An unfamiliar portrait of Vajpayee

Jun 04, 2023 10:47 AM IST

We all think we knew Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but did we know the man behind the image?

We all think we knew Atal Bihari Vajpayee, but did we? No doubt several people admired him, many thought he was a fine prime minister, and practically everyone was enchanted by his oratory. But did we know the man behind the image?

Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right by Abhishek Choudhary sheds light on the former PM's life(HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right by Abhishek Choudhary sheds light on the former PM's life(HT PHOTO)

A recently published biography reveals aspects of the man we neither knew of nor could have guessed, whilst simultaneously disproving stories we assumed were accurate. It also discusses his unorthodox private life, which even the informed have always refrained from mentioning. I’m referring to Abhishek Choudhary’s Vajpayee: The Ascent of the Hindu Right 1924-1977. It’s the first of a two-volume effort. The second will be published in December.

We’re told, for example, the private Vajpayee was a bon viveur. He had a “fondness for bhang”, “drank in moderate quantities” and had “a lifelong gluttony” for Chinese food. When in New York, he would happily visit nightclubs. “On such informal outings, he drank a peg or two.”

The young Atal, as the author calls him, appeared distinctly anti-Muslim. Choudhary writes he “argued that the Muslims who had opted to live in India were to be seen as traitors”. In an article Vajpayee wrote for Rashtradharma, he called them “fifth columnists”. No doubt, the adult politician’s views were very different. Choudhary’s book reveals how great was the change.

Of young Vajpayee’s attitude to Mahatma Gandhi, Choudhary says: “Atal most certainly did not consider Gandhi’s death a serious loss to mankind. The dozens of articles he had written and edited holding the Mahatma responsible for India’s partition and condemning him for pandering to Muslims had most certainly contributed to poisoning the air that ultimately led to his assassination.” Does that suggest a measure of blame? Possibly.

This book also punctures some of the best-known anecdotes about Vajpayee. They end up as mere myths. First, the claim that he called Indira Gandhi “Durga” on December 16, 1971, the day Pakistan surrendered. It turns out he didn’t. “In actual fact,” Choudhary writes “that evening he was missing from Parliament: he was either travelling or indisposed.”

Then there’s the belief Nehru thought highly of him and identified Vajpayee as a future prime minister. That part is not untrue. However, what we did not know earlier is that Nehru’s first impression was rather different.

Initially, he thought Vajpayee was “a highly objectionable person”. Convinced he was creating “much mischief in Jammu”, Nehru asked Vishnu Sahay, then cabinet secretary, to deny Vajpayee permission to visit Kashmir.

Choudhary also debunks the Congress claim that Vajpayee had no role in the independence movement. It appears he did. “Vajpayee had indeed participated in the Quit India protests in Gwalior.” More importantly, the insinuation made by Blitz that he was a British informer “was factually incorrect”.

Here are a few more noteworthy details that might surprise you. Vajpayee was a poor student and rarely did well in school. So much for Panchjanya’s boast “that all through his student life he never stood second”. And the claim he had an LLB is unfounded. Actually, “Atal abandoned his law degree.”

I was amused to discover that the man who became a mesmerising orator miserably flopped in his first debate at school. “He got cold feet … began to stammer, then forgot the speech … it was a humiliating experience … All his life Atal remembered the shame of being booed by his schoolmates.”

Choudhary describes Vajpayee as “emotionally a lonely, desolate man-child”. Could that be one possible explanation for his complicated private life? Choudhary also says he was “a man of flexible principles”. Does this explain why in Goa in 2002, he could not secure the resignation of the then chief minister of Gujarat, something several of his cabinet colleagues have claimed he set out to obtain?

If the second volume is as revealing as the first, I can’t wait to learn the truth about Vajpayee between 1977 and 2004. That’s bound to be the best part.

Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story. The views expressed are personal

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