New Delhi: The 2002 riots in Gujarat was "possibly the biggest blot" on the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and that could have cost the BJP the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, says former President Pranab Mukherjee.
In the third volume of his autobiography titled "The Coalition Years 1996-2012", he also feels the ruling NDA's "India Shining" campaign spawned the opposite outcome and the Vajpayee government was routed in an election against most predictions that predicted a majority to the BJP-led coalition.
"Throughout this period (of the Vajpayee government) the demand for the construction of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya had been building up. The heightened communal tension had a distressing fallout in Gujarat which witnessed a communal carnage in 2002.
"The rioting began at Godhra, a small town in Gujarat, where 58 people were burnt to death in a fire that engulfed a compartment of the Sabarmati Express. The victims were all Hindu Kar Sevaks who were returning from Ayodhya.
"This provoked widespread riots in many cities of Gujarat. Possibly the biggest blot on Vajpayee's government, it may have been Godhra that cost BJP the next elections," says Mukherjee in a chapter on the "First Full Term Non-Congress Government".
He says Vajpayee was a consummate parliamentarian. With an excellent command over the language, he was a great orator who instantly connected with people and brought them together.
Vajpayee's signature in politics was achieving consensus, and in this process he earned the respect of his party, allies and opponents at home. Abroad, he projected a harmonious image of India and connected it to the world through his foreign policy outreach.
An emphatic and humble politician, the former President says Vajpayee did not shy away from giving credit where it was due.
"We are not the initiators of reform. We are carrying forward a process that was started by the Narasimha Rao government, and continued by two United Front governments. But we do take the credit for having broadened, deepened and accelerated the reform process."
Vajpayee did not take political rivalries personally, says Mukherjee.
He says the 2004 Lok Sabha results brought the Congress back to power. Many were surprised by the victory of the Congress and other non-BJP parties. Several psephologists had predicted a clear victory for the NDA.
As late as February 2004, an India Today-ORG-MARG opinion poll had predicted a clear victory for the Vajpayee-led alliance.
"The magazine, interpreting the opinion poll wrote 'Riding on the crest of the Prime Minister's popularity and economic boom, the BJP-led alliance appears set for a sweep in the forthcoming elections.
"The confidence of the NDA had been shaken. Its 'India Shining' campaign had spawned the opposite outcome and cast a pall of gloom over the BJP. It led Vajpayee to ruefully comment that he could never understand the mood of the voter," says Mukherjee.
He also recalls that the 2004 general election was due only in October but the BJP brought it forward by six months on the back of its victories in the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh though it had lost Delhi to Congress.
"There was cheer within the BJP at the resounding victory in important states. However, there were some who advised caution in interpreting these results as a marker of broader national sentiment," observes Mukherjee.