The book, in chapter after chapter, explains Vajpayee’s gift for ambiguity.
Sagarika Ghose describes Atal Bihari Vajpayee as India’s most loved Prime Minister whose political life spanned almost the entire period of Indian independence.
She is on the spot.
The seasoned journalist, whose book on Indira Gandhi drew great reviews, obviously knows her subject and a lot about the avuncular BJP politician. Vajpayee was unique, credited with helping bring mainstream acceptance to the BJP.
He had also stunned the world by ending a decades-old moratorium on nuclear weapons tests but nevertheless managed to ease tensions with Pakistan, also building New Delhi’s close ties with Washington. Ghosh’s deep dive research has helped her understand Vajpayee the man and Vajpayee the politician. She says Vajpayee’s image was that of an embattled liberal softie in a hard-line Hindu party. And then, almost simultaneously, Ghose dissects her argument by explaining Vajpayee’s strange silence around the time the Babri Masjid was demolished, triggering a spiral of communal violence and religious polarisation that still haunts the country, and his party.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee, published by Juggernaut, is a piece of brilliant, deep dive research, dotted with wonderful anecdotes. The book explains very clearly why Vajpayee was a Jedi in the dark arts of political intrigue and why he constantly shied away from personal vindictiveness against political opponents. I remember how Vajpayee had told the London-based Hinduja brothers that he was sorry about their names being dragged in the Rs 64 crore payoff to secure the Bofors howitzers (that look like peanuts in today’s big buck financial scandals ranging from diamonds to coal).
The book notes how Vajpayee, a published poet, also dabbled in law, journalism and rebellion against British colonialism as a young man. Most importantly, Vajpayee was virtually unknown outside India for most of his 50 years in politics. But then, notes Ghose, Vajpayee was the face of India, the world’s most populous democracy. He was a leader of a billion plus nation whose ethnic, religious and regional conflicts had fomented massacres, three wars with Pakistan and countless internal strife after Independence from Britain in 1947.
I am not too much into history, I guess that is my problem but I found the contemporary discussions about Vajpayee very, very intriguing. It’s a fascinating read.
The book, in chapter after chapter, explains Vajpayee’s gift for ambiguity. Ghose says time and again no one could be completely sure whether Vajpayee was a lone liberal among Hindu fundamentalists or preferred religious nationalism. Probably he could conceal his true beliefs from so many for so long because of his supreme command of the Hindi language. The book quotes his article in Rashtradharma: “We must rid Hinduism of its andhavishwas (superstition), ruddhivad (conservatism) and sankirnata (narrow-mindedness). It is not enough for a tradition to just remain frozen. It should take us forward, make us better. Stagnant water in a lake becomes rotten. Indian culture is both ancient and new, which is why its impact is constantly changing yet is everlasting.”
Ghose notes how Vajpayee became the PM for the first time in 1996 but lost the seat in less than a fortnight. Then, in March 1998, the BJP, welded provincial parties into a workable coalition and Vajpayee again became PM. The author rightly says when in power, Vajpayee burnished his right-wing credentials. His popularity soared when India detonated a nuclear bomb under the sands of Rajasthan’s deserts despite mounting international disapproval. And then, a month later, Indian forces won a decisive victory over Pakistan in the Kargil war.
The author says these two events helped Vajpayee being re-elected in 1999, his NDA alliance was the first government not dominated by the Congress party to complete a full five-year term. Actually, Vajpayee was the first Indian who did not hail from the Nehru-Gandhi clan to be sworn as PM thrice.
Ghose says Vajpayee, a former foreign minister, also proved an able diplomat and worked discreetly to woo the then US President Bill Clinton. One needs to remember that Clinton had denounced India’s nuclear tests in 1998 but went to India two years later. The message circulating the world was extremely important—this was the first visit to India by a US President in more than two decades.
I found the chapter, “Beginning of the end: 2002-2004” very riveting, some parts absolute eye-openers for me. A lot has been written about why the year triggered some very, very significant changes in Vajpayee’s life. It seemed to many that Vajpayee often appeared not to be in charge. When he wanted to forge better relations with Pakistan’s military ruler General Pervez Musharraf, his efforts were undermined by Hindu hardliners. In short, Vajpayee’s attempt to build bridges brought no result. A newspaper commented how the “religious right simply burned them down”. Yet, Vajpayee tried hard and even sent an Indian cricket team to tour Pakistan in 2004. The PM wrote on a bat meant to be given to the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB): Match Nahin Dil Bhi Jitiye that translates into “Win the heart, not only the match”. It was a great statement.
Ghose writes eloquently in her tome: “The year 2002 was Vajpayee’s annus horribilis. It was the year when many things began to go wrong and when the Vajpayee dominance came to an end. The year became the turning point of his prime ministership, and brought his own personal Waterloo. It was a year in which, as he had once written, concealed snares in moments of salvation.”
Wrote Vajpayee, the book offers a translation:
The masks have dropped away:
These scars run too deep.
The spell has broken, I face the terror of truth:.
No longer do I sing…
The moon is a scimitar in my back,
Rahu’s fury knows no bounds;
Every moment of salvation conceals a snare:
No longer do I sing.
Right after the 2002 riots in Gujarat, Vajpayee, writes Ghose, was hitting the lowest point in his career. “All his political life, through guile, shrewdness, ambiguity and his own stature, Vajpayee had kept the sangh (read Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS]) out of the highest echelons of the government and away from crucial decision-making. But the Gujarat riots and the subsequent systematic build up of the Hindutva sentiment weakened his hand. Once again Ram’s army came galloping on towards the beleaguered Prime Minister.”
And then, in the same page, Ghose—like a very matured and balanced author—writes why Vajpayee was making double edged statements. “Just as Indira Gandhi, when she started playing Hindu politics, had delayed visiting communal, riot-torn Moradabad in 1980 for fear of being seen as sympathetic to Muslims.” And then she further writes: “Appallingly on Gujarat, Vajpayee the calculating politician prevailed over Vajpayee the constitutional moralist.”
I remembered what the Guardian had said in an obituary on Vajpayee: “As early as 1960, Vajpayee warned of alienating Muslims and other minorities in a country as diverse as India. He wrote that restricting his party’s base to just one creed did not make electoral sense. He practised what he preached. In his own parliamentary constituency of Lucknow, Shia Muslim households in the city displayed pictures of Vajpayee alongside one of Ayatollah Khomeini, who led the Iranian revolution in 1979.”
Ghose rightly concludes: “He wasn’t just the foreign minister or prime minister of his party, no, he represented the whole country. He was Vajpayee of the Lok Sabha, Vajpayee of Parliament, Atal Bihari Vajpayee of India.”
Can schools and colleges in India secure a copy of this fascinating book for their libraries? They should. It is a great way to understand India, and its leaders.