash kisi vyakti ka naam nahin hai. Jaiprakash kuch aadarshon ka naam hai. Kuch mulyon ka naam hai."
So he was positioning BJP as the true heir of Jaiprakash Narayan's legacy.

Not Savarkar. Not Shama Prasad Mukherjee. Not Golwalkar. No.

But Jaiprakash Narayan. The Socialist leader.

I find this very odd. And it's not a surprise this "moderate strategy" didn't work.
Let's look at some other excerpts from this speech -

"Bharatiya Janata Party Punjivaad ko bhi asvikaar karta aur Marxvaad ko bhi asvikaar karta hain. Dono judva bhai hain".

Translation - "The BJP rejects both capitalism and marxism - both are twins"
Here's more -

"Hamne Gandhivaadi Samaajvaad ko ek nishta ke roop mein sweekar kiya hai"
"Hamne sampradaay nirapekshata ko bhi sweekar kiya hai"

Translation -
"We accept Gandhian socialism as a duty of ours"
"We also accept Secularism"
Here's more!!

"Hum to ek haath mein Bharat ka Samvidhan aur dusre haath mein Samata ka nishan leke maidan mein khudenge"

Translation -

"We will join the electoral battlefield with the Indian Constitution in one hand, and the sign of "Equality" in the other"
These are remarkable things to say from what was once a party (Jan Sangh) that prided itself on its Hindu exceptionalism and its scepticism of the "slavish" adoption to the Westminster system.
Vajpayee's positioning of BJP as a Gandhian socialist party rooted in Indian "traditions" simply did not work.

In its first general elections in 1984, it won just 2 seats.
A sharp drop from the 35 seats it had won in 1967 - under Balraj Madhok's leadership - ABV's great rival
Vajpayee eventually stepped down after the 1984 debacle, and the leadership passed on to LK Advani in 1986. That was when the party moved back to Hindutva and re-embraced its Hindu credentials and also shed its conscious embrace of socialism
It clearly paid dividends.

In 1989, the BJP increased its tally from 2 seats to 89. And its vote share from 7% to 11.5%.

This further increased to 120 seats and 20% vote share in 1991, under LK Advani's leadership.
Advani's underlining of the BJP's cultural nationalism and exceptionalism worked!

ABV's moderation had failed. Failed miserably.
In the mid 90s, Advani as well as the rest of BJP thought that they needed AB Vajpayee's face to get the "incremental vote" and brought him back at the helm.

And yes, he did become the Prime Minister in 1996. And again in 1998. And remained PM for 6 long years.
But we must not lose sight of Vajpayee's failures in the 80s.

He helped form a party that he consciously projected as a "break from the past". A centrist socialist party.

And those were 6 lost years for the BJP.
While he remains a much beloved leader of India and the nationalist movement, we must remind ourselves that Vajpayee was by no means the "architect" of this party.

His legacy during the party's formative years was very unremarkable to put it as charitably as one can!
The other great myth surrounding Vajpayee is that it was his "moderate" image that got BJP a big incremental vote in 1996 and made it the single largest party. This is a popular perception.

But is plain wrong
In 1996, the BJP's vote share under Vajpayee's leadership remained at 20.29%, as compared to 20.04% back in 1991 under LK Advani's leadership.

So bringing back Vajpayee was primarily an attempt by BJP to get more allies. It got them NO incremental vote.
Even in 1999 - the best BJP performance pre 2014, the vote share remained at 23.75% - hardly a big jump relative to what Advani had already achieved way back in 1991.
Vajpayee was a failure from the 1980s brought back by Advani and the rest of the BJP establishment who knew that Advani's "face" won't get BJP the allies to take it past 270. They needed Vajpayee to get allies not votes

Electorally Vajpayee was not really a major factor
Vajpayee's effort in the 80s was to turn the erstwhile Jan Sangh into a centrist party - something that would have been almost unrecognizable to say someone like Shama Mukherjee - the founder of Jan Sangh.

The effort am sure was sincere from ABV

But it did not help the party
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