The best thing about this book is not the diligent research, fluent writing or even the unearthing of new facts about former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. As someone who has covered the BJP beat as a journalist and engaged with Vajpayee, what I found special was the distillation of all of the above to give the reader fascinating psychological insights into Vajpayee’s thinking—and thereby the thinking of the entire Hindu right.
Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right (1924-1977)
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When examining the influences on the young Vajpayee, for instance, and his fascination with historical fiction such as Pratap Pratigya, on Maharana Pratap, the Rajput King of Mewar, or Vrindalal Verma’s Jhansi ki Rani, the author writes: “Whereas the past ought to be faced squarely, the response of the Hindi elite was the response of a defeated people, for whom lying to themselves was the only recourse.” The author notes that “these novels interpreted the history of Hindus over the past 1,000 years as not one of abject surrender to Islamic and British rule, rather one of constant struggle and occasional victory… and thus Atal had come to have a sharp sense of his past—the Hindu past. This past was rooted in the stories woven around what certain Hindi intellectuals would have liked their history to be.”
This book examines the imagination and the ideological neurosis that determine the world view of the Hindu right and dominate our lives in more absolute ways than in Vajpayee’s lifetime. Equally, there is acknowledgement of the social origins of the RSS and the Jana Sangh that Vajpayee served so well. He was quintessentially a Hindi belt Brahmin with a talent for quick poetry and prose, and he worked very hard and struggled in his youth to launch publications that could share the RSS world view.
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Many a half-truth and myth about Vajpayee are busted. The first part of the book titled “A Hindu Soul Ripens 1924-53” begins with an evocative description of Bateshwar, where Vajpayee was born (the fifth of seven children), 66 kilometres from Agra in Uttar Pradesh, and not in Gwalior as most biographies and Wikipedia inform us. Biographies demand a seamless merging of the personal with the political, and the author manages this well. Along the way, we also learn that as Vajpayee becomes a significant personality on the right, his profile is embellished, apparently with his consent.
A poor, or at best average, student, Vajpayee was prodigious in his opinion writings while in his early twenties as the country gained independence and was simultaneously partitioned. His early writings as elaborated in the book frequently hark to the Islamic or Muslim menace even as he refers to a “homogeneous community of Hindus”. The antipathy to Gandhi is diligently brought out and documented. Gandhi’s view apparently on “private armies” like the RSS was that they “were a menace to the hard-earned freedom of the country and ought to be banned”.
Home Minister Vallabhbhai Patel was not convinced, and we learn later in the book that he perhaps hoped to use the influence of the Hindu right in his power play with Jawaharlal Nehru and even imagined that RSS members would eventually join the Congress. On page 58, the author sources a police report to write that on December 8, 1947, “Golwalkar [RSS chief] bragged at a secret meeting that Mahatma Gandhi could easily be killed… but it is our tradition not to be inimical to Hindus.”
Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, however, had the RSS distancing itself from the Hindu Mahasabha. On page 62 there is an extract from an article co-authored by Vajpayee that seeks to establish the RSS as a wholly separate entity that has nothing to do with the Mahasabha and the assassin Nathuram Godse. Sardar Patel’s attitude towards the RSS also shifted after the assassination.
This section of the book also elaborates on the RSS-Mahasabha-Congress linkages (excluding Gandhi and Nehru), for which the author uses the apt phrase “porous boundaries”. On issues such as a law banning cow slaughter, there was great commonality between sections of the Congress and the Hindu right, but Nehru stood apart and was eventually forced to mention cow protection in the Directive Principles of State Policy. The book also offers up the startling (to this reader) fact that the man who made the arrangements for Gandhi’s cremation was the son of a prominent Mahasabha leader (page 67).
- Abhishek Choudhary’s Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right (1924-1977) offers fascinating psychological insights into Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s psyche, and thereby into the thinking of the entire Hindu right.
- This book examines the imagination and the ideological neurosis that determine the world view of the Hindu right and dominate our lives in more absolute ways than in Vajpayee’s lifetime.
- Equally, there is acknowledgement of the social origins of the RSS and the Jana Sangh that Vajpayee served so well.
- Many a half-truth and myth about Vajpayee are busted.
Another part of the book that I found illuminating was Vajpayee’s journey with figures such as Shyama Prasad Mookerjee and later, Deendayal Upadhyaya, both icons for the Hindu right, whose personalities are effectively etched in this book. Mookerjee left the Congress (and earlier the Mahasabha) and sought RSS support for launching a party. In 1951, the Jana Sangh was launched at an Arya Samaj school in Delhi.
In early 1953, Vajpayee’s life took another dramatic turn when he was appointed private secretary to Mookerjee. He plunged into politics, becoming involved in setting up a party and later contesting elections. Mookerjee, however, was in poor health and died suddenly while in detention in Kashmir. After that Deendayal Upadhyaya, the quintessential organisation man in the RSS-Jana Sangh, treated Vajpayee as his protégé. The deep bonds between the two are effectively etched and we learn of Vajpayee’s sorrow at Upadhyaya’s sudden death when he fell from (or was pushed off) a train. Part 2 of the book is titled “Between the Alleged Assassinations (1953–68)”, a reference to the untimely deaths of Mookerjee and Deendayal.
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The chapter “Beloved Nemesis: The Nehru Years” maps out Vajpayee’s arrival in Parliament, his preparation for debates and his own intellectual growth. This chapter reveals his intense commitment to the institution of Parliament and it may be useful for the current leaders of the BJP to read this. I believe that it is as a parliamentarian that Vajpayee made his mark. We have details of fascinating parliamentary debates about issues that have shaped this country. We also see Vajpayee attack the seasoned Prime Minister Nehru, and Nehru offering a compliment after an intense critique and enabling the first foreign travel for his young opponent.
The final section of the book is titled “In the Shadow of Shrimati Gandhi: 1968 to 1977” and takes us through the 1971 war, the JP movement, the imposition of the Emergency, and the merger of the Jana Sangh with the Janata Party. The book ends with Indira Gandhi’s defeat and Vajpayee becoming the Minister for External Affairs. L.K. Advani makes an appearance as the book ends, as another former Jana Sangh man who takes oath as Minister (Information and Broadcasting) in 1977.
I look forward to the second part of this superb biography by Abhishek Choudhary. My engagement with Vajpayee began when he became Prime Minister in 1998 as I was tasked with covering the BJP and the PMO for a news magazine. That journey started standing on the pavement outside his home as part of the media contingent while Vajpayee waited for a letter of support from Jayalalithaa. I subsequently followed him on campaign trails, interviewed him, and in one memorable experience sat next to him at a dinner he threw for the press on the lawns of his official residence. He kept eating chicken stew and appams and responded to all questions by smiling vaguely.
On another occasion, I went to his home when it was dark to seek clarification/response for a story we were running about an inflammatory speech he had made in Lucknow the night before the Babri mosque was demolished (the videotape came from police/intelligence sources). Vajpayee was not smiling and just asked if we knew where the tape came from. It was another occasion when Vajpayee’s ideological dualism was on display. It must also be said of his prime ministerial years that his family, particularly his daughter Namita, took pains to project him as “liberal” and different from ideological hardliners of the BJP and the RSS.
His regime ordered economic raids on the publication I represented, but I was never barred from the PMO and months later even included in the press delegation that accompanied the Prime Minister to China. In spite of run-ins, it was hard to dislike Vajpayee. A.B. Bardhan, the late general secretary of the CPI, had the same reaction and went on record with me to say he mistrusted Manmohan Singh more than Vajpayee. He also shared a delightful nugget about how Vajpayee the Prime Minister countered the pressure from within his own party and the PMO to send Indian troops to Iraq to assist in the US occupation. Vajpayee said nothing while stories circulated about India sending troops. He, however, summoned Bardhan and his counterpart in the CPI(M), Harkishan Singh Surjeet, and asked them why their protest against India joining the Americans was so mild. It was an indication that the Prime Minister could use some help from the opposition to counter the hawks in his own ranks. Vajpayee was indeed a fascinating enigma, and this book is the best on him.
Saba Naqvi is the author of Shades of Saffron: from Vajpayee to Modi.