For a personality as revered as Atal Behari Vajpayee, an imminently acclaimed prime minister, a shrewd politician and a well-known orator, extraordinarily little is known about him. Much of all that is out there about him is an orchestrated persona of someone who was the right person in the wrong political party.
Importantly, Vajpayee’s early years of schooling, personal life, and unwavering affinity to the Sangh Parivar have not been well-documented. In the first book of two volumes titled Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right, 1927-1977, Abhishek Choudhary brilliantly captures the enigma of Vajpayee.
Choudhary sets out the book with two aims: First, to critically examine Vajpayee’s role in “Sangh Parivar’s project of Hinduizing India. Second, to fix some basic facts about Vajpayee’s early life, which have been “lost to myths and misinformation”.
Like every other good biographer, Choudhary does not allow prejudices and biases to take centre stage and instead presents a very incisive reading of Atal—from the influences of Arya Samaj in the early childhood to his stint as editor of RSS mouthpieces Rashtradharma and Panchajanya to his travails with Syama Prasad Mookerji to rising as the president of the Jan Sangh to resign voluntarily as Jan Sangh chief to being jailed during Indira Gandhi’s emergency to him becoming India’s foreign minister during the Janata coalition in 1977.
Through Atal, Choudhary tells two important stories: the history of the Sangh Parivar and the rough terrains of Indian politics.
Atal’s date and place of birth were among the many things that needed fact-fixing. Accessing the primary sources (such as the school certificates), Choudhary uncovers that Atal was not born in Gwalior (as has been popularly believed) but in Bateshwar on December 25, 1924 (and not 1926, as his school certificates claim).
Atal was not a bright student, either. He had not scored the first division in his schooling and college days.
Atal’s early inclination toward Hindu nationalism was shaped by his father Krishn Behari’s worldview, inspired by the revisionist Arya Samajist’s historical reading of Muslim oppression of Hindus. As the co-editor of Rashtradharma, Atal wrote of how Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian National Congress were the conspirators of partition.
He emphasized: “The creation of Pakistan was a political abortion unparalleled in world history, with three butchers – the British, the Muslim League and the Gandhi-led Congress” (p. 49).
After the assassination of Gandhi on January 30, 1948, and the subsequent ban on the RSS, Atal briefly went underground with his multiple failed attempts at editorial activism. Atal did not abandon the Sangh—and in fact, his popularity among RSS circles shot up due to his relentless dedication to the Sangh Parivar.
Choudhary corrects another widely circulated, well-orchestrated myth about Vajpayee as the founding member of Jan Sangh. The author writes: “Despite what his resume would later claim, Atal had no direct role in the formation of Jan Sangh; he attended the launch in Delhi as a journalist” (p. 91).
Atal was inspired by just how simplistic life his boss, the Jan Sangh chief Syama Prasad Mookerji, led. Unlike other influential people Atal revered, Mookerji was comfortable travelling in a third-class coach, cracking jokes and sharing life anecdotes with the young journalist.
Writing about Syama Babu, Atal notes: “He patted your back once with love, and you would be ready to die for him” (p. 101). Mookerji’s death in Srinagar jail caused him anger and disbelief, leading him to plunge into full-time political life.
Choudhary’s lucid writing tells you about Atal, how the then-young pracharak became a now-politician, shaping himself over the years. Atal often employed doublespeak. This had caused some, like Acharya Kripalani, to call him “Nehruvian in Jan Sanghi garb” and others, like Subhadra Joshi, to refer to his tactics as a liberal cover for the fascist machine of RSS.
As a first-time Member of Parliament, Vajpayee used quips in his speeches to draw a smile from even his opponents. For instance, speaking about the condition of Indian railways, Vajpayee said: “Things were so bad that when one bought a railway ticket, there was every chance that one would have to bid farewell to ‘jag’ (world) and ‘jivan’ (life).
Under such conditions, one ultimately travelled with ‘Ram’ on his lips” (p. 140). The Railway Minister Jagjivan Ram smiled. Despite their political differences, Nehru had grown fond of the young MP. For his part, Vajpayee had launched a frontal attack on Nehru’s foreign policy while also defending him as the Prime Minister after India’s humiliating defeat in 1962.
Choudhary does not merely introduce Vajpayee as an ideologically committed, often double-speaking politician but also as someone who profoundly introspected about the kind of life he led and wished it differently.
Vajpayee’s private life has been subject to much hush with no clear picture. Through his retelling of Atal’s relationship with Rajkumari Kaul—who tried to balance between the husband and the lover—Chaudhary brings greater nuance into the personal life of his protagonist.
Chaudhary compassionately accounts for Atal’s love life that brewed inside the Ramjas college with the warden’s “attractive, affable, kind, articulate” wife—and how each protagonist played their part meticulously.
During Indira’s emergency in 1975, Vajpayee was arrested as a close aide of Jayaprakash Narayan and a prominent leader of the Jan Sangh. With most opposition leaders in jails, the press freedom curbed, and the new 20-point programme introduced, Indira’s India had orchestrated a short stint of authoritarian rule.
During the emergency, Vajpayee lost several of his close aides in jail. He wrote to a friend: “How fragile our bodies are, how fleeting this life” (p. 309).
Choudhary’s first volume on Vajpayee lays out 53 years of Vajpayee’s life from the journey of a young, not-so-bright Brahmin in Bateshwar, who would go on to become foreign minister of India in 1977—and subsequently even one of the highly acclaimed Prime Ministers of India (for which I eagerly await the second volume to be published in December 2023).
Choudhary has a flair for telling stories. Choudhary does not engage in hero-worship but presents his subjects as they are—in their flaws and praiseworthiness. This book makes for one of the best biographies I have read in a long time.
Abhishek Choudhary (2023), Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right, 1924–1977, New Delhi: Picador India.
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