Five years after his death, and more than a decade since his abrupt retreat from public life following a stroke, Atal Bihari Vajpayee has undoubtedly moved into the realm of canonisation. Myths and legends surround his eventful life. Yet, it is only when one reads the latest, well-crafted biography of Vajpayee by Abhishek Choudhary that one realises how little is known about the life and times of this charismatic man who was admired by so many Indians.
As someone trained in economics and journalism, Choudhary puts his skills to good use in this book. Meticulously researched from diverse sources, breezily written and well-annotated, Vajpayee: The Ascent Of The Hindu Right 1924-1977—the first of a two-volume series—not only opens a new window to the enigmatic life of Vajpayee but also to the upheavals of post-independent India and the struggles and growth of his political party and ideological cohorts.
Right in the preface, Choudhary underscores that the book is not a tribute but an assessment, and that he is not “awestruck at the beauty of the tapestry”. He sticks to this premise of a critical biography by presenting his protagonist with warts and all—as any good biographer should—sometimes bordering on extreme harsh treatment.
In this volume, which covers the first 53 years of Vajpayee’s life—from his birth in 1924 in Bateshwar, Uttar Pradesh, to his becoming a minister in the Janata Party government, post-Emergency, in 1977—one sees the evolution of the man on the personal, professional and ideological fronts. That he was a committed swayamsewak all his life, owing allegiance to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its ideology, becomes amply clear. Vajpayee is often accused, even by Choudhary, of doublespeak and being a moderate mask for the Sangh’s alleged bigotry but an objective analysis of this volume does not lead one to that conclusion. In fact, Choudhary overdoes the doublespeak charge so much that at times it gets annoying; we are used to our politicians, across time spans and political divides, indulging consummately in this art. People change, ideas evolve, circumstances determine world views. And it was no different with a politically conscious Vajpayee, who saw no dichotomy in being both a liberal-democrat and an ideologue of Hindutva, which he believed was the “only genuine model for secularism”.
In the communally charged post-Partition era, in an essay written in 1947 as co-editor for the Sangh mouthpiece Rashtradharma, which Choudhary belittles as a “rambling piece of polemic”, the then 23-year-old Vajpayee argued that Muslims who stayed back in India needed to pass a loyalty test, which included handing over usurped Hindu sacred sites such as Ayodhya, Kashi and Mathura. This was a popular belief in those times, even among Congress members, notably because the Muslim League had won a staggering 87% of the reserved Muslim seats in the 1946 election. The idea of Pakistan had been supported wholeheartedly by the Muslim electorate of undivided India.
In the same essay, Vajpayee castigated M. K. Gandhi for pandering to the “pan-Islamist ambitions of Indian Muslims”, a reference to the Khilafat movement and its pernicious side effects, which led to the eventual partition of India on communal grounds. But here Choudhary unfairly blames Vajpayee for creating an environment for Gandhi’s murder and even adds his own unsubstantiated qualifier that Vajpayee “most certainly did not consider Gandhi’s death as a serious loss to mankind”. As a journalist, Vajpayee was well within his rights to critique the most important national leader for what he believed were acts of omission on matters as crucial as Partition. Everyone who did not hero-worship Gandhi cannot be held complicit in fanning his tragic murder.
As Vajpayee matured, however, these views mellowed, as the book points out. In 1961, in Jawaharlal Nehru’s National Integration Committee, we find the same man, even as he staunchly espoused Hindu causes, advocating the inclusion of heroes of all religions, communities and provinces in India’s historiography. This moderation was perhaps also driven by the constant Damocles’ sword that hung over both the RSS and Vajpayee’s party, the Jan Sangh, due to Nehru and Indira Gandhi’s drives to ban them.
Vajpayee’s personal tastes evolved from being a prudish Sangh bachelor who favoured censoring “vulgar film lyrics” and banning cinema for minors to a widened world view where he enjoyed all the good things in life—a drink, the occasional visit to nightclubs abroad, non-vegetarian food and a colourful private life that often kicked up scandal within the orthodoxy of the Sangh Parivar. It is this well-rounded inner core of Vajpayee, with all its attendant contradictions and complexities, that shines through this book, making him real, endearing and relatable rather than a stoic, deified icon.
With the death of his parents and his political mentor, Syama Prasad Mookerji, in quick succession when he was in his early 30s, Vajpayee was emotionally a “broken, lonely, desolate, man-child”, as Choudhary compassionately puts it. Even as his career was beginning to ascend from being an obscure, struggling Sangh journalist to an aspiring politician of a fledgling party, his emotional unfulfilment caused by the death of his loved ones and his own choice to remain unmarried created a huge schism between his outer and inner beings.
Emily Dickenson famously said, “To attempt to speak of what has been, would be impossible. Abyss has no biographer,” and this is the conundrum facing anyone writing of another’s life. But not to attempt the abyss is to miss the point. So Choudhary does speculate and write about the tumultuous personal life of Vajpayee, his life-long relationship with Rajkumari Kaul and the curious role played by her husband Birjan Kaul in this threesome. And he accomplishes this without sounding salacious or sensational. However, some of the claims he makes about Vajpayee’s foster daughter, Namita, allegedly being his love-child with Rajkumari and allusions to Birjan’s sexual orientation are without substantiation in an otherwise intensely referenced book.
The book covers innumerable incidents in post-independent India in a crisp, racy manner. You cannot help but conclude that the more things change, the more they stay the same—stalling of Parliament on corruption, defections to form governments, alleging a compromised CBI, elections or judiciary, unemployment, price rise, secularism, etc., have been the monotonous norm since independence. In 1971, Vajpayee even advocated demonetising high-denomination currency to eradicate black money and corruption.
Choudhary weaves in impactful stories about Vajpayee and the Hindu right’s stands on contentious issues that are still relevant—cow protection, the imposition of Hindi and Kashmir’s integration. He also puts to rest the story that Vajpayee was an informer during the Quit India movement, with documentary evidence of his participation in protests and his incarceration for three weeks in the Agra jail. Choudhary terms this “accidental arrest” as being insignificant but for a teenager whose father was in the service of a pro-British Gwalior maharaja, it was consequential.
There are interesting sidenotes of how he prepared his speeches, given the master orator he was, and his diligence in attending and participating in Parliament, especially to corner Nehru’s government on the pressing issues of the day—financial scandals, food scarcity, heavy taxation, the language issue and his new-found interest, foreign affairs. Though he held Nehru responsible for India’s lack of military preparedness and subsequent loss to China in 1962, Vajpayee never questioned his integrity or leadership and firmly threw his weight behind him—a valuable lesson for today’s opposition.
The book is also a precious account of the birth, growth and electoral struggles of the Jan Sangh. Emotional narratives are woven around the accidental death of Deendayal Upadhyaya and the party feuds between Vajpayee and Balraj Madhok. Even two decades after its formation in 1951, the party remained cash-strapped and its leaders underwent immense struggles. Vajpayee’s campaigns in Balrampur, Uttar Pradesh, on rickety jeeps and bullock carts, even as the ruling party carried on blitzkriegs in chartered flights, secured him his first Lok Sabha victory in 1957. His skills as an organisation-builder, doggedly combating more defeats than victories for decades, shine through.
Police routinely tore up the Jan Sangh’s banners and posters during election campaigns so that then prime minister Indira Gandhi would not be irritated on seeing them. Vajpayee was perhaps among the early Indira opponents, who foresaw her dictatorial streak in her move to abolish privy purses by running roughshod over Parliament and the Supreme Court. Though he praised her confident leadership in the 1971 Bangladesh War, Vajpayee saw Indira’s approach to life as “heads I win, tails you lose and the rest belongs to my father”. And contrary to legend, Choudhary clarifies, Vajpayee did not eulogise her as Durga.
The Congress’ efforts to disrupt Vajpayee’s campaigns and his political career continued for three generations and is in a way a testament to the threat he posed to it. Choudhary narrates bizarre incidents of Rajiv Gandhi hovering in a yellow two-seater private plane over Vajpayee’s 1971 Delhi election rally, disrupting it by dropping multicoloured leaflets, with Vajpayee gesticulating in disgusted fashion towards the skies and asking, “Is this democracy?”
While Indira’s dictatorship is well known, Choudhary’s account inadvertently reveals an authoritarian Nehru as well. Choudhary casts suspicion on Vajpayee’s or the Sangh’s motives on every issue but generously gives the benefit of doubt to several acts of omission by Indira Gandhi or Nehru, or, at worst, keeps the criticism muted. But if one reads between the lines, Nehru’s chinks become obvious in the several examples listed—his persistent efforts to ban the RSS and later even the Jan Sangh, a bona-fide opposition party; trying to crush the Jan Sangh-RSS satyagraha in Delhi in 1953 by threatening to call the police and the army; refusing an impartial enquiry into S.P. Mookerji’s death in captivity; scuttling Vajpayee’s visits as a member of Parliament to Jammu; terming him “a highly objectionable person” and saying he did not “like men like Vajpayee being allowed free entry”.
Victorian biographer Lytton Strachey had said it is as difficult to write a good life as it is to live one. In this, Choudhary passes the test commendably. He may have his ideological tilts but an element of empathy flows through the entire work. The portrait that emerges is of a complex political figure who was battling many inner and outer contradictions in his life and yet trying to make the best of the opportunities that came his way. The volume ends with a heart-wrenching account of the biggest blot on Indian democracy, the Emergency, and the price that leaders like Jayaprakash Narayan, Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani and others paid for opposing Indira Gandhi. It leaves the reader eagerly awaiting the second volume.
Vikram Sampath is a historian, the author of eight acclaimed books and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society, UK.