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The young Vajpayee was thought of as a “fiery parliamentarian and star campaigner for the Bharatiya Jana Sangh” | Photo from the book
The young Vajpayee was thought of as a “fiery parliamentarian and star campaigner for the Bharatiya Jana Sangh” | Photo from the book

Our Muslim brethren are getting more and more aggressive, and as a reaction Hindus are getting more and more aggressive. ... But, sir, Hindus will no more take a beating in this country. The tradition of taking a beating went on for 700-800 years.” Thus spoke Atal Bihari Vajpayee, now on his deathbed, in the Indian parliament on May 14, 1970, prompting then prime minister Indira Gandhi to say that she saw “naked fascism behind those words.” Yet author Ullekh N.P. sees a Nehruvian streak in the political philosophy of the man who founded the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the right wing Hindu party now ruling India.

Vajpayee became India’s prime minister thrice, and it was during his second term (1998-2004) that one of his acolytes, Narendra Modi, presided over an anti-Muslim pogrom that killed a minimum of 2,000 people in Gujarat. Modi, writes Ullekh in his book, “shouted back at a Muslim leader on the phone for seeking help after a mob had gathered outside his house. Some hours later, the Muslim leader was lynched, and Modi is alleged to have asked the police forces to let the violence continue.”

Even though Ullekh at times appears generous to Vajpayee, his book is by no means a hagiography for it does bring to light some unsavoury aspects of the Indian leader’s political career, especially streaks of religious bigotry and strong anti-Muslim feelings that he had no shame in going public with. In 1983, even Vajpayee’s own party distanced itself from him when he virtually called for a massacre of “Bangladeshi foreigners” in Assam. If such “intruders” had existed in Punjab, he is reported to have said, they would have been cut to pieces. Within hours, riots followed in which 2,000 men and women, mostly Muslim, were killed.

A biography of Atal Bihari Vajpayee also provides an overview of Indian politics

Vajpayee had an incredibly long political career that began in 1939 and ended in the 21st century, but not before he had weathered storms that rocked his country and brought it to the brink of war twice. He was India’s first non-Congress prime minister to complete a full term, though he also had the shortest tenure when, in 1996, he had to quit 13 days after being sworn in as head of government because he failed to secure a parliamentary majority.

Vajpayee’s involvement with right wing Hindu extremist movements began early in life when he became an active worker of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), founded in 1925 by K.B. Hedgewar, a doctor. An umbrella organisation of all Hindu nationalist parties, the RSS, in the author’s opinion, was “high-caste Hindu and culturally Brahmanical” in character, and attracted young men like Vajpayee, who composed a ballad still popular with RSS workers — “Hindu tan man, Hindu jeevan, rag rag mera Hindu parichay [I am Hindu in heart and body, my life is Hindu, Hindu is my only identity].” Also to inspire Vajpayee in his youth was G.M.S. Golwalkar, the RSS’s second chief, who — in a speech in Delhi some four months after Partition — told his supporters his party wouldn’t “rest content until it had finished Pakistan. If anyone stood in our way we will have to finish him, too.”

Bharatiya Jana Sangh founder S.M. Mookerjee groomed the young Vajpayee — an M.A. in political science — and asked him to translate his speeches into chaste Hindi after purging them of English words. So bigoted and caste-conscious was Mookerjee that he wrote a letter to the viceroy supporting the partition of Bengal, because he did not wish Bengali Muslims to be part of India as they were “a set of converts” from the “dregs of Hindu society.” With this background, it is no wonder that Vajpayee should choose to found a right-wing Hindu party and give it a “soft Hindutva” image to make it one of India’s major political parties. Yet it is difficult to reconcile his soft Hindutva image with his stand on Babri Masjid, in which the Ullekh sees “cunning” in his posture.

Vajpayee was not happy with the mosque’s demolition by Hindu fanatics, but a day later his “language was feisty” and the speech “rousing”, loaded with “sarcasm and innuendoes” about a court’s restraining orders. To “fervent cheers” from the crowd, he added naughtily that, for rituals to be performed, the “earth has to be levelled.” In fact, if it suited him, till he became prime minister, writes the author, Vajpayee could “pander to baser instincts of Hindu hardliners.”

Yet the poet in him, the mellifluous speeches in parliament, the suave diplomat and the peace gestures to Pakistan show a baffling combination of contrasts. His third term as prime minister was eventful vis-a-vis Pakistan and included the nuclear tests, a two-day visit to Lahore, the Kargil war, the eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation of more than a million soldiers across the border following an attack on the Indian parliament, the Agra ‘summit’ talks with Gen Pervez Musharraf, and the infamous airplane hijacking that ended in Kandahar when hostages were released in exchange for three militants — Maulana Masood Azhar, Mushtaq Ahmed Zargar and Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh.

The details about the Kargil fighting and the diplomatic flurry that followed make interesting reading and contrary to the general impression, the book says it was India that sought the United States’ intervention to ensure the withdrawal of Pakistani troops. However, the author’s claim that it was Kargil that ultimately “paved the way for the US-India strategic partnership” is too simplistic. He forgets that 9/11 and the events that followed, especially the US invasions of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003), totally altered America’s view not only of the Muslim world as an entity, but of Muslims as individuals, whether foreigners or US citizens.

For a while after 9/11 — meaning two years after Kargil — Pakistan under Gen Musharraf became America’s ‘major non-Nato ally’ because of its cooperation with the US in the war on terror, and received heavy doses of economic and military aid. The subsequent deterioration in their relationship had nothing to do with Kargil and everything to do with all that the word ‘Afghanistan’ symbolises: terrorism on both sides of the border, Washington’s frustration at the failure of the 50-nation US-led International Security Assistance Force to crush the Taliban, its complaint against ‘terrorist sanctuaries’ in Pakistan, the Seals’ Abbottabad raid to dispatch Osama bin Laden, Pakistan’s over- (in fact, stupid) reaction to the Salala atrocity, especially the Nato supply line cut-off, and Pakistan’s growing security relationship with China. All this combined to make the Bush and Obama administrations craft a new South Asian policy.

The book also tells us a lot about Vajpayee’s personal life: he never married, but lived all his life with his love and her daughter. Now on his deathbed after having a stroke in 2009 and suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Vajpayee can no longer be called the gastronome he was in his youth, but well into late middle age he was a foodie, often dined out and sometimes cooked food himself.

Reading about Vajpayee’s long career inevitably means getting an overview of Indian politics, the infighting within the BJP, his bitter rivalry with L.K. Advani, the blame that both Vajpayee and Gen Musharraf placed on Advani — then home minister — for the Agra summit’s failure, the vicissitudes of Indira Gandhi’s life, the emergency and her return to power and the army crackdown on the Golden Temple followed by Hindu-Sikh riots. In addition there are incredible incidents such as Sanjay Gandhi slapping his mother Indira several times “as she stood without resisting.”

The reviewer is Dawn’s Readers’ Editor

The Untold Vajpayee: Politician and Paradox
By Ullekh N.P.
Penguin/Viking, India
ISBN: 978-0670088782
272pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, July 9th, 2017