The world of Atal Bihari Vajpayee
The former PM was committed to Hindu traditions, opposed caste, sought economic freedom and was prescient about China
One of the troubles of understanding even a well-known public personality such as Atal Bihari Vajpayee — whose birth anniversary is on December 25 — is that unlike Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru, who left behind troves of written work, Vajpayee rarely maintained dairies and journals. While researching for my recent book — Vajpayee: The Years That Changed India — I read many of his speeches and poems to try and understand his philosophical outlook, which he never articulated specifically but which can be gleaned from his words and actions.
I was aware of a detailed essay that Vajpayee wrote for his friend NM (Appa) Ghatate, who was then editing a book of Vajpayee’s speeches, titled Decisive Days. I was also lucky to have with me a very detailed biographical note that Vajpayee wrote for Chandrika Prasad Sharma who was editing a book of his speeches. My understanding of Vajpayee’s worldview, particularly how he internalised his conception of history and how he saw contemporary circumstances, has benefitted hugely from reading these essays.
There were five key tenets of what can be broadly considered as Vajpayee’s worldview.
First, Vajpayee was convinced, as most associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are, that social divisions in Indian society had led to the nation becoming an easy victim of foreign aggression. He argued that the caste system fragmented Indian society, leaving only the Kshatriyas with the right to bear arms. Similarly, it denied almost everybody access to the Vedas and the Upanishads. He was sarcastic that the number of defenders at the Battle of Plassey was outnumbered by the audience, which wanted to know the outcome but would not participate in the battle. When the former sarsanghchalak of the RSS, Balasaheb Deoras, passed away, Vajpayee recalled that the former had said that if untouchability was not a sin, then nothing could be a sin. These divisions had to go.
The second key driver in his mental make-up was a strong belief in Hindu traditions, but more in the cultural and philosophical sense rather than a religious or ritualistic sense. Vajpayee, like others from the RSS, held that the concept of “religion” was alien to India. What India had was different methods of worship, or upasana padhati, none of which had a monopoly on truth. The obverse side to this worldview was that loyalty to the motherland should trump any belief system. That is how they defined the term “Hindu”.
This did mean that the followers of the Abrahamic faiths, which believe that they alone possess a monopoly on truth, and generally in the dominance of religious beliefs over civic nationalism, would have difficulty in accepting this hierarchy of systems. Vajpayee was also clear that the State should not discriminate on the basis of beliefs, rather it should respect all belief systems since they were a part of society.
The third strong pillar of Vajpayee’s worldview was his obvious discomfort with conversions. He recalled, during a longish speech in Pune in 1988 felicitating the writer Pu La Deshpande, that even though Indonesia and Afghanistan had become Muslim, they had not given up their pre-Islamic heritage. He specifically mentioned that the Ramayana was part of Indonesia’s living traditions, and wondered why religious conversion meant discarding of cultural and historical heritage.
Without specifically saying it, one can impute his meaning, which was that Muslims particularly should own up to Indian traditions, a sentiment that Jawaharlal Nehru conveyed to the students of Aligarh Muslim University on January 24, 1948. Nehru had said then that he was proud of India’s heritage and of “our ancestors who gave us an intellectual and cultural pre-eminence”. He then went on to question the Aligarh students and asked whether they felt the same or did they feel that this heritage was alien to them?
Fourth, Vajpayee’s worldview was deeply rooted in the soil of India, and its literary traditions helped forge his mental make-up. The writers and works that he admired included Tulsidas’ Ramacharitmanas, Jaishankar Prasad’s Kamayani, Nirala’s Ram ki Shakti Puja and the poems of Mahadevi Verma. Premchand’s realism impacted him deeply. Other favourites included Jainendra (Patni aur Preyasi), Ageya (Shekhar: Ek Jeevani) and the many works of Vrindavan Verma, which included historical tales and folklore of his and Vajpayee’s Brajbhumi. These writers reminded him of past glories but also forced him to think about the challenges that needed to be overcome.
And finally, Vajpayee seemed convinced that India was destined for greatness and, that, in fact, greatness was denied to it. The past was important to ground us but not to imprison us. Politically, the Cold War had ended and the emerging world seemed hostile to India. Vajpayee was able to fashion an approach to the United States (US) even as he defied it and went ahead with the nuclear tests. But he wanted India and the US to be on the same side since he foresaw that the rise of China would be deeply unsettling. He was open to improving relations with China but ultimately, believed India and the US were “natural allies”. Economically, he wanted to unshackle India’s entrepreneurial spirits. He was a natural reformer and made known his distaste for the licence permit raj, which held India back.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee was a complex political figure — but there is little doubt that his complex worldview, which defies easy categorisations, helped shape the India of today.
Shakti Sinha, a retired Indian Administrative Service Officer, served as the private secretary to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the author of Vajpayee: The Years that Changed India
The views expressed are personal