As Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee excelled. He weaponised India’s nuclear programme. His Golden Quadrilateral highway project triggered a vast infrastructure development initiative now globally acknowledged as a spectacular success. He faced multiple challenges to India’s security — including the Kargil war and the terrorist attack on Parliament with calm resolve and equanimity.
However, for details on all that we will have to wait for the release of the second volume of Abhishek Choudhary’s biography of Vajpayee.
Going by the depth, detail, and sheer readability of the first volume, covering the years between Vajpayee’s birth in 1924 and concluding with the defeat of Indira Gandhi’s Congress in the general elections of 1977, we can expect the second part to be equally readable and comprehensive.
The Vajpayee we get to know through Choudhary’s biography is an interesting and much more complex person than we have been led to believe — more open than Nehru and less enigmatic than Indira Gandhi.
His relationship with his father, an interesting figure in his own right who, after a work-life as a teacher returned to complete his degree in law as a contemporary of Vajpayee at University, makes interesting reading. Both father and son shared a room and even cooked for themselves.
Vajpayee’s background was humble. He grew up in a princely state, the very Hindu ruling Scindias of Gwalior and was a recipient of a loan scholarship he was finally spared from repaying.
Although he was undoubtedly brilliant, Vajpayee’s academic record was mediocre. He had a strong grounding in Hinduism’s traditions and classics and a North Indian’s fascination for the Ramayana. He was, Choudhary informs us, “especially fond of Ramcharitmanas the medieval poet Tulsidas’s rendition of Ram’s life”.
From a tongue-tied young man, he went on to become one of India’s greatest and most inspiring orators, often impressing Nehru. Vajpayee researched deeply for his talks and presented them with a flourish imitated by many but equalled by few.
Vajpayee was affable. He loved his drink and was fond of bhang. He had little of the prudishness of his colleagues in the RSS or the BJP even visiting a nightclub in New York. The poet in him bloomed over time. As he aged, Vajpayee’s poems became reflective and even poignant.
Most unusual for a member of a rather conservative party, Vajpayee followed his heart by falling in love with a married woman, Rajkumari Kaul, and having a daughter, Namita, by her. Incredibly he not only got Rajkumari and his daughter Namita to move into his MPs quarters but squared the circle by getting her husband the Principal of Ramjas College, Delhi to join them as well — a remarkable display of legerdemain.
Till his death, Namita was known as Vajpayee’s foster daughter but she at least got to stay with him unlike the late French President, Francois Mitterand’s daughter from his mistress, Mazarine Marie who could meet her father only in great secrecy. All this has been brought out in considerable detail for the first time ever by Choudhary in the first volume of his biography of Vajpayee.
Naturally interwoven in the biography is the story of the ascendency of Hindu consciousness from pre to post-independence times and Vajpayee’s pivotal role in this. Thus, the rise of the Hindu Mahasabha as well as the RSS are covered in considerable detail and mostly dispassionately, linking both to Vajpayee and his rise as a Hindu icon and a nationalist one at that.
He was a protege of the famous RSS Chief Golwalkar and was close to Deendayal Upadhyaya and Syama Prasad Mookerji. Vajpayee was also the successful editor of two journals — Rashtradharma and Panchjanya — espousing the Hindu majoritarian cause.
Disregarding the feelings of India’s non-Hindi speaking citizens, he enthusiastically campaigned to confirm its status as the country’s national language, something his party the BJP continues to push albeit much more mutedly now, fortunately with equally dismal results.
In pre-independence India, Vajpayee was one of the few from the Hindu Right to participate in the Quit India movement and suffered brief imprisonment for that. By establishing this fact Chaudhary refutes a Congress denial as well as a BJP exaggeration of Vajpayee’s role in the freedom struggle.
What comes through in Chaudhary’s book — though he does not state — is the struggle the Hindu Right had to match the Congress Party’s ability to be at once secular while remaining subtly but strongly representative of India’s Hindu majority.
Vajpayee travelled widely in India and overseas, especially as a parliamentarian and later as Foreign Minister and Prime Minister. Such travel broadened his mind and enabled him to appreciate points of view other than his own. He was clearly impressed by the US and Israel.
In the period this biography covers we get to know Vajpayee as a rabid nationalist opposing any accommodation with China on our never-ending border dispute with that country. He was a hardliner when it came to Pakistan too. He took on Nehru with sarcastic eloquence in Parliament on many issues earning the latter’s respect.
His view of Indira Gandhi was none too flattering. The suffering he endured at her hands during the Emergency is well covered by Choudhary as also his warming up to the idea of joining hands with those who were not in line with his majoritarian ideas, facilitating the coalition government, he joined following Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the 1977 General Elections.
Choudhary’s first volume on Vajpayee’s life is written with a good biographer’s detachment and objectivity and lives up to Ramachandra Guha’s praise for it as “the finest biography of an Indian Prime Minister”, he has read.
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(The reviewer is a columnist and writer who taught Public Policy and Contemporary History at IISc Bengaluru.)